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Charters Broaden School Options

More than 200 charter schools are educating tens of thousands of public school students in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware during the 2009-2010 school year, and these numbers are growing.

As public schools, charters cannot charge tuition; they’re financed by taxes and subject to public reporting systems. Charters are granted by local school districts or other agents of the state department of education. These schools are accountable to the public through their boards, the families enrolled and authorizing school districts and states. They are subject to state and federal regulations.

Free Phila. Charter Guide

The Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition has published a free guide to Philadelphia's 67 charter schools and 11 cyber charter options.

It includes advice on choosing a school, contact information and  data about students, teachers, activities, test scores and school safety. Click here to download the guide (PDF format). For a hard copy, call 215-851-1955 or e-mail: vng@gpuac.org.

Only Delaware’s “choice” program gives students wide latitude to attend charter schools outside their home school district. In Pennsylvania, other than cyber charter schools, attendance is limited to students from the charter’s home district. In New Jersey, each charter school has a defined area from which it draws students. All South Jersey charters are in Camden County except for the Riverbank Charter School of Excellence in Florence Township.

Where children are eligible to attend, charters have broadened public school options to include college prep, business, arts or cyber environments.

Myths and Misperceptions

“It’s a myth that we’re not real schools,” explains Carolyn Fell, communications director for Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School, a cyber school based in West Chester, PA. “Or that our students aren’t socialized. We’re a school of choice. That also means parents can leave if they’re unhappy.”


Rivals or Partners?

Charter supporters readily respond to criticisms that they skim the best students from traditional schools, leaving the home districts with fewer funds to teach more difficult students.

“It’s a way to strengthen traditional schools by competition,” explains Ken Kilpatrick for the Pennsylvania Coalition of Charter Schools. Kilpatrick says that only a portion of the tax money follows the child from the home school to the charter, leaving the school district as much as 30 percent of its reimbursement for that student.

Meanwhile charter schools “live within our means, doing more with less.” He maintains that “the parents, not the government, should decide what’s best for their children.” All schools have to work harder to earn the confidence — the choice — of parents.

Charters aren’t drains, says Dr. Broderick Boxley, head of Princeton Charter School (PCS), Princeton, NJ. “We’re another com­- munity school that happens to operate separately” for the same children served by the public system. “We see ourselves as cooperating partners,” he says.

For example, PCS collaborated recently with the regional schools for Princeton Reads Program, in which all 7th graders read Three Cups of Tea and had assemblies and seminar discussions with the author. PCS also invites all students in the community to be part of its afterschool orchestra.

Similarly, the Charter School of Wilmington offers its resources to improve education throughout the area, says its president, Walt Warner.

This charter high school, specializing in science and math, sends “science ambassadors” to regional elementary schools to mentor younger students every autumn; each December it sponsors a regional science fair.

Warner and some of his faculty also provide professional development for area teachers in math and science. They say they’re eager to do more.

Charters vary widely by size, grade levels served and mission. Each charter specifies its own focus and application process. Most use a lottery to determine admissions, while in certain cases charters are organized according to special interest, resembling magnet schools. Special interest charters are permitted an audition or testing process to help gauge if students can handle school standards. Charter schools are expected to administer to their students the same annual state assessment tests as their district counterparts.

Questions Parents Should Ask

Charter officials say that these are some of the main issues for parents considering a charter.

The best fit for your individual child. What does this child need, and how does the school provide for that? Experts emphasize that siblings don’t necessary thrive in identical school environments.

Don’t assume the school will be like your home school. Check factors such as the discipline policy, facilities (like a gym) or availability of a school nurse. Can students take books home? Do teachers meet with students before or after school? Does the school have field trips or programs such as music? Ask about the specific mission and focus of the school. Review the educational background of teachers, aides and administrators.

Ask to see the school’s documents indicating student achievement, responsible governance, fiscal responsibility and community support. For example, see if students’ annual test scores reflect a year’s worth of growth and to what extent students meet or exceed grade level (and if they don’t, why not?). Are Department of Education reports filed on time and are expenses in line with revenue? How long has the school been operating? What’s the student retention and/or graduation rate?

Understand application/testing requirements and dates, and the school’s transportation policy. Is there a waiting list?

Observe the school in operation. Make an appointment to visit.

Speak with parents whose children attend the school and, if you can identify them, with parents who have withdrawn.

Compare options carefully. “We have the same issues as the traditional district schools,” says PCCS’s Kilpatrick. The differences parents should be examining, suggests Boxley, are in “how educational practices are implemented.”

Charter Information

Delaware

Under Delaware’s “choice” program, parents can apply by the second Wednesday in January for admission to any school in the state. Forms are available from the local school district (to seek transfer to a school within the district) or new district of choice. Each local school district has criteria for acceptance or rejection of applications and must respond within 45 days.

A few charter schools provide transportation to students, but most contract with their home school districts to provide transportation, often with stops at area pick up points. Students attending from outside the home district usually are not provided transportation.

For more info, contact:

Delaware Charter Schools Network, 302-778-5999, www.decharternetwork.org


Delaware Department of Education, Charter Schools, 302-735-4020, www.doe.k12.de.us/
infosuites/schools/
charterschools

New Jersey

Each charter school is approved, with a goal of drawing children from a specific area, the city of Camden, for example. The application deadline varies by school. Usually, students attending charter schools within their home district are eligible under the district’s transportation policy. For more info, contact:

New Jersey Charter School Resource Center,  732-564-9100 , www.njcharterschools.org


New Jersey Department of Education, Charter Schools,  609-292-5850, www.state.nj.us/
education/chartsch

Pennsylvania

Except for cyber (online) charter schools, only students from the charter’s home district are eligible to attend unless special arrangements are made between the student's home district and the charter's district. Cyber charters are open to all Pennsylvania students. The application process varies by school district. For more info, contact:

Education Law Center (Philadelphia), 215-238-6970,
www.elc-pa.org/pubs/pubs_charter.html


Philadelphia School District, Charter Schools, 215-400-4090, http://webgui.phila.
k12.pa.us/offices/
c/charter_schools


Pennsylvania Department of Education, Charter Schools, 717-705-2881, www.education.
state.pa.us
(search: charter schools)


Pennsylvania Coalition of Charter Schools, 484-356-0191, www.
pachartercoalition.com

 Ann L. Rappoport, PhD is an educational consultant and a contributing writer to MetroKids.

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