Charter schools’ bumpy years appear over
By Jeff Commings Tucson, Arizona | Published: http://www.azstarnet.com/altsn/snredesign/relatedarticles/111461
“In terms of AIMS scores, the majority of high-school charter students are still failing all three sections of the high-stakes exam. But they're showing improvements. Sixty-one percent failed in 2005 in Pima County, compared with 67 percent in 2002, the earliest data available from the state. By comparison, 35 percent of traditional-high-school students failed AIMS in 2005.”
Tucson charter schools have traveled a bumpy road in their first 10 years.
When many opened in the mid- to late-1990s, banks wouldn't give them loans. Schools were in less-than-desirable locations. And parents didn't want to trust their kids' educations to what was deemed a passing fad.
Charter schools still have some problems with public perception and finances. Some underperforming schools may face tougher scrutiny from the state this year, too. But things are much smoother now in almost every charter classroom, operators and students say.
"It took time to grow into the community awareness," said Tom Drexel, co-founder of Presidio Schools, which serves at-risk students. "The parents and students are now taking advantage of charter schools. It's good to see that acceptance."
Charter schools still remain an enigma elsewhere in the nation, more than a decade after many states, hoping to create more choices in education, approved laws that allowed them, said Brian Carpenter, executive director at the National Charter Schools Institute. There are now 3,400 charter schools in 40 states and Washington, D.C., but Carpenter expects it might take decades for the public to fully embrace what he calls "the charter-school movement."
Arizona now has 517 schools, the most per capita in the nation. The numbers show local charter schools also are a force. In 1995, the first year charters were granted in Arizona, two schools were approved in Pima County, according to the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools. Now, there are 88, with four more to start in the fall.
They also are becoming a financial force. State funds to Pima County charter schools have grown from $2.5 million in 1995 to $77 million in 2005.
The schools rely on the same per-pupil dollars from the state as traditional schools, but charters tend to get less construction money and are unable to participate in multimillion-dollar bond elections that the traditional schools use to beef up budgets.
Academic success is improving, too. Ninety-three percent of charter schools are rated "satisfactory" or better in the Arizona Learns school labels, up from 76 percent in 2002, according to the state Department of Education.
In terms of AIMS scores, the majority of high-school charter students are still failing all three sections of the high-stakes exam. But they're showing improvements. Sixty-one percent failed in 2005 in Pima County, compared with 67 percent in 2002, the earliest data available from the state. By comparison, 35 percent of traditional-high-school students failed AIMS in 2005.
Tucson's charter school operators attribute the success to students and parents who are holding the schools accountable. Meeting at monthly luncheons to discuss issues and share ideas has helped create a sense of family among their schools, too.
"It's so much better," said Reese Millen, principal of the Himmel Park branch of Edge Charter School.
People at two charter schools talked about the evolution from struggling school to success story.
Presidio School, 1695 E. Fort Lowell Road
Tom Drexel recently spent a morning browsing through 10-year-old photos, reminiscing about the years he ran a 6,000-square foot school in a converted mortuary.
Now, his school is in a more polished building, almost five times as big. If he could, he'd expand more, too.
Presidio School is generally regarded as one of Tucson's flagship charter schools, mostly because it's one of a handful that opened in 1996 that are still open. Test scores are one reason — students in all grades scored above the state average on AIMS in 2005. Presidio started with about 200 high-school students. The cap today is 350, and there's a long waiting list.
"We were there (at the old school) during the day, so we didn't think much of it being a mortuary," said Amanda Wolfe, 25, who spent about six months at Presidio as a student before graduating and returning as an employee in 1998.
Police visited the school often and arrested 33 juvenile offenders in 2000, but the problems almost disappeared after a 2001 move to the new school, where extracurricular activities could be offered.
Wolfe, now the school registrar at Presidio, thinks the move — aided by grant money — was the solution. Enrollment rose and K-8 classes were added.
"Now that we have the (new building), we have a lot of parents wanting to come here," said Wolfe, whose 6-year-old son, Cody, is in second grade at Presidio. "It's a lot more room to provide activities for the kids."
Edge Charter School, 2555 E. First Street
In 1995, Edge Charter School became one of two charter schools in Tucson, aimed at giving high school dropouts and at-risk teens a chance to graduate.
The start wasn't risky; the school had operated privately since 1983. But Edge has survived the rise and fall of more than 100 charter schools in Southern Arizona.
"There were some years that we struggled," Principal Reese Millen said. "But the staff and the board really believe in what we do and we have stuck with it."
Athena Ashe arrived at Edge after traditional school schedules didn't work for her.
"I was missing a lot of class because I couldn't get up that early," said Ashe, who at 16 is set to receive her diploma this spring. "But here I've been able to make up for all the classes I've missed."
Ashe and other seniors say they enjoy the supportive teachers, individualized learning and stress-free atmosphere. Unlike what they hear from friends at traditional schools, there hasn't been a major fight at Edge, and there's a meditation room for students to go and "just chill out if they need to," said senior Amber Lara, 17.
But for all the success, Edge and other charter schools fear there will always be a stigma.
"There was and still is some misinformation about charter schools," Millen said. "Things are slowly improving in that respect because parents are becoming more educated about it. I think they realize they have an opportunity when they want another school for their child."
Go to azstarnet.com/ education to find archived versions of the private and charter school surveys, which are updated occasionally when warranted.
And go to azstarnet.com/ slideshows to find a photo slide show of students and teachers at Presidio Schools, one of Pima County's 88 charter schools.
● Contact reporter Jeff Commings at 573-4191 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. ● List of area schools, A8-A9