Charter schools quietly take significant role
By RON MATUS
Published January 20, 2007
TAMPA - One charter school sits in the woods. Its students read in a tree house. For homework, they watch earthworms.
Another rents space from a tiny Baptist church, in a neighborhood where hypodermic needles litter the roadside. The principal notes in her calendar when she's supposed to remind a student's grandmother that he's due in court.
Learning Gate Community School and the Carl Sagan Academy are only 11 miles apart. But they couldn't be more different from each other, or from other public schools - a fact that makes them and hundreds of other charter schools both promising and controversial.
Once considered a shot in the dark, Florida's charter school movement just turned 10 years old.
It's still invisible to most of the public, still showing mixed results, still considered a distraction by many school districts.
But it's now clear that charter schools are no longer a fad.
There were five charter schools in 1996. There are more than 350 now, including 38 across the Tampa Bay area.
Under Gov. Jeb Bush, who co-founded the state's first charter school, the movement mushroomed while critics fixated on private school vouchers, a school choice option available to far fewer students. For the first time this year, enrollment in Florida charter schools is expected to top 100,000, collectively making them almost as big as the Pinellas County school district.
"They're an established reform," said Chad d'Entremont, assistant director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Columbia University.
And yet polls shows most people still don't know what charter schools are.
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They are public schools that are given flexibility from many regulations in return for greater accountability. They can take different approaches on curriculum or administrative structure or overall philosophy. But in the end, they must still prove their kids are getting smarter, or face closure. In Florida, that means improved scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
The charter mantra goes like this: Let teachers, nonprofits, community groups, businesses - even for-profit education companies - try new things, then replicate their successes. Along the way, force traditional public schools to become more responsive by giving parents more choice.
"There's so many kids out there," said Patti Girard, founder and principal of the Learning Gate school just north of Tampa. "Why do we think one curriculum and one way of doing things is right for everybody?"
Learning Gate is a K-8 school on 30 acres that Girard bought for $600,000. More than 80 percent of its 450 students are white but a third are learning-disabled. The school puts a premium on hands-on learning - and learning in what's left of the Great Outdoors. Students tend a garden. They make compost. They grow marsh grass that's used to restore habitat. Even their books are green-themed.
"I like the fact that he's breathing fresh air ... and that he's doing math picking up sticks while he's on a nature hike," said Suzin Carr, whose son, Chandler, is a first-grader at Learning Gate.
Carr also likes the fact that the school doesn't obsess about the FCAT. Learning Gate students take it, but don't directly prep for it and barely talk about it. Yet the school has earned A grades from the state four years in a row.
In some respects, Learning Gate is an exception. As a whole, charter schools in Florida have a greater proportion of minority students than traditional schools - 57 percent to 52 percent. And many are trying to take root in inner city communities where traditional schools face the biggest challenges.
The Carl Sagan Academy opened in east Tampa in 2005. Its 70 middle school students learn in a tan-and-mahogany building across the street from a cemetery, in a neighborhood where stray chows wander past curbside couches and street signs warn, "We report all Suspicious Persons & Activities."
The school's sponsor is the Humanists of Florida Association. After years of griping about public schools, the humanists - a little-known group big on science and compassion - decided to put their notions of a good education to test in the real world. Among their new students: one who watched his mother get shot by her boyfriend, and another whose father is in prison for life.
In the beginning, 11 percent were proficient in reading; 3 percent in math.
"Half of them want to be pro football players or rap stars, but we talk to them about backup plans," said Kelly Browning, the school's executive director. "A lot of them were saying, 'Ms. Kelly, nobody talked to me about my plans before.' "
The new school requires uniforms, offers smaller classes and doles out lots of TLC. It provides a suite of afterschool programs. It requires parents to volunteer. What it lacks in funds and facilities, it makes up in energy.
"The best charters feel kind of culty," said John Ayers, a spokesman for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, based in Chicago. "There's kind of this very sharp focus and press for success. It's a level of energy that bureaucratic district schools find very hard to get to."
Browning, who has a doctoral degree in criminology, routinely works 60-hour weeks. And given the academy's tight finances - on average, charter schools are given 11 percent less per student than traditional schools - she also serves as counselor, custodian, grant writer, hall monitor and cafeteria lady.
Last weekend, she took students on a kayaking trip around Weedon Island. At the end of the semester, she led a crew that made breakfast for the honor roll kids and their families. "I had to learn to make grits," she said.
Officials at Carl Sagan "go the extra mile," said Kayvette Burney, whose daughter Jasmine is an eighth-grader there. Jasmine's previous school, Greco Middle, was okay, Burney said, "but she wasn't getting that quality time, that extra help."
Despite the effort, Carl Sagan got a D last year.
Greco got a B.
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Overall, charter school students in Florida score slightly lower on reading and math tests than their traditional school peers, according to an analysis released last month by the state Education Department. But that gap has narrowed over the past five years, and in some areas - such as elementary and middle school reading - charter school students are now doing slightly better.
Nationally, a study released by the federal Education Department last year showed charter school students lagging behind their traditional school counterparts in reading.
Evidence like that makes many school board members wary. So does this: While some charter schools in Florida have thrived, nearly 80 have closed. And just a few years ago, nearly 30 percent of them were running deficits.
Districts have been forced to clean up the financial mess and find room for former charter students who didn't get the hand up they expected.
"Ultimately, we're responsible," said Hillsborough School Board member Doretha Edgecomb.
Edgecomb praised charters that work exclusively with special-education students. But for the most part, she said, "We haven't seen a lot of unique things coming out of charters."
Some charters have made a splash. Nationally, the ones run by KIPP Knowledge Is Power Program have earned high praise and flattering media coverage for big learning gains among low-income minority kids. Among its keys to success: a dramatically longer school day for students, and teachers willing to work them.
In Miami, the Liberty City Charter School earned its first A last year. T. Willard Fair, who founded the school with Jeb Bush in 1996, credits strict requirements for parental involvement. District officials haven't copied the charter's approach yet, but sooner or later, they'll have to, he said:
"It's all about competition."Ron Matus can be reached at (727) 893-8873 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
CHARTER SCHOOL FACTS
- Florida ranks third in the country in the number of charter schools, and second in charter school enrollment.
- Nationally, there are about 4,000 charter schools, with a total enrollment topping 1.2-million.
- Only 20 percent of people know that charter schools are public schools, according to a 2005 survey commissioned by the Center for Education Reform.
- Since the first five charter schools opened in Florida in the 1996-97 school year, 78 charter schools have closed.
- On average, charter schools in Florida get 11 percent less funding than traditional public schools, according to a 2005 analysis by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
- Competition from charter schools led to modest increases in math scores but no change in reading scores for students at traditional public schools, according to an analysis last year by a Florida State University economics professor.