Schools of thought
Washoe County’s charter schools give parents alternatives to traditional education
The effervescent mother of three is obviously pleased with her choice to enroll a child in Bailey Charter Elementary School.
“It’s like home,” Leann Campbell, 37, says unabashedly. (And rather surprisingly. This is, after all, school she’s talking about.) On the other hand, since she might run into her son, Tyler, 14, or her daughter, Kelcy, 10, on the campus on any given day, it probably feels a bit like home.
Both she and Tyler, who’ll be a ninth grader at Damonte Ranch, volunteer at the school. Her boyfriend, Gary Wright, volunteered 500 hours there last year—he’s also president of the booster club and the single father of two Bailey students.
Campbell was initially attracted to the charter school for its all-day kindergarten. It’s hard enough for a single mother to balance work and family without having to break up the workday to pick up and drop off a kindergartner. That’s not even mentioning all the research showing the educational benefits of all-day kindergarten.
“I think half-day kindergarten is a waste of time,” says the nursing student who owns a housekeeping service. “So the all-day kindergarten really appealed to me. I also liked the idea of the parent involvement. I think that’s what makes a good school, is how involved the parents are. The only drawback is you have to drive and pick up your children yourself.”
Bailey’s principal Carl Meibergen says, “Research is continuing to show that if you invest time in kindergartners, you’re going to have fewer problems down the road, high school, less remediation because you are giving them a huge foundation to build on.” The first piece of good news, he says, is the Legislature will fully fund some all-day kindergartens beginning in 2006. The second part of the good news is that there will be more children spending the whole day in class at Bailey beginning this fall.
“When I took over, I was handed a budget that had only budgeted for one kindergarten, so that’s about 20-22 students. We had those spots filled, and I had another 22 on the waiting list, and parents are still coming wanting to register their child,” Meibergen says.
While some parents put their children in all-day kindergarten as a free version of daycare, their incentive is beside the point.
“I don’t care what their motivation is; I know that academically, we’re getting those kids better prepared to be successful down the road. We have had to scramble to find funding, but we are going to open a second kindergarten.”
Leann Campbell’s reasons for trying and sticking with a charter school are by no means unusual. In fact, she’s a perfect illustration of the reasons Nevada developed a charter-school system in the first place. The all-day kindergarten is an example of the innovative teaching methods built into Washoe County’s charter system. A look around the year-round school, which is at 1090 Bresson Ave., in the tree-filled neighborhood near Vaughn Middle School, shows many of the innovations that charter schools are known for, and one of the defining characteristics: small classes. A conversation with one of the teachers, like first-grade teacher Sherry Coops in one of the converted-trailer classrooms outside the larger school building, illustrates the career-development expectations that draw committed teachers to the charter schools.
Do those statements sound unusually laudatory for a Washoe County public school?
Mapping a new course
Since charter schools are a relatively new phenomenon—the first charter-school law was passed in Minnesota in 1991; Nevada laws followed in 1997—perhaps a short description is in order.
There are 10 charter schools operating in Washoe County. Charter schools are essentially a method of reforming public schools without undermining the traditional public-school system by taking money out in the way that “vouchers” would. Charters are an add-on to the existing public-school system and enjoy most systemic benefits, like grading systems for teachers and communication infrastructures. Since they are within the district, they are free to Washoe County students. Like the district schools, charters receive $5,000 per student from the state. Charters don’t have access to bond money but do have access to grants and tend to be creative in their methods of fundraising.
“Charter schools developed so that parents would have choice,” said Sandi Foster, Washoe County’s charter school coordinator. “Students don’t have to be zoned to go to a charter school, so if they want something different than is offered at the school they are zoned for, they can choose to go to any charter school.”
There are some drawbacks. For example, most charters don’t have school buses, and extracurricular activities like sports are generally given short shrift. (Charter-school students who wish to take part in sports can participate at the school for which they are zoned.) The schools don’t usually look like traditional schools, generally being in buildings that were converted to schools from other purposes. Students often have had problems in traditional schools or come from a Christian background and seek to avoid the negative cultural influences of traditional public schools.
Charter-school students must meet state and district academic standards, and they must take all state-mandated tests. However, while students must end up with the same minimum skills, the paths taken often differ significantly from regular public schools—and that’s the crux of how charters work.
A “charter” is a performance contract made with the state and county school district detailing the school’s mission, program, goals, students served, methods of assessment, and ways to measure success. Applying for a charter is an arduous process, and the paperwork fills a yellow, two-inch binder in the labyrinthine halls at “the green house,” Washoe County School District headquarters on Ninth Street—not that there’ll be many new charters granted by WCSD since the school board has limited the number of county-sponsored charter schools to eight.
