More parents choosing charter schools for innovative education
TAMPA - More Florida parents are putting their children in charter schools, pushing the state to the forefront of the national charter school movement. Enrollment in Hillsborough County charter schools has grown from 1,275 a decade ago to about 9,300 today, and this year, the school board faces a record number of charter school applications — 27. So how do you know if a charter school is right for your children? It could be a smart choice if you're looking for smaller class sizes, innovative curriculums, easier access to administrators and teachers, and more hands-on involvement in your child's school. Or perhaps you want to boost the student's odds of getting the best education: A recent state analysis shows charter school students score higher than their traditional-school peers on reading, math and science portions of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.At its best, a charter school is a lot like a private school at little or no added cost. "In regular public schools, there are so many students that the teacher can't focus on your child," said Eva Rivas, whose 5-year-old daughter attends Richardson Montessori Academy, Hillsborough's first charter school, in North Tampa. "I know my daughter is getting attention here," she said. Before making the move, though, consider your priorities and your child's special interests, and whether a charter school can meet them better than a traditional school. Charter schools are public schools that operate independent of the school district. Like all public schools, they must accommodate students with disabilities and hire certified teachers. Their students must take the FCAT and other state-required measures. But they have separate school boards, manage their own finances and can create a curriculum different from that of the district. Charter schools can have longer school days, but their school year must be at least 180 days, as required by law. The freedom they have to innovate means there are wide differences among what individual charter schools offer. Here are some questions to ask when deciding whether a charter is right for your family and, if so, which one. Charter schools aren't for everyone, cautions Tommie Brumfield, founder and principal of Richardson Montessori Academy in Tampa. They have rules like traditional schools that call for students to be on time, dressed properly and with their homework completed. There is discipline, and students can be expelled. Unlike traditional schools, however, parents are required to play a larger role at most charter schools. That's because without support from parents, charter schools would fail. Like private schools, most charter schools ask parents to sign contracts pledging their dollars and time, including fundraising and helping with campus improvements such as landscaping. When Suzy Floyd signed up her daughter, Maeve, two years ago at Richardson, she agreed to contribute $300 and volunteer 30 hours a year. "It's worth it," said Floyd, who equates charter schools with private schools. Florida lawmakers approved charter schools in 1996 in the hope they would spur traditional educators to think innovatively. Fifteen years later, charter schools are part of the mainstream. More than 154,000 students attended 459 charter schools in Florida in 2010-11, putting Florida third in the nation for charter school enrollment, according to the state. Florida has seven of the top 50 districts nationwide measured by charter school attendance, led by Miami-Dade and Broward counties, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Polk County, where the state's first charter school opened in 1996, ranked No. 19. Hillsborough is No. 38. A big advantage charter schools have over their traditional counterparts is the freedom to create specialized programs. Of Hillsborough County's 36 charter schools, some, such as Pepin Academies and Florida Autism Charter School of Excellence, cater to students with special needs. Others focus on special interests, such as Walton Academy of the Performing Arts and A.T. Jones Math, Science and Technology Academy. RCMA Wimauma Academy helps children of migrant families with programs that factor in their language and culture. Teachers speak Spanish in class in the early grades to help students transition into English, and an administrator works with parents to make sure children have everything they need at home. Brooks-DeBartolo Collegiate High School puts students on the fast track for college, providing opportunities for students to also take courses at Hillsborough Community College and helping them apply for scholarships. Hillsborough also has some traditional schools that offer special themes, including International Baccalaureate, vocational and virtual programs. Jenna Hodgens is the Hillsborough school district's charter school supervisor, but the district's role is to provide oversight and expertise, she said, rather than micromanage. It's an odd relationship considering that the district competes with charter schools for students. "But I want to think we're doing a collaborative effort," Hodgens said. "We're providing options for parents and we all want what's best for children." In addition to district monitoring, charter schools are subject to state reviews and, if they're large enough, state grades based on FCAT scores, like other public schools. For smaller schools not graded by the state, the Hillsborough district calculates a grade. One difference with charter schools is the way they are funded. They receive per-student dollars just like traditional schools, which comes to about $6,100 per student. But most charter schools have to pay the district a 5 percent fee per student to cover administrative costs. The state cuts some of them a break, though. This year, lawmakers reduced the fee to 2 percent for high-performing charter schools — those that remain fiscally sound and receive an "A" and have no grade below a "B" during the previous three years. Hillsborough charter schools that earned this designation are Learning Gate, Literacy Leadership Academy and Terrace Community schools. The state gave special consideration to charter schools in another way during these times of declining budgets, allocating $56 million for capital projects in a year when no money for that purpose is going to traditional schools. The money can be used for construction, renovation and maintenance. And when it comes to class-size restrictions on the number of students in some core classes, charter schools get a break, too: They're allowed to calculate class size based on a schoolwide average rather than class-by-class, as required in traditional schools. This fall, Hillsborough administrators are reviewing 27 charter school applications, up from 25 last year. Some are for expansions of existing charter schools; two are for single-gender schools and two for virtual schools. Most applicants won't make it through the district's rigorous approval process, said Hodgens, the charter school supervisor. Since 1997, Hillsborough has approved 66 school charters, or contracts. The district shut down 13 of those schools based on academic, financial or safety concerns, records show. Officials at five charter schools chose to close their doors, and backers of six chose never to open. Before making the leap from traditional to charter school, parents should do their homework, said Cheri Shannon, president of the Florida Charter School Alliance in Miami, where 35,000 children attend charter schools. "Look at the quality of teachers," said Shannon, a former traditional-school principal and charter school operator in Missouri. "Meet with the principals. Ask 'How's your record of discipline?' and observe classes. As a mom, I did that." Also, talk to other parents and consider the school's state grade, but don't let it be the sole deciding factor. Richardson Montessori has earned an "A" for the past three years. But in 2007, the school was graded with an "F." With such a small student body, having even a few children perform poorly on the FCATs can hurt the school's overall grade, Brumfield said. Under the district's watchful eye, Brumfield had to move quickly to replace teachers, work with students and get parents onboard with changes. It took only a year to turn around the school, Brumfield said, but it served as a lesson: Charter schools operate on a thinner margin because they don't get extra public money for interventions as traditional schools do. When your charter school stumbles, you have to rely on your own community of staff, parents and students to fix the problem.
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