In the ‘90’s when charter schools were being authorized in a number of states and educators began getting wind of this “intrusion” into what had been their exclusive public school territory, I was a district administrator in Connecticut.
Generally we met the news about charters with some confusion, but also with suspicion and even hostility. After all, the charters were getting money for each student they enrolled, instead of that money going to the “real” public schools.
It is important to understand that charter schools are real public schools, and are thus free to all students, just like their home district facilities.
In California the state has waived hundreds of pages of Education Code rules so that the charters can give freedom and flexibility to educators, empower professionals, provide parents with choices, create competition with regular public schools, and increase learning opportunities for low achieving students through innovative teaching methods.
Traditional public schools worried that charters would skim off the alleged cream of the crop and leave only those students in district schools who for various reasons evidenced less academic prowess and/or had a host of behavior problems.
While local charters are quite varied in their demographics, it appears to be true that the charters with reputations for high achievement have attracted a more middle-class population which does not necessarily reflect the range of demographics in regular local school districts.
The charter schools, which fill their vacancies through lotteries, are attempting to reach out to the available populations to generate greater diversity.
More than two decades have passed and a recent local study and discussion about charter schools has shed some light on what has happened..
First of all, in Fresno there are approximately 15 charter schools, with some of them having several campuses in addition to their basic campus. This makes it difficult to determine the exact number of schools, depending on how you count them.
At least three of them, Dailey Charter School, University High, and Kepler Neighborhood School, all chartered by Fresno Unified, have a reputation for excellence.
FUSD has the power to review their program, personnel and fiscal status and decide every five years after a comprehensive review whether the schools should be re-chartered for another five years. In addition to their students’ high scores on state tests, these schools have excellent facilities and engaged parent communities.
Other charter schools in Fresno have a significantly different demographic. A high percentage of the students in some charter schools here are seriously deficient in their school credits as well as in their skills. It is not uncommon for high school students entering a charter school in grade 9 to be reading at a fifth grade level.
These charter schools seem to be their last chance to obtain a high school diploma, although the graduation rate from these schools is not stellar. Some of them offer regular classes (“seat time”) in addition to independent study (home-based programs,) while others only offer the independent-study programs, with students reporting in one or more times per week.
The schools with underachieving students insist they are working on raising achievement and their rather dismal state test scores, although they acknowledge it is a long haul to do this.
They have their own curriculum, staff that is largely dedicated to making meaningful relationships with individual students and improving their social and academic skills.
Some of the facilities are depressing, existing in aged portable units on scruffy looking campuses. The office where visitors sit at one charter school has old shabby furniture and administrative desks out in the open in close proximity to teach other with no privacy.
However, some of these charters do have better facilities for their students and staff.
A number of teachers who were interviewed at the charter schools expressed their dedication to the greater decision making in which they participate in charter schools, as opposed to other local districts in which they have served.
Jeff Sands, managing regional director for the California Charter Schools Association, notes that over three million students, about 6 percent of the nation’s total, are being educated in charter schools. Locally over 6,000 students are in charters, with 1,400 on a waiting list, while 150,000 are on wait lists throughout the state.
So what do I think now, after several decades of charter school proliferation? I am no longer hostile and am convinced of their good intentions. But I wonder whether the majority of charters will be able to accomplish the strides for their students that they are hoping for, admittedly a Herculean task. I wish them well.
Francine M. Farber is a retired school district administrator and a full time community volunteer.