The Charter School Alternative — Philly & PA Suburbs

Everything parents need to know about charter schools in Philadelphia and its suburbs

Philadelphia resident Michelle Reed was frustrated by her local public school. Confusion about districting, a lack of teacher communication and a tendency to “pass my older son along any time there were concerns” about his ability to grasp material eventually led the mom of three to consider educational alternatives. 

After homeschooling for a couple of years, Reed hit the charter-school lottery: Her son’s application number came up at Bensalem’s School Lane Charter School, a five-minute drive from her home. 

Reed’s sons, rising 8th and 4th graders, are going into their third year of charter schooling, and her daughter will be joining them as a Kindergartener. The difference, Reed says, has been significant. Her younger son jumped seven reading levels in his first year. Her oldest, after struggling to adjust to School Lane’s rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum, has tested out of his IEP. “I can’t say enough good things” about the switch.

What is a charter school?

While charter schools get lots of buzz these days, they aren’t new. In fact, Pennsylvania charter schools began operating in 1997, when four opened. Today, 174 charter schools serve about 132,000 Pennsylvania students, 96,000 at brick-and-mortar schools and 36,000 through 14 virtual or cyber schools, where kids learn from home via online platform. 

Charter schools are public schools funded with federal, state and local tax dollars, established by parents, community leaders and educators. A founding board submits an application to open the school, which delineates its specific mission, vision, instructional model and operational and organizational structure. Applications for brick-and-mortar sites are reviewed and approved or denied by the district in which the school will be located. Cyber charter schools serve students statewide, so their applications are reviewed by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. All charter schools must submit a renewal application every five years. Failing charters may be placed into “turnaround” and assigned to a management company that specializes in overlaying a successful educational model on troubled schools.

Schools receive a per-pupil allotment for operating costs, including funds from their local school district, but that doesn’t include money for buildings or start-up. That outlay typically comes from private donors, foundations and grants. Although charters receive less government funding — an average of $.75 to $.80 on the dollar per student, according to Kenneth Kilpatrick, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools — they have greater flexibility in deciding how to use their funds. 

“From an educational leader’s perspective, charter schools are the best of both worlds,” says School Lane Principal/CEO Karen Schade, who also has wide-ranging experience in the private and public educational spheres. “In the private school sector, so much time is spent fundraising to make sure you have the resources to provide the programs you want. Public schools are constrained by teacher union contracts, and with multiple schools in large districts, it can be difficult to make decisions because you need approval from so many constituencies. 

“At charter schools,” she continues, “although it’s not the same amount, you know where the money is coming from and you have the opportunity to make quick decisions that work for the kids you have in your seats at that time.” 

Such as? When two years ago, School Lane’s ESL population jumped from 8 to 32 students, Schade’s team piloted a successful approach that included using the special-ed program’s Wilson Reading method to get the ESL kids up to speed on their English-language skills.

Balancing this ability to be nimble in real time is a higher accountability. Charter school students must demonstrate their knowledge on state testing, just like public school students. Failure to do so can be harsh. Parents can “vote with their feet,” says Kilpatrick, removing their students — and, in turn, their per-pupil funds. Districts can elect to refuse a charter’s renewal, as they’ve done six times statewide over the past three years.

Teacher accountability is also high. Unlike public schools, charter schools are not required to have a collective bargaining agreement that determines teacher salaries. This makes it easier to replace staff who are not performing well. 

Despite the pressure to prove their effectiveness and a lower pay rate, good teachers do find advantages to working at charter schools. Such teachers, says Kilpatrick, value flexibility and creativity, “fitting the charter kind of spirit.”

Why choose a charter school?

“Prior to charter schools, the ability to not attend the local school district of residence was contingent upon a family’s ability to pay” a private-school tuition, says Joanne Barnett, CEO of PA Virtual Charter School. “Charter schools provide options that best meet children’s needs.”

And those options range greatly. “Charter schools have to have a unique mission,” explains Kilpatrick, pointing to the Global Leadership Academy as example. Located in one of West Philly’s poorest districts, Global’s mission is to mold internationally minded leaders. “Scholars” are required to have a passport so they can travel locally, nationally and internationally, a bid to expand their worldview. 

Across the area, there are charter schools geared to the arts, architecture, global issues, STEM, challenging college prep, even niche topics like maritime studies. Such specialty subjects are taught in addition to the Common Core standards that all students must fulfill. In many cases, therefore, the charter school day and year is longer to accommodate specialty coursework. And the academic rigor can be such that K-8 charter school students often matriculate at the city’s competitive magnet high schools. 

Turnaround programs operating as “Renaissance” charters guarantee a spot for all students enrolled at the time a chronically underperforming school is granted Renaissance designation. After that, new students are accepted on a first-come, first-served basis until an enrollment cap is reached.

Families must apply to charter schools using an individual school’s application; deadlines are set by each school. If the school is oversubscribed, a lottery system is used. “It takes a great deal of effort to get kids into charter schools,” says Schade. “So there’s more of a family buy-in. They want to be part of the educational process.” Competition to get into — and wait-listed — at elite charter schools can be fierce. This past winter parents drove through ice and drifts to make sure they were in line to get their applications time- and date-stamped on School Lane’s deadline day, the morning after a crippling snowstorm.

Cyber charter schools, conversely, have open, rolling enrollment. They also tend to provide students with the computers and web cameras needed to attend classes and complete schoolwork.

Cyber or brick-and-mortar charter school? 

Cyber charter schools require committed participation from students’ parents, who supplement lessons. At PA Virtual, for example, students take core coursework via webcam every day, interacting with their teachers and classmates. Coursework can be completed asynchronously, or on the student’s own time and at his own pace. Additionally, most cyber schools have physical resource or tutoring centers and arranged athletic and enrichment activities outside of the home. 

Nicole Lucas decided on a cyber charter for her rising 2nd grader after redistricting necessitated a 45-minute bus ride to a new public school. “We liked the idea that it was customizable,” says Lucas of Isabella’s PA Virtual classroom. “As her reading advanced through the year, her teachers altered the classrooms to match exactly where she needed to be.”

Opponents of charter schools — both virtual and brick-and-mortar — say they hurt the overall public school system, diluting funding and skimming away some top students. “Charter schools have to do more with less,” counters Kilpatrick. Continues Schade, “The money should follow the child, and it’s that child’s right to seek something different” than a public school that may be failing or unsafe.

Barnett concludes that charter schools add to the system, not detract, because giving families a choice is a positive thing. “We don’t make students leave public schools,” she says. “Families choose the charter school because it provides what the student needs.” 

Terri Akman is a contributing writer to MetroKids.

Categories: Education Features