Charter Schools on the Rise: What You Need to Know

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Charter schools have been around for nearly 20 years and their numbers have been swelling in recent years, with 1.5 million students and more than 4,900 schools throughout the country, according to a 2009 survey.

But this past summer, President Obama gave parents who may not be familiar with charter schools billions of reasons to consider this alternative to traditional public schools.

More than $4.3 billion in grant money, part of the federal stimulus program, is available through the U.S. Department of Education. States interested in battling for the money have already turned in applications in the first part of the Race to the Top program that encourages innovative programs that emphasize several key areas, including turning around low-performing schools and raising standards through test scores and other accountability measures.

The president, in interviews since the summer, has made it clear that charter schools are an important part of the Race to the Top initiative, and states with laws that limit the number of charter schools could find themselves on the outside looking in when it comes time to dole out the $4.35 billion.

"The stimulus has had an interesting effect ... It's creating a debate about charter schools—and making that debate even more widespread—particularly in the 10 states that don't have them," said Paul O'Neill, a senior fellow with EdisonLearning and an adjunct professor at Columbia University, where he teaches education and special education law and has a special course on charter school design. EdisonLearning is an educational management firm that promises to improve school performance in public and charter K-12 schools and is affiliated with 125 schools and 350,000 students in the United States and Britain.

Charter schools offer an opportunity to create a school to meet specific needs, while still relying on public dollars, O'Neill said. Charter school organizers can establish their own discipline rules and set up the kind of educational program they want—like dual Spanish-English curriculum originally established at the Family Life Academy Charter School in the south Bronx in New York—as long as it is approved by the governing authorities.

For example, there have historically been restrictions on single sex public schools, leaving that arena largely for private and parochial schools. However, changes to the federal Title IX rules several years ago eased that ban, O'Neill said. A group of parents in Baltimore have taken advantage of the change and created a charter school model for an all boys school called Maryland Possibility Prep.

Charter school proponents must come up with a contract with state officials, often from the Board of Education, laying out the rules and setup of the proposed school. Depending on the size of the proposed school, and if the charter model is approved, a budget is approved by state officials. Most charter schools have a "charter term" or contract period of five years, though some are longer. When that period is up, the state decides whether to renew the contract and can examine accountability statistics to determine the future of the school.

Because charter schools have only existed since 1991, and they are only located in 40 states plus Washington, D.C., O'Neill said he routinely runs into parents who know very little about charter schools. By: Bob Ross

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8 Tips to help you (and your kids) adjust...

Every year, school boards across the country grapple with the issue of redistricting: Drawing new lines to decide which kids go to which schools, thanks to the opening of a new building, the closure of an old school or lopsided class sizes among schools in the same district. Once these new lines are drawn, many kids end up stuck in the middle.

If redistricting means your child is at a new school this year, it's a sure thing she’s going through a period of adjustment – which could be rough if he was happy at his old school. “It is a big deal for your child, no matter what age they are,” says Dr. Mary Beth Klotz, a certified school psychologist at the National Association of School Psychologists.

Still, in this situation your child isn’t the only one who has to get used to a new school. Everyone is in the same boat and some of your child’s old friends are probably at the new school too, which makes the transition less disorienting than moving to a whole new neighborhood.

The process of redistricting is often contentious, but Klotz says that once the new lines have been drawn, parents should keep a positive attitude and encourage their kids to embrace the new opportunities that a different school can bring.

When you’re talking to your kids, emphasize the good things like a new playground and the chance to be the first kids ever in a new school, says Dr. Karen Hoving, a psychotherapist in Aurora, Colorado.

Here are 8 tips to help you (and your kids) adjust:

* Make new friends and keep the old. The nice thing about new attendance boundaries is that some of your child’s old friends will probably be going to the new school with her. Set up a play date with some of her old friends and some new ones – or if she’s older, help her plan a sleepover or movie night. Make sure your help your child keep in touch with her friends that aren’t attending the new school.

* Keep up-to-date. Find out how parents at the new school keep in touch. Is there a parent e-mail listserv? Sign up for it. Does your child’s new teacher have a website? Check in regularly to keep tabs on homework assignments and classroom activities. Staying abreast on homework and happenings at school will make the transition easier for everyone.

* Get involved. Look for a way for each family member to find a place in the new school community. Is there a club or sports team your child might like to join? Could the PTA or PTO use your help on a project? Is there a school picnic coming up? Getting involved at school will not only help you and your child get to know others, but it's also a great way to show support for your child's education.

* Volunteer. Schools can always use volunteers. Give some of your time if you can. This will also allow you to get to know teachers and staff at the new school on an informal basis.

* Stay in touch. Attend back-to-school night to get acquainted with your child’s teacher. Find out if he prefers e-mails or phone calls from parents. Ask what your child can expect to learn this year and how much homework to expect every night. Asking questions and communicating frequently will help you and your child will help you stay ahead of them game when adjusting to a new school.

* Talk to your child. Ask your child what she thinks of the new school. What is her teacher like? Who does she eat lunch with? What are the names of her new friends? If you had to go to a new school when you were a kid, tell her what it was like. If you didn’t, describe how you might have felt about it. It's important to make your child feel like her feelings matter and that she has a say in this new situation.

* Remember: The teacher is your ally. Every day your child’s teacher sees how your child is progressing academically and socially. If your child is having trouble making friends or is struggling with her homework, contact the teacher right away. “The teachers will give you feedback on what they see,” Hoving says. “Anything can be helped if you catch it early.”

* Ask for help. If your child has been in the new school for a few weeks and is having problems with the change, talk to a school counselor or school psychologist. Talking to someone other than a teacher or parent can make a hugely positive impact in how your child adjusts and deals with any problems she may be having at school.

Remember that going to a new school is a new start for your child. She has a chance to make new friends and get to know new teachers. With caring adults like you by her side and lots of support at home and at school, she'll make it through the transition and come out a stronger person. By Rebecca VanderMeulen

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