Chartering the future

Charter schools were created to offer innovative teaching modes that help kids succeed. But are they?

Toni Cunning took her job as career program coordinator at I Can Do Anything Charter High School because she was ready for a change. Sick and tired of the hoops she had to jump through to accomplish anything innovative at conventional schools, she moved on—and she’s not alone.

Cunning is one of many professional educators and parents ideologically and professionally immigrating to the new educational frontier: publicly funded, tax-supported charter schools. While the migration continues, critics are wondering if the schools, with their loose regulations, can survive the harsh elements of the educational system.

"[At charter schools], we can do anything,” Cunning said. “We have to figure that the worst thing that can happen is something doesn’t work. Then we start all over again.”

Charter schools, like regular public schools, are funded by tax dollars and operate under many of the same guidelines, with one exception: They are allowed an unheard of amount of flexibility in their mission and curriculum.

While some offer opportunities for academic specialization, many charter schools target “at-risk” youth. These schools claim to offer many things that regular public schools don’t—and can’t. This includes the creation of programs specifically designed to target youth who are unable to succeed in regular public schools for a variety of reasons.

“Charter schools focus on students who were [square] pegs who didn’t fit into round holes,” Cunning said. “The focus is mainly on individual attention. There need to be alternatives for students.

“Some kids have just fallen through the cracks because of things like family issues. They’re not bad kids. They’ve just had problems.

“There’s a greater sense of acceptance [in charter schools]. There are no cliques or delineations. It’s a true melting pot.”

Growing support
Public support of charter schools is growing. The Nevada State Legislature has passed bills enabling charter schools to operate smoothly and—more importantly—to receive funding adjustments. Public schools receive state funding based on enrollment. Charter schools, with their small number of students, do not receive enough funding to keep them in business. Instead, they turn to the community for support.

"[These schools] are the educational version of entrepreneurship,” said Steve Hull, assistant to the Washoe County School District superintendent. “They have to meet all state requirements. They have to go out and get students. It’s a fairly high-risk venture, because you don’t always know the variables.”

Steve Mulvenon, the district’s director of communications and community outreach, agreed that financing is a real challenge for these schools.

“There’s no public money pool [for charter schools],” he said. “The real disadvantage is that the legislature has just started to come to grips with this. Next session, they will level the playing field.”

Standards at charter schools
While educators at charter schools wait for this monetary egalitarianism, state officials have evaluated some schools on a limited basis.

“The state has created a framework for all charter schools to exist,” Hull said. “There’s a lot of leeway as these things evolve. They’ve been very successful … as long as they can meet state requirements and have excellent teaching, there’s definitely a place for these in Reno.”

While she thinks charter schools are a good concept, educational standards concern Debby Cahill, director of governmental relations for the Nevada State Education Association, the state’s teachers’ union.

“Charter schools are defined as public,” Cahill said. “Our concerns are that there should be safeguards for these public standards. We do not believe unlicensed people should be teaching. The curriculum should have equivalency with other public schools.”

At Coral Academy of Science, a Reno charter school focused on academics and college preparatory programs, 30 percent of the school’s staff do not have teachers’ licenses, as is required of all teachers in regular public schools.

“We bring in professionals from the community who aren’t necessarily teachers, but are experts in their fields,” said Mary Smith, dean of students at Coral.

Some critics, though they appreciate unconventional teaching methods, agree with Cahill that unlicensed teachers aren’t acceptable.

“The concern I hear more than anything else, and I’ve read this in the national press and heard it locally, is that the people starting these charter schools are not professional educators,” Mulvenon said. “Some people are wearing rose-colored glasses. Running a school is a very complex job. It overwhelms some charter schools when they get focused on the nuts and bolts of money, personnel and dealing with the angry parents. They tend to forget to keep the focus on student teaching and learning.”

Others are concerned that charter schools are siphoning money from regular schools. Mulvenon refutes this claim.

“They’re not really taking money from other schools,” he said. “The state sends out money based on enrollment and, until they get actual numbers, they withhold it. The public schools have lost money, but they’ve lost kids, too. So there’s no real economic impact.”

The charter mission
Aside from economics, most are concerned with another bottom line: Are charter schools successfully fulfilling their missions?

“While many charter schools set out originally to do something unique and innovative, we haven’t seen much of that yet,” Mulvenon said. “We see them doing many of the same things [the Washoe County School District] is already doing with Options in Education. Some charter schools are reinventing the wheel. The school district already has successful similar programs.”

Hull agreed, noting that Options in Education is “an effort to give at-risk kids more opportunities.” Whether it be smaller classrooms or geographically spread-out learning centers, the environment is “quite different,” according to Hull.

However, most agree that with limited data, the jury is still out on charter schools.

“Whether or not charter schools are effective is still an unanswered question,” Mulvenon said. “Any school, charter school or not, should be judged on whether or not it has an environment where kids can succeed. Is there some data to point to as a measure of success? Is that kid making progress? We won’t know for two, three or four years from now.”

Right now, charter schools require a lot of their architects and supporters.

“We all wear many hats,” Cunning said. “There are 23 or 25 of us, and everybody does a little bit of everything. The first week, I think I even installed a toilet.”

As for those who critique this kind of resourcefulness, those in support of charter schools believe in themselves.

“We have a lot of people who know what they’re doing,” Cunning said. “We’re not trying to handle this on our own. We operate in the black, not the red.”

Hull emphasized the need for a strong educational background on the part of teachers as a higher priority than operating on budget.

“You have to have excellent teachers,” he said. “You can have all the money you need, but unless you have a sound curriculum, you’re not going to be successful.”

Charter Schools in the Area
They’re like private schools, but they’re free. To survive, they need your kids to enroll. If you’re interested, give them a call.

Coral Academy of Science (grades 6-8) 140 Washington St. 323-2332

I Can Do Anything Charter High School (9-12) 1195 Corporate Blvd. 857-1544

Bailey Charter Elementary School (K-6) 1090 Bresson Ave. 323-6767

Nevada Leadership Academy (K-8) 1327 Pyramid Way, Sparks 358-6033

Sierra Nevada Academy (K-7) 13880 Stead Blvd. 677-4500