Muscogee County educators discuss charter school benefits

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comNovember 3, 2012 

For principal Lorrie Watt, the value of Clubview Elementary being a charter school can be summed up in the language emanating from Room 105.

That's the classroom for Marlene Culpepper, a full-time Spanish teacher.

In this age of tight budgets for education programs, "it's something that easily could be cut," Watt said. But it is protected because that teaching position is stated in the school's charter, she added.

The Georgia Department of Education defines a charter school as "a public school of choice that operates under the terms of a charter, or contract, with an authorizer, such as the state and local boards of education. Charter schools receive flexibility from certain state and local rules in exchange for a higher degree of accountability for raising student achievement."

Georgia voters are being asked to approve a constitutional amendment that would allow the state legislature to create another appeals panel for charter petitions if they are blocked by the local school board and the state board of education.

Beyond the debate about the amendment, which the Ledger-Enquirer already has reported, the issue prompts the following question: What difference do charter schools make after they are approved?

The Muscogee County School District has three charter schools, all previously existing elementary schools that converted to charters: Clubview, Reese Road and Wynnton.

The state has 110 charter schools, including 80 start-up charters and 30 conversion charters, according to the Georgia Department of Education. The state also has 14 charter systems, which include an additional 107 schools.

In March 2001, the Muscogee County School Board voted 6-3 against approving a charter school petition from John McEachern. That is the only start-up charter school the board has been asked to consider.

The board unanimously approved the conversion charter petitions from Clubview (2005), Wynnton (2008) and Reese Road (2009), as well as Clubview's five-year renewal (2011).

In September 2008, Fort Middle School submitted a letter of intent to implement a planning grant to convert to a charter school. But the school withdrew its petition Feb. 11, 2011, "due to the current uncertainties surrounding the regulations for achieving charter status."

Fort instead became a magnet school for service learning. Principal Sonja Coaxum declined this past week to discuss the charter petition's withdrawal.

James Walker, the board's District 3 representative, is the lone member who voted against McEachern's petition and is still on the board. He said he opposed the start-up charter because it would have "siphoned" money from the school district; the conversion charters don't diminish the district's funding.

"The concept of charters, I think, is OK," he said, "assuming that the school boards are involved in authorizing them and making sure they are doing what they are supposed to do."

He wonders, however, whether all the charter fuss is worth the paper work.

"I just don't think they get any better results," he said.

In the latest data available, the 2010-11 state report card shows Clubview and Wynnton passed the state's standards, known as Adequate Yearly Progress, and are considered Distinguished Schools for making AYP at least three straight years. Reese Road didn't make AYP for the first time in 2010-11, falling short in grades 3-5 among students with disabilities and students from economically disadvantaged families.

Using the year before each school's charter was approved as a baseline, test scores show mixed results:

• At Clubview, the reading and math scores for fourth and fifth grades increased across years. Third grade decreased in both subjects.

• At Reese Road, the scores in reading and math have declined in grades 3-5.

• At Wynnton, the scores have increased in reading and math across years and grades except for fourth-grade reading.

No assessment, however, can correlate being a charter school with performance, because so many other variables are involved.

Clubview

Watt, Clubview's principal, is in her 20th year as an educator, her fifth at the school and her third as principal. The biggest benefit she sees in being a charter school is the flexibility granted.

"It allows you to veer, do things differently from other public schools," she said. "You still teach the same standards, the same curriculum, however you can teach it differently."

For example, Clubview's charter allows it to opt out of using programs or textbooks the school district might adopt.

"Knowing that we aren't a cookie-cutter school, we can decide to do things differently when a district-wide initiative is rolled out," she said. "Every school is different, the culture and climate."

Watt relies on Clubview's governing board, comprising representatives from the faculty, parents and business partners, to help her set the school's budget and other priorities.

Although the governing board could seem like another layer of bureaucracy, Watt said, "I appreciate them. I feel more supported by them than feeling I have to go through them to get approval."

Students in grades 1 through 5 have at least one parent-teacher conference per year, where they display their portfolios full of school work.

Staff development is mandatory for an hour after school each Monday. Teachers learn new techniques in those meetings, such as studying "What Great Teachers Do Differently" by Todd Whitaker.

