Where do charter schools fit in the community?
Tori Wickland’s oldest daughter was ahead of her peers in the fifth grade. So much so, that by middle school she was already taking nearly all high school courses. Wickland wondered what to do with a student who didn’t fit into the box. Her answer – find a school or program to fit the student.
Although charter schools are under attack on both a national and state-wide level for a series of legal and financial mishaps, Prosser Creek administrators and parents like Wickland remain strong believers in a system that adapts to the individual child. They traded in sports teams, extracurricular clubs, and more public funding characteristic of traditional schools for the smaller class size, flexible learning environment, and increased parent involvement of charter schools.
Many supporters, however, do not see it as a trade-off but rather as an upgrade in their child’s education.
Nevertheless charter schools are not without their shortcomings. They must deal with a limited cash flow and are unable to offer some of the programs and services of traditional schools.
Charter schools are independent public schools that follow state curriculum but are designed and operated by teachers, parents, or other community leaders. Unlike traditional schools, which must adhere to state regulations, charter schools are bound only by their “charter,” a performance contract that details the school’s mission, program, goals, methods of assessment and ways to measure success.
Charter schools are monitored by their sponsor – usually a school district – to ensure they produce positive academic results and adhere to the charter contract.
The underlying concept of charter schools is that they exercise increased autonomy in return for being held accountable for achieving educational results.
Charter schools, unlike traditional ones, can be shut down if they fail to honor their contract or meet educational standards. Many parents like this aspect of charter schools because they feel it encourages teachers to find the appropriate learning methods for each student.
“Charter schools are performance oriented,” explained Marianne Zerebko, whose daughter Melissa is a third grader at Creekside Elementary.
“The student has to achieve certain skills or they don’t pass him on. If a student doesn’t get it, they will try three different ways until he does.”
WHY CHARTER SCHOOL? – PART I
Parents appear to choose charter schools over conventional ones for one of two main reasons. The first is because their child was having problems at a traditional school due to a learning disability, lack of motivation, or accelerated learning ability. With a maximum of 15 students in a classroom and a focus on personalized attention, many parents found charter schools to be more accommodating for their child’s specific learning needs.
Janet Jones, whose grandson was flunking out of math at North Tahoe High School, saw an immediate turnaround as soon as he switched to Prosser Creek. She attributes this to the encouragement he got from his teachers, who worked with him even when he was struggling.
“At North Tahoe, he didn’t want to go to school, he was doing poorly,” said Jones. “At Prosser Creek, he couldn’t wait to go to class. He was an honor student.”
On the opposite end of the scale, Wickland’s daughters were two years ahead of their peers in math and other subjects. Her daughters either had to skip a grade, which Wickland felt had negative social implications, or face the prospect of running out of challenging courses at either traditional high schools in the district.
“Prior to the opening of Prosser Creek in 1998, our choices would have been private boarding school, commute off the mountain, or move,” said Wickland.
Now a sophmore at Prosser Creek, Wickland’s oldest daughter Tira takes advance placement courses that in traditional schools are normally reserved for seniors. Her sister, who is in eighth grade, is taking sophomore and junior level classes.
The second reason parents opt for charter schools is not because conventional schools failed their child, but because they simply like the choices charter schools offer.
“Melissa would have been fine in any school but I liked the idea of options,” said Zerebko.
Specifically, Zerebko prefers the small classroom size and flexible learning environment, which enables teachers to more closely monitor the students and cater to their abilities.
“They notice things because of the small classroom. If children are bored, they give them extra work,” she said. “They are more open to things. If students want to ski, they see it’s good for them and give them home schooling.”
Zerebko is also a big fan of the parent participation demanded by charter schools. Prosser Creek, whose motto is “parent voice, parent choice,” requires parents to donate a minimum of five hours a month. Zerebko started a running program at Creekside Elementary. Tracey Lum, who has two children at Prosser Creek, founded a chess club and lunch program and helped to build the playground.
“To know what your child is learning, you have to be involved,” said Lum.
It’s not all smooth sailing at charter schools, however. For one, charter schools are faced with funding constraints not placed upon traditional schools. While both types of schools receive money from the state for each student, charter schools do not get facility, transportation, or deferred maintenance funding. That means charter schools have to dip into their operational budget to pay for rent and repairs.
“We spent a lot of the children’s money getting services into place,” said Jayna Gaskell, founder and head administrator of Prosser Creek.
Prosser Creek has also been turned down for grants from Excellence in Education and its request for additional funding from the parcel tax was denied. Because of its small budget, Prosser Creek cannot offer all the options that traditional schools do, such as drama, band, counselors, and nurses. It also had to cut programs, like music and PE. This means increased reliance on fundraising and parent volunteers.
Advocates of traditional schools see the reduced programming as a disadvantage.
“Traditional schools offer so many extracurricular things and the opportunity to get a wider scope of education,” said Ed Turner, North Tahoe High School vice principal.
“It prepares us better for life after high school.”
Additionally, because of its small student body and budget, Prosser Creek does not offer any after-school sports. While some parents feel this is not an issue, proponents of traditional schools see it as a major drawback.
“Sports are extremely important, they keep a lot of students in school,” said Turner.
Perhaps the biggest downside to charter schools is that their future is not assured, leaving some parents feeling insecure about their child’s education. Prosser Creek’s charter is up for renewal next June. With Placer County looking into the school’s $1.5 million accounting mistake, its survival remains up in the air.