Inside Charter Schools: Providing Parents with More Education Options
By Daniel Beauregard
When searching for a school for their child, parents used tohave two options: independent schools, or “one size fits all” public schools with limited opportunities for individualized instruction. But public education is changing, and families have more options than ever before.
Charter schools—tuition-free public schools created by local communities—are becoming more and more common throughout Georgia. These schools offer a variety of educational approaches to fit a child’s individual learning needs.
What is a Charter School?
Charter schools get their name from the fact that they operate according to an agreement, or “charter,” which is a performance contract between the school and the local or state school board. This charter grants the school more flexibility in how it instructs its students, and grants the school more autonomy in hiring and dismissing teachers and staff. Instead of a local board of education, the school is governed by an independent board, which usually includes parents.
Charter schools can employ innovative approaches and different methods of teaching, including single-gender education, language-immersion programs, project-based learning, a Montessori curriculum, or one focusing on the arts or Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Charter schools can also adopt their own calendars, such as a year-round calendar, extended school hours or even Saturday classes. They often feature smaller classroom sizes, and in general provide more personalized instruction and attention that a child might receive in a larger, more traditional public-school setting.
In return for this freedom, the school takes on more accountability with parents and the school board that authorized the charter. Unlike traditional public schools, if a charter school doesn’t meet the goals stated in its charter, it faces the prospect of its charter not being renewed, notes Nina Rubin, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit Georgia Charter Schools Association.
And unlike independent schools, charter schools cannot charge tuition, and must follow the same open admission and enrollment standards as other public schools. “Charter schools expand options for families, ensuring that more children have access to a high-quality, public K-12 education,” Rubin says.
Currently, there are more than 120 charter schools throughout Georgia. The state is also home to 14 charter school districts. Like individual charter schools, charter systems are allowed greater flexibility in addressing the educational needs of their students, in exchange for increased accountability. By June 2015, every system in Georgia will be either a public system, a charter system or an Investing in Excellence in Education system, which will enjoy some flexibility, although not as much as that enjoyed by charter systems.
Charter systems enjoy “increased parent and community support due to the local governance at each school,” says Merrianne Dyer, superintendent for Gainesville City Schools, an eight-school system in Gainesville, Ga. “Therefore, each school’s design is customized for the students and parents.”
Dyer says the charter approach allows educators to explore ways to achieve better results. Since 2008, when Gainesville City Schools became one of the first charter systems in the state, academic success throughout the system has improved, she says.
Gainesville City Schools offers open parental choice for all of the schools in the system, which means that parents can choose to send their children to any school in the system. Transportation is provided by the school of choice.
Different Ways of Learning
Choice—having more schools and more ways of learning to choose from—is the core of the charter school concept.
Like so many other charter schools, one of the newest, Westside Atlanta Charter School, came into being when members of the local community decided they wanted another education option for their children.
“We have this concept of student-centered learning, and the teacher will kind of be the guide on the side,” says Westside’s principal, Pete Settelmayer. “The students will drive how the standards are learned and we will not use worksheets or the old ditto forms—it will all be student-created work.”
Westside Atlanta is scheduled to begin its first school year on Aug. 5, serving 120 students in grades K through 2, adding a grade each year until it reaches eighth grade.
A couple of years ago, Rae Harkness, a DeKalb County parent, was searching for the right school for her daughter. She didn’t want to send her to the local public school. She couldn’t afford tuition for an independent school, and there were waiting lists for some of the county’s more appealing school-choice programs.
Harkness says she wanted a public school with high academic standards, mandatory parental involvement and a responsive teaching staff. She felt she was running out of options until she learned about Ivy Preparatory Academy for Girls, a single-gender charter school that had just been authorized to open in the Kirkwood community.
“I did my research on the school and was pleased with the results,” Harkness says. “My child would be in a structured, supportive environment and on a path to college.”
Harkness says that single-gender charter schools offer “incredible” benefits. “I have found that my daughter has formed much stronger friendships with girls than ever before,” she says, “and the cattiness and fights that usually start over boys are not present.”
There are as many different ways of teaching and learning as there are charter schools, Settelmayer says, and Westside Atlanta Charter opened specifically to give parents and students another choice.
“The way we teach and the way our students learn might be an option for them,” he says.
Whether you’re seeking special emphasis on a specific discipline or simply a more personal, interactive relationship between students and teachers, a charter school may offer just the learning environment you and your child have been looking for.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Georgia Charter Schools Association
Westside Atlanta Charter School
Ivy Preparatory Academy
METRO ATLANTA CHARTER SCHOOL SYSTEMS
Barrow County Schools
Cartersville City Schools
City Schools of Decatur
Dawson County Schools
Gainesville City Schools
Marietta City Schools
Putnam County Schools