Why Charter Schools?
Ten Years Later: An Inside Look at the Thriving World of Charter Schools
April 01, 2010
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The opening of charter schools in Greater Indianapolis began almost ten years ago. This was in conjunction with policies within the department of Education created to improve educational opportunities for urban families. The city of Indianapolis has held strong on its initiatives to open only the best charter schools with the best teachers and strict systems in place to ensure the charter school movement is successful.
What is a charter school?
According to the Department of Education, a charter school is a public school that is nonsectarian and nonreligious and operates under a contract or charter. Under Indiana Code, charter schools are established to serve the different learning styles and needs of public school students and provide an expanded opportunity for involvement in the public school system, among others.
"Charter schools provide an opportunity for talented people to design schools and meet kid's needs from day one and allow parents access to urban environments. The Mayor's office focuses on Indianapolis, but charter schools are strongly supported by President Barack Obama, Department of Education Superintendent Dr. Tony Bennett and Governor Mitch Daniels," said Karega Rausch, director of charter schools at the Mayor's office. "Fifty three public charter schools are running in Indiana in urban, rural and other areas. The Indianapolis Mayor's office of charter schools learned a lot from Ohio and Arizona's charter schools. Those states took a different philosophy, which allowed a lot of people to open schools with a free market philosophy. Our philosophy is quality not quantity. As an example, only 20 percent of applicants have received a charter since the initiative started in 2001."
Individuals interested in opening their own charter school have to apply, seek sponsorship and open themselves to scrutiny by the Mayor's office and the everyday taxpayer.
Charter schools are overseen by a board that is, in turn, often overseen by the Mayor's office. The board and charter school sponsors, like the GEO Foundation, manage administrative duties, including the hiring of staff and budget.
Indianapolis Charter High Schools
The Mayor's office sponsors several charter schools: Charles A. Tindley Accelerated School, Herron High School, Fountain Square Academy, Imagine Life Science schools and Stonegate Early College of Science and Technology.
The Charles A. Tindley high school is a charter school characterized by accelerated instruction, gifted and talented teaching strategies that have been traditionally reserved for the top five percent of students.
At Fountain Square Academy, grades five through 12 focus on a 21st century initiative through Ball State University and the GEO Foundation.
"At Fountain Square, twenty of our students are college bound with a number of college credits already earned, up to 30," said Mark Bowell chairman of the board for Fall Creek and Fountain Square Academies, which between them have 550 students. "We are preparing young people that come from challenging neighborhoods for college, military or vocational training. Our program focuses on a commitment to standards that are the same as mainstream public schools. However, because we are a charter, we have more flexibility but less money."
At Fall Creek Academy, many of the same principles apply to grades kindergarten through 12th grade. Fountain Square Academy is for students in grades five through 12.The impact these schools have on their students is remarkable. How many students do you know that are willing to sacrifice a Saturday to further their education.
"We initiated a Saturday tutoring program and get 50 to 100 young people participating in an expanded curriculum enhancement program with help from teachers and volunteers. For many, coming to our school is the brightest part of their day and this is true for many kids coming from distressed homes, as well as great families," said Bowell.
At Herron High School, students participate in a classical focused education. All 452 students take Latin and are offered opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities.
"College preparatory is a big part of our curriculum. We have a strong and consistent professional development program, meeting every Friday to talk about reaching at-risk students, college prep and how we make sure students are engaged. We created a curriculum with the end in mind: What will they need when they walk on campus their freshman year?" said Janet McNeal, principal of Herron High School located in the Herron Morton neighborhood. "We offer cross country, soccer, basketball, tennis, lacrosse, track and field and cinema and international clubs. We are in the John Herron Building with the Herron Art School, though the arts are not a part of our mission, we are engaged in educating by an art history timeline as opposed to knowing history by wars."
Keith Marsh, principal of Imagine Life Sciences Academy, has 375 students focusing on life sciences with trips to Ivy Tech where students are able to dissect and further explore biology. They put a lot of emphasis on community involvement, including Girls Incorporated and work with the Gleaners Food Bank.
Stonegate Science and Technology High School is an early college high school model, which means that students not only get a high school diploma, but they also take Ivy Tech courses.
"The goal is for them to graduate with a diploma and an associate's degree for free. We are in Warren Township and feel once people know what we have to offer; we'll see an influx of students. With the economy the way it is, to have parents send their kids to our school to get college degree for free is a huge advantage," said Scott Syverson, principal of Stonegate.
