When the time came for Nikki Widner’s oldest son Griffin to enter middle school, she embarked on a search for the right school for him. Private school was out, so it was down to traditional public school or charter. “At the time, I just didn’t feel like we had strong choices in our neighborhood,” says the Denver mom of two.
She had heard from friends that Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST), while small, had a great program. So she visited, and after confirming what she heard during the school’s open house through her own research and conversations with other families who attended the school, she and her husband decided that the charter school was the way to go.
“Middle school is such a tricky time,” she says. “My fear with Griffin was that, in a big school, he could easily fall through the cracks; that he wasn’t going to call attention to it if he was falling behind and that he wouldn’t advocate for himself. That’s why I wanted something smaller with a more hands-on structure.”
She feels that she found a great match in DSST. “I found that and then some,” she says. “I was pleasantly shocked by how true that was.”
Most parents today grew up attending the neighborhood school for which they were zoned. They could choose from 62 different kinds of shampoo or breakfast cereal, but when it came to the schools where they spent most of their waking hours having their minds and futures shaped, there was just the one option.
Not so today. Today, any person or group with an idea about how schools should be can apply to start one: thus, charter schools. And any parent concerned about finding the right educational fit for a child has an almost overwhelming number of options.
A Brief History
In 1991, Minnesota parents, educators, and political leaders who were frustrated with lackluster school performance and limited options, passed the first charter school law.
Colorado was the third state to follow suit when Gov. Roy Romer signed the Charter Schools Act on June 3, 1993. Subsequently, 43 states and Washington, D.C., have “legalized” charter schools. The movement started because many felt that a traditional one-size-fits-all approach was inadequate to provide some children a successful educational experience.
“It was prime time for charter schools to arrive on the scene because there was fairly widespread recognition that, for many children in our traditional public school system, the existing options simply weren’t sufficient enough to meet the increasingly individualized needs of our students and society,” says Dan Schaller, vice president of state and local policy at Colorado League of Charter Schools (CLCS). “Families wanted a broader array of options—more innovation, more diversity, more rigor—and because of the flexibility they have in structuring their programs, charter schools were well-positioned to respond to this demand.”
However, the road to school-choice was far from smooth. In the early days, school boards in some counties denied applications, and teachers unions and district administrators alike opposed charter applications in Pueblo and the San Luis Valley. Eventually, the Colorado League of Charter Schools (CLCS) formed to provide support to charter school founders.
In the past 25 years, Colorado charter schools have grown from the first two schools in Pueblo (The Connect School) and in Castle Rock (Academy Charter School) to 255 schools serving more than 120,000 students. Today, Colorado charter schools are so prolific that if they were combined into one district, it would be the largest in the state, surpassing DPS and Jeffco.
Many of Colorado’s charter schools rank as some of the best public schools in the state, including Peak to Peak in Boulder (the number one public high school in Colorado ranked by US News and World Report, and number 111 nationally) and Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST) which was awarded the Broad Prize for outstanding college readiness in June 2018. Colorado continues to be a forerunner in the charter school movement, boasting the second highest percentage of charter school students in the country relative to total state enrollment.
A Different System for School Government
Charter schools vary in purpose and personality. They are as diverse as the kids who attend them—with no two being alike.
“I think we pride ourselves on the diversity that we have, especially when it comes to talking about diversity of educational programs for charter schools, including Montessori, STEM, language immersion, Core Knowledge, Waldorf, and many more. There’s really something for everyone,” says Kerri Barclay, associate director of communication and special projects for CLCS.
Not to be confused with private schools, charter schools are tuition-free, public schools. However, rather than being “zoned” for a school based on your address, families choose a charter school based on the specific needs, personality, interests, or learning style of their child. Like traditional schools, charter schools practice non-discriminatory enrollment practices and there are no test-in requirements. Once enrollment reaches capacity, charter schools use a waitlist and random lottery system.
“The voice of the parent is what really sets a charter school apart from a traditional public school,” says Peter Mason, vice president of communications at CLCS.
Charter schools are organized and governed by a combination of community members, parents, and/or teachers and are typically founded to serve a specific population (Rocky Mountain Deaf School, schools for pregnant or parenting teens), a specific teaching philosophy (Montessori, Waldorf inspired), a specific content focus (language immersion, technology, the arts), or learning style (expeditionary learning, differently-abled students, online learning).
For example, the Girls Athletic Leadership School (GALS) in Denver and its brother school The BOYS School of Denver are founded on research confirming that single-sex schools benefit educationally at-risk students, and that movement and athletics improve memory, attention, and cognition, as well as boosting self-esteem and civic engagement.
This autonomy stems from the fact that charter schools are self-governed. Bound by their “charter”—a contract detailing the school’s mission, program, goals, students served, methods of assessment, and ways to measure success—the independent school leadership determines the curriculum, staff selections, schedule, dress code, meal options, policies, field trips, calendar, and all aspects of the students’ day. However, that doesn’t mean “anything goes.”
What’s Different? What’s Not?
In exchange for operational freedom and flexibility, charter schools are subject to higher levels of accountability. In Colorado, charters are generally granted for a five-year period. At the end of the term, the authorizer (either the school district or the Colorado Charter School Institute) can decide to either renew or deny renewal based on performance outcomes.
