First of a two-part series
The Phelps' kitchen table is more than just the site of family dinners.
It's the center of learning for the family's six children.
For more than two decades, Antionetta Phelps has been mother and teacher to her children, feeding their brains with academics and tailoring activities to their skills and interests.
But Phelps knows she can't do it all. When she encounters an algebra equation or essay that stumps her, she has Hart-Ransom Academic Charter School for help and support.
"It's a beautiful balance where I get to choose, I get to handpick their classes. And if there's a class I don't think I could do best, we come in," said Phelps, whose children range in age from 11 to 23.
Hart-Ransom is one of a number of charter schools offering "the best of both worlds" by providing a home-school program that connects parents with school resources such as textbooks and computers. Most of Hart-Ransom's 260 students come to campus for a few classes, such as teacher Bill Ardis' history and government courses.
Hart-Ransom's hybrid program is one of 21 charter schools in Stanislaus County, where charter schools have become enticing alternatives for many families. Eight charters opened in the last five years, meeting a demand for more options in education.
Phelps not only teaches to the skill levels of her children, but the school day can be flexible and allow for extracurricular activities — daughter Bailey takes dance classes and son Bryan enrolls in Modesto Junior College courses.
"I can see what they're good at and I can water that," Phelps said.
California has been admitting new charter schools since the early 1990s. They're en vogue today, with President Barack Obama encouraging public school districts to welcome more charter programs. Obama likes them because they promote innovation and offer alternatives to the traditional public schools.
But many parents still have questions about what exactly charter schools are and whether their children can attend. Here's a primer:
What is a charter school?
Contrary to popular belief, charter schools are not private schools and do not charge tuition.
Charters are free public schools with fewer restrictions than traditional public schools. Educators and politicians hope that with less red tape and bureaucracy, charter schools can operate more creatively and develop different teaching and learning strategies other public schools can copy.
One example, said Hart-Ransom Union School District Superintendent Ream Lochry, comes in the textbooks charter schools can use. A charter district can adopt texts that its leaders determine meet academic standards and cater to their students' needs, but might not be adopted by the state Department of Education.
Also, charter students can ski or take horseback riding for physical education classes instead of playing kickball at schools.
"We have more of an experiential education program than many traditional (schools) have," Lochry said.
Most of Stanislaus County's charter schools are classroom-based, though others offer home schooling or independent study options.
The best charter schools are the ones that offer something different to families, proponents say. Successful charters in Stanislaus County allow for the combination of home schooling and coming to school to get additional help or extra classes that families can't provide by themselves.
Other notable charter schools specialize in certain areas. For example, Riverbank Language Academy immerses students in English and Spanish so they are fluent in both languages by the time they enter high school.
"Being a parent and having students for the first time and not being in school for many years — you're not realizing what programs are out there," said Ramiro Madueño, father of three RLA students. His oldest, 13-year-old Dominic, is further ahead academically than his peers, Madueño said, because he fluently speaks both languages.
Whitmore Charter School of Technology and Arts in Ceres focuses on advanced technology skills and a variety of fine and performing arts — art, music, dancing, singing and drama — which have been scaled back or eliminated at some traditional public schools.
"People are becoming more aware because I think our world is more about technology — they want to make sure their child is prepared and equipped with technology to keep up with current trends," Whitmore Director Paula Smith said.
The school employs two technology teachers for fewer than 300 students. By fifth grade, students know how to prepare and pre- sent PowerPoint presentations and produce and read Excel documents. By high school, they're designing business cards, setting up and marketing businesses, and using programs such as Flash, Photoshop and InDesign.
Some charters share resources with their parent districts, which often are public schools. For instance, Hickman Community Char- ter School District's home-school students attend the same band classes as Hickman's classroom-based elementary and middle school students.
"It benefits being able to share a lot — facilities, staff, music and art programs," Hickman Community Charter School District Superintendent-Principal Rusty Wynn said.
Valley Charter High School partners with Modesto Junior College so students can take classes simultaneously at both campuses. Students can also get specialized vocational training and internships.
"You have to offer a good choice or else no one will come," said Pat Golding, director of Hickman Charter School.
Why choose charters?
