Selected readings on US charter schools
Despite the school’s F grade from the state, the K-7 school has a waiting list. Eager parents drop by in a steady stream, asking how to enroll their kids.
And despite the Orange County School Board’s determination to stop it, the school chain hopes to be expanding here soon.
At stake is $27 million in taxpayer money that would go to Charter Schools USA, as Orange County and other school districts make persistent efforts to enforce local standards amid charter-friendly changes to the law by the Legislature.
The Fort Lauderdale-based company has reason to feel confident. Most school districts receiving applications from the rapidly growing company have approved them. And in the past three years, every time a rejected Renaissance Charter application has been appealed, the company has won or withdrawn.
Changes in the state’s charter law have made it even easier for chains such as Charter Schools USA to expand. New provisions allow high-performing charter schools and systems to “replicate” elsewhere. They also require a “model” charter contract that limits school districts’ ability to add their own standards.
The chain was considered high-performing until this year. And on Tuesday the Orange School Board voted 7-0 to deny its applications for three new campuses.
Because charters are publicly funded per pupil, Charter Schools USA would receive about $27 million a year to run the three schools at capacity if approved.
“Their performance in Orange County is abysmally poor,” board Chairman Bill Sublette said of the Renaissance schools. “They’re underperforming the schools in the area that they’re drawing from. How can we look taxpayers in the eye and approve them?”
But Jonathan Hage, president and CEO of Charter Schools USA, said he is proud of all of the company’s schools, including Chickasaw.
“We do an excellent job over time, even with the lowest-performing students,” he said. “We knew we wouldn’t be able to turn those scores around in a year.”
Of the chain’s 34 Florida schools that have been graded this year, 20 earned A’s or B’s. There were 8 C’s, 3 D’s — including Renaissance Charter School at Poinciana — and 3 F’s. The rapidly expanding company’s schools serve about 37,600 students in Florida, up from 22,800 two years ago.
Hage said he has been pleased with the state’s charter reforms so far but thinks they should go further.
“There needs to be more uniformity between school districts,” said Hage, who noted that Palm Beach County approved a new site even though the chain has a D-rated school there. Applications for new schools in Osceola, Broward and Duval counties have been accepted this fall, and one in Seminole has been rejected.
Hage is counting on Florida’s appeal process to help in his latest battle. The state Charter School Appeal Commission has granted 11 appeals and denied 25 in the past three years. Their denials can be appealed to the State Board of Education, which has granted 15 appeals and denied eight since 2010.
Parents at the Chickasaw school, where 85 percent of last year’s students returned for a second year, said they are satisfied.
“They’re gearing themselves more toward kids who need a little bit extra — either behind or ahead. There’s more individual learning,” said Colleen Viets, whose 7-year-old son, Ian, attends the school. She also likes the atmosphere. “I don’t see fights, gang activity. The kids are very respectful and wear uniforms.”
The company, which does not receive local tax dollars to build schools, finances construction by joining with its board members to issue bonds. Many of the company’s local schools are former big box stores. The Chickasaw school was once a Kash n’ Karry grocery. The Hunter’s Creek site was a Kmart.
The school also hires many teachers who are new to the profession.
One of them is Ashley Nelson, a University of Central Florida graduate working with middle-schoolers for the first time. On a recent day, her seventh-graders read a work sheet about kangaroos and answered questions off the board.
She said she knew the school had an F when she took the job.
“I want to make it change, one student at a time,” Nelson said.
Nate Mariano, who became a principal for the first time when Chickasaw opened last year, said changes have been made to improve the school’s grade.
Tutoring began earlier in the year, and parents say their children are getting more individualized help than they did last year. The school is also getting more support from its parent company.
Mariano said he doesn’t concern himself with the politics of the chain’s expansion.
“My focus is really these students every day and getting them to learn and grow. That’s why we’re here.”
Source: Orlando Sentinel – by Lauren Roth