Charter schools, being public schools, must align their curriculum content and instruction to current state standards, and are accountable to the same testing requirements and scoring expectations. These testing requirements change periodically based on state and federal legislation and the child’s grade level. Current Colorado testing requirements and test explanations are available on the Colorado Department of Education website.
Charter schools can obtain a waiver, allowing them to hire unlicensed teachers. Even with this flexibility, 75 percent of Colorado charter-school teachers are state licensed. When charter schools do hire unlicensed teachers, it is commonly because they’ve found a candidate who has gained qualification in a certain subject matter.
Liberty Common High School in Fort Collins has engineers-turned-math-teachers on staff and has hired non-licensed teachers in areas such as history, English, and foreign language. And, it seems to be working. According to 2018 results released by the Colorado Department of Education, Liberty Common has the highest SAT score in the state.
“They are actually putting in teachers that have this wealth of knowledge and experience in their lives, and the kids are doing awesome with it,” says Mason.
Paulina Deitrick, a Spanish instructor at Liberty Common High School intended to travel the world and teach English and Spanish, but a detour brought her to Fort Collins. She and her fiance only intended to stay a little while, so she interviewed at Liberty Common to teach an after-school Spanish workshop for elementary school students.
“I was nervous about not having a teaching license, but because I am a native Spanish speaker and foreign language specialist, Liberty hired me on the spot based on my qualifications, expertise, and content knowledge,” says Deitrick, who, a year later, began teaching classes at the high school.
Like traditional public schools, charter schools receive state funding based on a formula for each child enrolled. This funding is called Per-Pupil Operating Revenue, or PPR. Charter school funding has no legislative or philosophical connection with vouchers, and, in fact, they receive a smaller percentage of PPR than traditional schools.
“According to a 2014 analysis by researchers at the University of Arkansas, charter schools in Colorado received 20.2 percent less in revenues on a per pupil basis than traditional public schools,” says Schaller. “While this has somewhat improved in recent years in part because of the passage of House Bill 1375 [mill levy sharing] in 2017, there is still a ways to go. Charter school students are treated equally in the eyes of the state [receiving the same state per-pupil funding as all other public school students], so the remaining disparity can be attributed to decisions taking place at the local level between various districts and their charter schools.”
Charter schools depend heavily on parents in both volunteering and fundraising—some requiring between 40 to 60 hours annually per family. The schools consider this expectation an advantage since a strong body of research supports parental involvement as the number one determinant of a child’s academic success—not PPR.
“Every charter school is very different with their volunteer hours system. Some parents have to log their hours, and at other schools they’re less strict with that policy,” says Barclay. “[There are] many working parents who send their child to a charter school, and there are ways to work with the school, so that everybody is satisfied with how they volunteer their time.”
As public schools, charter schools are prohibited from screening students on the basis of academic ability or virtually any other criteria as part of their enrollment process. “Many districts do have enrollment processes to help families of students who have more intensive needs find the best placement for their child,” says Kaci Coats, director of exceptional student services at CLCS. “However, after a child is enrolled, the school is responsible for serving the student’s needs unless through the IEP process, it is determined that the student requires a more specialized approach that is best served in a different setting.”
Less funding and smaller sizes can affect the offerings of charter schools. “While it tends to vary school to school, some of the areas where charters are often not able to match their traditional public school counterparts are transportation, staff salaries, support services staff [nurses, special education teachers, occupational therapy], state-of-the-art facilities, and extracurricular and athletic programs,” says Schaller.
Some charter school parents also notice a different school culture than the “football on Friday nights,” experience that they may have had.
“At DSST, you are at a smaller school, you are going to have much fewer choices [than traditional school],” says Widner. “There are a lot of parents who still have a hard time accepting that or realizing that. Parents really kind of have to get their head around, if they went to traditional high school, it’s not going to be like that.”
Despite the differences, Widner has seen the benefit of the individual attention, weekly progress reports, and mandatory tutoring available at DSST. Her youngest son went from struggling in math in a traditional elementary school to taking honors math and maintaining an A at DSST middle school. “Both of my kids are a thousand times better students that they ever were before.”
[All schools] have their own strengths and their own unique opportunities, says Mason. And charters are no different. “What we in the charter field are advocating for is that parents get the choice.”
Searching for a School?
No matter where you live and what school options you consider, keep in mind your child’s strengths and weaknesses and your own top priorities and values when you begin your search, says Kerri Barclay at the Colorado League of Charter Schools. Start with your neighborhood school, then compare that with other schools you’ve heard about or researched. Talk to other parents. Then, visit the school; it’s the best way to determine if it’s a good fit for your child.
Here are some questions to consider before or during a school visit:
- What is the school’s educational model and/or mission and vision?
- How many students attend the school?
- What is class size like?
- What is the safety policy at the school?
- What about the discipline policy?
- Is the office staff friendly and accommodating as you enter the school?
- Is the school clean, warm, and inviting?
- Do the students look happy and engaged in their classrooms?
- How do teachers differentiate their instruction to support a wide variety of learners?
- What “specials” are offered at the school (foreign language, technology, library, art, etc.)?
- Is there a before/after-school program for students? Are there after-school enrichment classes?
- How active are the parents at the school? Is there a parent group i.e. PTO/PTA? What types of events are held during the school year for families?
- How many years has the school leader been there? What is the percentage of teacher retention?
- What are the school’s strengths? What are the school’s challenges?