"Our valedictorian last year started attending our school with a goal to be manager of a fast food restaurant, but was able to change her mindset, graduate with 41 college credits and is now at Ball State. We had an 85 percent graduation rate at Stonegate, which put us at the top of the list. With 180 students, we'd like to grow that to 300 or more. Our charter said we can accept 400, and since we're a charter school we accept students from surrounding districts including Pendleton, Indianapolis Public Schools, Shenandoah, Greenfield schools–wherever," said Syverson.
"We were named an early college high school model site by the Department of Education. We're trying to give first generation college kids the opportunity to go. We are the furthest thing from an alternative school, not all charters are alternative schools," said Syverson.
"Indianapolis Metropolitan High Schools is in its sixth year. Ninety-six percent of students go on to post-secondary school, a trade school or military. We have many first generation college students, which is why we focus on doing something beyond high school and what we do at Met prepares them for it," said Scott Bess, principal. "We call our school high-tech and high-touch because we do use online academics with equal time with peers and teachers. Some picture kids sitting around computers all day long, but what we do is use the computer to learn the back content then teachers say, 'Now that you know that, let's go do something cool with it.'"
How are charter schools performing?
Last year, three of the Mayor-sponsored high schools were deemed to have made adequate yearly progress (AYP) in student performance.
"What is especially impressive about these three high schools is that they have met even higher performance expectations with significant percentages of students of low socioeconomic status," Mayor Ballard said. "At the same time, I echo Superintendent (Tony) Bennett's charge that we must continue to raise the bar and expect even more from all our students and schools." Overall, 40 percent of Mayor-sponsored charter schools made AYP this year, a higher percentage than in Marion County (31 percent) and the urban core of the city (25 percent).
Being accountable to the city and tax payers
"We don't have a generation of kids from elementary on, so to compare test scores is comparing apples and oranges. No matter if you're urban, suburban or rural, there are students who can benefit from the charter system because of the small class size. Even though charters are very embryonic and it's tough when you're the pioneer on it, we've had to make sure it's strong and viable because the taxpayers are paying for it. It's engaging us to have a paradigm shift within the mainstream schools, sometimes it's painful what the mayor's office asks us to do, but it's for the betterment of the students," said Bowell.
Rausch adds when entities like the Mayor's office, Ball State University and Evansville School Corporation issue a charter, it is funded just like all other 293 school corporations: No money comes to the city and the board ensures school purchases are monitored. Each school board has a great deal of autonomy to control budget and staffing. The Mayor's office oversees school boards as well as making sure that they are following the law and, as public schools, they are audited even though they have their own autonomy.
How are charter schools holding up in this economy?
"At Stonegate, we have the wait and see mindset about educational cutbacks. With our enrollment numbers being strong, more students enrolling and only one school to manage, it's an easier pill to swallow for us. After being in the traditional public school system, it's tough to imagine being as effective when you have to close schools, cut costs, making it difficult to be competitive with the world when you have to cut junior high foreign language," said Syverson.
Bowell shares that he's passionate about Indianapolis. Even as fan of Franklin Township where his children attend, he feels the pain that is being relayed through the community. "Over the past decade, charter schools have been pushing main stream schools and invigorating innovation. The monopoly, in regards to choice for parents who cannot afford to send their kids to private schools, can choose to send their kids to a charter school if it fits their needs."
Indianapolis Metropolitan High School just opened a state-of-the-art science and wellness center with a science lab and fitness center and maintains a class size of 15 to 16 students. Divided by grade level, each grade has their own space and teachers stay with students all four years. Each grade has a principal who helps to create a family atmosphere.
"In a time we're announcing cuts, we are adding a music program. We are in a growth mode, whereas most schools are cutting. With our administrative costs low, we can focus on the classroom. Everything is free. Seniors, when accepted to secondary, get to keep their Netbook," said Bess.
It's important to mention that high schools have been providing innovative and quality education for generations, including Advanced Placement courses, college credit courses, internships and community service.
Indiana colleges and universities have been providing opportunities for students to simultaneously earn both high school and postsecondary credit for over 30 years. Realizing the importance of ensuring all students have access to higher education, Indiana has enacted four major laws influencing college credit opportunities: Postsecondary Enrollment Options Act, Double Up for College, College Preparation Curriculum Act, and High School Fast Track to College.
As parents, you know what is best for your child. Depending on their interests, skill set and environment, charter schools can be the perfect fit. As the number of charter schools increases, they will compete with traditional public schools for students and the funding follows. It's important to be informed about your community and the opportunities already present at traditional public schools, as well.
Nikki Keever is a freelance writer living in Noblesville, Indiana with her husband and three children.