Parents seek out charter schools for a variety of reasons. Many like the idea of home schooling. Others want to instill religious values in their children but can't afford private schools, and others don't think traditional public schools are safe.
As a new mom, Tina King started off home-schooling her oldest child, but migrated over to charter schools. Now, her children attend Hickman Charter Schools and Whitmore Charter High School. Traditional public schools were never an option for the Kings.
"It's intense learning and I just think public schools can't do that. I know there are good teachers and families, but overall, they can't do it," said King, who drives her children from Manteca one or two days a week for what she describes as the "godsend" that is Hickman Charter School.
King searches for programs that match her children's skills and personalities. While academic Mallory, 15, goes to Whitmore Charter High School, social butterfly Monica, 13, probably will go to a traditional public high school. And Melissa, 11, might end up at a private high school, King said.
When it comes to academics, parents say they like the small size of charters, the variety of classes and the family feel of teachers and staff.
For the Phelps family, it was important that their children have a well-rounded education with exposure to academics and arts.
Through an MJC class a few years ago, Bryan Phelps discovered a love of piano. The 18-year-old now plays masterfully and writes music.
On a recent day, Bryan played a piece he composed called "Banana Sonata." While the melody filtered into the kitchen, mom Antionetta pondered aloud, "What if he missed that chance? Where else can you get opportunities like this where he can just explore with music?"
Charter Schools At A Glance
Hart-Ransom Academic Charter School
Kindergarten through eighth grade
Annual budget: about $1.4 million
Specialty program is home schooling
Housed on the same campus as Hart-Ransom Elementary School, a 700-student traditional public school
Students come to campus a few times a week for such classes as history, math, writing and art; in some classes, parents are required to attend with their child.
When students take state standardized tests in the spring, teachers try to make the days fun, almost like taking electives; students like seeing each other daily.
"I want everybody to get an appropriate education, and I want them to stay in public schools," said Superintendent Ream Lochry.
Hickman Charter Community School District
Three schools within the charter district — an elementary and middle school, each a classroom-based school, and a K-8 home-based school.
Elementary enrolls 305 students; middle school, 186 students; and home-based school, 575 students.
Annual budget: $5.8 million
More than half of the students live outside the district's attendance boundaries.
Many parents and students of the home-based school come to campus on Mondays and Wednesdays for math and language arts classes; the district is known for its field trips.
"It's important that my children love to learn and that I instill that in them," said June James, mother of two children who attend the home-based school.
One of 12 charter districts in California — "It makes us unique. It's an opportunity for families looking for an alternative, and we have the best of both worlds," said Rusty Wynn, district superintendent.
Riverbank Language Academy
K-7, with an eighth grade to be added next school year
Annual budget: $2 million
A dual-immersion program, students are taught in English and Spanish; lesson plans focus on learning about different countries and cultures, including China, Japan, Brazil and Mexico.
About a third of students come from families that speak English only, a third from Spanish-only families and a third from bilingual families.
"It's important to learn other languages and connect with other people," said Annika Magallon, a seventh-grade student.
"It's not just about direct instruction — they have to use it or show it to learn," said teacher Elizabeth Vigil.
Whitmore Charter Schools
Three schools housed on one campus:
Whitmore Charter School of Personal Learning: K-8 home-based school, 20 students
Whitmore School of Technology and Arts: K-8 classroom-based school, 50 students
Whitmore Charter High School: grades 9-12 home-based school, 193 students
Annual budget: $5 million
Most of the high school's students come from outside its parent district, Ceres Unified.
The schools offer no sports program, but provide dance instruction, student government and clubs; students are in school five more hours a week than traditional public school students.
Students take more technology, fine and performing arts classes than at traditional public schools. For example, first-graders learn to put together PowerPoint slides.
"Technology helps students learn skills they can apply in real life, which is what gets people jobs. It's differentiation. We expect our students to stand out in a crowd when they leave here," said Paul Pyatt, technology teacher.
"As a parent, it should be our priority to instill work ethic and give them the best tools to have the best outcomes with their education," said Janice Anderson, parent of two daughters attending Whitmore School of Technology and Arts.
— Michelle Hatfield