Clubview's charter also declares the school's goals are to exceed, not just meet, the state standards in test results. Fourth-grade math is the only category in which the school didn't score above the state average last year, Watt said.

As a magnet school using the International Baccalaureate program, Clubview attracts students from all over the district. But it still has an attendance zone serving neighborhood children. That mix is a plus for Lance Hemmings, who chairs Clubview's governing board and has had at least one child at the school for seven years.

"We've always had a strong PTA, but now we've been able to retain a lot of kids who might have gone to private schools," Hemmings said. "There's a real sense of community there.

"The teachers also have done a great job of not just being educators and mentors but also, like in a customer service industry, communicating better through email and social media websites, and the snowball effect gets parents and teachers pulling the rope in the same direction instead of playing the blame game."

The only drawback Watt sees to being a charter school is the extra paperwork.

"And we still have to do a school improvement plan like the other schools," she said with a laugh.

Reese Road

Jeanella Pendleton is in her 40th year as an educator, 21st year at Reese Road and 17th year as the school's principal.

For her, the biggest benefit of being a charter school is that it allowed the faculty the freedom to weave student leadership training, based on "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" by Stephen R. Covey, throughout the school day.

"Our program is based on research and what we feel would be good for children," Pendleton said. "The leadership skills that are embedded now will make them better citizens and better workers because they will have the skills companies are looking for."

Students produce a morning TV broadcast. They take lunch orders. They answer the phone in the classroom. They hand out supplies. They organize dismissal time, including older students escorting younger students.

"It seems simplistic, but it's really powerful," Pendleton said. "The kids are taking ownership and using skills to make every situation a win-win and beginning with the end in mind."

Students in grades 1 through 5 lead parent-teacher conferences twice per year, kindergartners once per year.

"They have leadership notebooks or data notebooks where they keep track of their own learning," Pendleton said. "So if any stakeholder wants to know how Suzie Q is doing, she will get her notebook that has a graph that shows how well she has done from Point A to Point B. You will see her goals and her own mission statement."

Reese Road's charter provides for full-time teachers in art, music and physical education.

"We were also supposed to have a foreign language teacher, technology teacher and a leadership academy teacher," Pendleton said. "But the economy has not been on our side since we got the charter, and we had to ask for a waiver from our original contract."

For the first time, Reese Road didn't make AYP last year. The school scored substandard in grades 3-5 among students with disabilities and economically disadvantaged students.

"I almost passed out when I saw those red marks," Pendleton said.

The faculty's leadership team members responded. During the summer, they created a plan that made an after-school program, Smart Academy, mandatory for those subgroup students who were behind. Two teachers in each grade tutor them one hour per day and use self-paced computer software. Student peer helpers also will provide support when they are selected, Pendleton said.

Susan Wood has had three children attend Reese Road. One of her sons, Jackson, was there before and after the school converted to a charter.

The difference was significant, Wood said.

"Reese Road was a good school anyway," she said, "but there was more funding for things like the TV station for morning announcements. Jackson learned how to produce and edit and all that.

"They didn't offer foreign languages, but they did bring back PE and didn't cut any music or art. It kept things from being cut."

Wood also is grateful for Reese Road's charter focus on leadership.

"Reading the '7 Habits,' the kids learned to respect each other more," she said. "The teachers even seemed happier."

Wynnton

Wynnton's charter has brought full-time teachers for art, music, dance and drama. But the way those activities are tapped throughout the school day has boosted the school the most, said Jennifer Barringer, a former special-needs teacher in her sixth year as Wynnton's assistant principal and 24th year as an educator.

"We utilize our arts teachers to integrate the curriculum into the arts and the arts into the curriculum," she said.

All of which matters, Barringer said, when you look at the test results for Wynnton, serving students from predominantly low-income families. The Title I school has gone from scoring below the state standards to meeting and exceeding them.

"We were in six or seven years of Needs Improvement," Barringer said. "Now we're a Distinguished School and always made AYP since we've been a charter."

The arts program also has improved student discipline. "It keeps them enjoying coming to school," she said.

If the school's arts program were only a magnet, Barringer said, "we would have problems keeping it funded, because magnet budgets are getting cut just like anything else."

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