State

Critics fear Stanislaus County charter schools have an unfair advantage

Second of a two-part series

When her twin daughters, Megan and Mackenzie, were in third grade, Janice Anderson noticed a shift in their school habits. They weren't motivated.

She determined it was because few of their peers were inclined to take school seriously, and their teacher seemed unable to keep everyone on task.

"I noticed a lot of classroom time was spent getting people up to speed," Anderson recalled.

Dissatisfied, Anderson asked other parents where their children went to school, and found Whitmore Charter Schools in Ceres.

"Most of Whitmore's families have similar goals. It's a refreshing change," she said. She noted that the PTA at the traditional school her children attended consisted of just Anderson, another parent and a community member.

Now in eighth grade, the twins are engaged and excited about their electives, such as technology classes.

"Teachers seem to be more focused on what we need, and technology (classes) are cool," Mackenzie said. "It's not a big school. We're friends with everybody."

Many more Stanislaus County families are choosing charter schools — enough to create demand for eight new charter campuses in just the past five years.

Those decisions are changing the way education is delivered, challenging public schools to be more flexible and giving parents more choices than they've ever had.

Yet some fear that charter schools are "skimming" the most involved parents — ones such as Anderson — out of the traditional public school system, putting those schools at a long-term disadvantage against their newer rivals.

"Another educator once told me that it's like traditionals and charters are all in a race, but the state allows charters to build their race cars faster," said Bill Redford, director of Riverbank Language Academy and a former employee of the California Charter Schools Association.

In many ways, charter schools are better positioned for success. They tend to be smaller schools that give students more individual attention.

They have more parental involvement, whether it's through financial donations, volunteers in the classroom, or engagement in students' education. Those contributions are mandatory at some charters.

Charters have teachers and staff who say they are more involved in decision making and feel more empowered. They enroll students who are more likely to come from higher-income families.

Most charters have master agreements that require a certain level of good behavior, attendance and work to remain enrolled.

"They don't have to get A's and B's, but they do need to work hard and apply themselves," Whitmore Charter School Principal Paula Smith said.

But critics are concerned that the limited number of charter schools does not allow access for everyone.

With waiting lists commonplace, charters use lottery systems to admit students. Most give preference to students who already attend the school or have siblings already enrolled.

And because most parents seeking school choice tend to be wealthier and more involved, critics say charter schools steal the best and brightest students from traditional public schools.

The largest indicator of student success is how committed a parent is to their child's education, said Barney Hale, executive director of the Modesto Teachers Association, the union that represents teachers in the Modesto City Schools District.

"Children can succeed regardless of environment if they have support at home," he said. "Ultimately, public schools can't just be dumping grounds for students with not-as- committed parents or academic ability. It's destructive to public education."

Advocates question claims

Charter school proponents take another side.

"They're arguments, that when you dig down deep inside, don't really hold water," said Don Shalvey, co-founder of Aspire Public Schools, which manages charters across the state. "Should they not have an opportunity to go there? ... Are there charters that skim off the top? Some probably do."

The skimming argument applies to teachers, too. Once seen as unstable and underpaid work places, charter schools are looking more and more attractive to teachers because of small class sizes, better student behavior, flexibility in teaching and comparable pay.

Whitmore Charter Schools art teacher Cheri Lloyd taught in traditional public schools for five years, but soon lost motivation.

"I was done with teaching because the focus was just state testing — English and math — and it was just boring. I was bored, the kids were bored," she said. "(Whitmore) does less reading and math than the rest of (the Ceres Unified School District) and we have the highest scores in the district. I don't think more time (on English and math) means higher scores. It's about how they're learning."

Laws more restrictive

Over the years, California's legislators have made charter school law more restrictive, in part to address critics' concerns. Charter teachers now must have teaching credentials and charters must offer the same minimum level of instructional time as traditional public schools.

Another modification requires that a charter school's student demographics match the surrounding community.

"Charter school law was very loose back then. You could create your own rules back then," said Hickman Charter School Director Pat Golding. "We knew the looseness wouldn't last very long, that it would eventually be defined."

Why are charters successful?

Answers are mixed, but they usually focus on a few areas.

The best charters are started by parents and teachers who want more involvement and control in students' education, Riverbank Language Academy's Redford said.

"It instills a type of school ownership that has been lost in our contemporary schools today," he said.

Most charter schools are not unionized, allowing administrators and teachers room for efficiency. For instance, when Great Valley Academy in Modesto needed a new coat of paint, parents pitched in. The cost was much less than if the school had to follow regulations and hire painters under prevailing union wages, as required of traditional public schools.

Also, when the school needed more space, officials purchased a portable classroom on eBay. If Great Valley were a traditional public school, it would have had to seek bids from sellers, as state law requires.

Other cost savings come from that oft-cited flexibility — charters don't have to purchase updated textbooks as often as traditional public schools do. And many charters don't offer transportation or food, two big-budget items for school districts.

"You're forced to do more with less with charter schools. You don't really have a choice," Redford said.

Tips for parents

As charter and magnet schools, dual-language immersion programs and home-schooling options flourish, parents have a plethora of choices on how to educate their children. Here, some educators and parents give tips on where to begin and how to choose.

Know your child's needs. Do they need structure?

Look at test scores, but they're only a general indication of a school's success.

Research the types of programs online or check out books such as "Picky Parent Guide: Choose Your Child's School With Confidence, the Elementary Years, K-6."

Make your needs known to teachers and principals.

Don't be afraid to ask questions of teachers or principals or ask what other parents are doing.

Visit schools and classrooms.

Participate in your child's education. Don't stop at second grade.

Look for a breadth of programs, not just math and English. Science and music are important, too.

Visit Web sites such as www.greatschools.net and the California Department of Education's charter school section, www.cde.ca.gov/sp/cs.

Key terms

Charter schools — Public schools that must fulfill many of the same requirements as traditional public schools but have more freedom from state regulations. Charters teach the same academic content standards and students take the same state tests, but the schools get more flexibility in accomplishing both. For example, charter schools don't have to adopt new textbooks as often as traditional public schools do and they can bypass the public bidding process to upgrade or buy new facilities.

Traditional public schools — The majority of public schools, known as neighborhood schools.

Charter schools usually fall into one of several categories:

Home-based — Students are home-schooled, doing the majority of their learning at home with a parent. They meet with advisory teachers and turn in work samples every four to eight weeks.

Classroom-based — Students come to school every day just as they would at a traditional public school.

A combination of home-based and classroom-based — Students learn at home, but also come to class for support classes such as writing, music and science. Parents can check out computers, teaching materials and textbooks. Students also have access to field trips and sports programs.

Independent Study — Students enroll in an independent study program where they do most of their learning on their own at home or online. They usually meet with teachers and turn in work once a month.

Charter schools can be dependent or independent:

Dependent — The charter is run by a school district or county office of education

Independent — The charter school is run by a separate agency, such as a nonprofit organization or a group of parents, teachers and community members.

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at mhatfield@modbee.com or 578-2339. Read Hatfield's education blog at thehive.modbee.com/ExtraCredit.

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