Charter schools generally offer a different curriculum and sometimes a different teaching style than in traditional public schools (For more complete information, including contacts for the individual schools, see www.washoe.k12.nv.us/schools/charter). For example, Academy for Career Education Charter School offers a curriculum focusing on skills required in the construction industry. Mariposa Academy of Language & Learning Charter focuses on bi-lingual, Spanish-English education. I Can Do Anything Charter High School has small class sizes and individualized teaching.
High Desert Montessori Charter School uses the popular Montessori Method of education, while Sierra Nevada Academy Charter School is a Core Knowledge School, which emphasizes reading and writing. Coral Academy of Science Charter School highlights science and math, and Rainshadow Community Charter High School centers students’ learning on community involvement.
There are also two state-sponsored charter schools based within Washoe County: Halima Academy, www.halimaacademy.org, which provides pregnant and parenting students with the opportunity to complete high school and Team A, www.teama.org, a distance-education (Internet) charter school.
To put it simply, charter schools are able to innovate because they are required to be innovative.
The measure of success
Most charter schools have shown steady improvement since they began. Some, particularly because of admission policies, have been more sporadic—six of the county’s schools are required by law to keep a high percentage of students who, for financial, emotional or other reasons are considered at risk of dropping out of school. One, Nevada Leadership Academy, had its charter revoked in 2003 because it was out of compliance with accounting, budget and federal grant laws. (As one example, officials couldn’t account for $53,423 of grant money.)
The principals and teachers all have stories about students who show that the methods used in their school work: the students who’ve come back and thanked them. It’s pretty easy to hear in the earnest tones of their voices and see in the looks on their faces that they consider this the real measure of success, but we parents outside the school are looking for more quantifiable measurements.
How about growth?
High Desert Montessori Charter School has shown phenomenal growth, exploding out of its little building leased from the First Congregational Church at 627 Sunnyside Drive in Reno. (Actually, several charter schools rent space from churches, but charter schools are forbidden by law from having religious curricula.) This year, High Desert will grow from 112 students (excluding pre-school) at Sunnyside to some 210 students at 2590 Orovada St.
The Montessori Method of education has been the topic of many books—suffice it to say, it’s a popular style, with private Montessori schools in the West charging $7,000 to $13,000 per year. But principal Carol Andrew says it’s not just the Montessori Method that’s fueling the school’s expansion, but the effectiveness of charter schools.
“Charter schools allow a group of families to form intentional communities for themselves and their children,” she said, dressed in her painting clothes to put a base coat on a wall that will soon hold a mural at the new school. “They are choosing to be there.”
Andrew’s new school, a former AT&T building, is a dusty hurricane of construction materials and workmen, a maze of new and old structures. She said permitting took a little longer than anticipated, but she’s plainly excited at the potentials for her bigger building even though the school won’t be fully functional as soon as she hoped.
Andrew says charter schools are excellent havens for gifted and talented students, but many of the local charter schools also have large populations of so-called “square pegs"—those students who don’t feel comfortable with cliques, popularity contests and dress codes.
Academy for Career Education Charter School, the construction-trades high school, is one of these. ACE makes its home in an industrial area of Sparks, and while the school only has 135 students today, plans are in the works to increase the population to some 800 students.
Principal Forrest “Frosty” Gorden’s school uses real-world construction situations to teach students the fundamentals. For example, Pythagorean Theorem might be used to calculate an room’s angle, and students have time cards in every class, even on the job site, where they construct an entire home every year.
“They have to write in complete sentences, and they get graded on their grammar on the job site, as well as in the classroom,” he said. “It’s all integrated, and they know that everything they do wherever is going to affect them somewhere else.”
Gorden said his school’s success all about offering something of value to the community: skilled tradespeople.
“We had 25 graduates last year, probably had 45 job offers from people,” the educator said.
And it’s not just the students and parents who are behind the school, it’s local businesspeople like Norm Dianda of Q&D Construction, who is helping to fund the school’s new diesel-engine “track.” Other local captains of industry, like the Reviglios of Western Nevada Supply, are going to fund the construction of a new building in the next two years, which will include tracks on other areas of construction including cabinetry, heating and ventilation, masonry and CAD design.
“This is about industry,” Gorden said. “The industry went to the school district and said, ‘We need $6 million to start this building.’ The district looked back and said, ‘We can’t give you $6 million, but you’re doing such a good job, you can come back into the district and be the new cornerstone of the new tech school.’ Doesn’t really work for us. We don’t think that’s going to happen.
“So industry, they’re going, ‘We’re going to build you a building in the next two years.’ I’m going to have to fill it with kids. Eight hundred kids is not going to happen overnight. We’re going to go up 125 kids each year. We’re still going to have 20-to-1 or less in all these classrooms. That’s the most important thing, so kids won’t get lost in the shuffle.”