Charter Schools: What You Need to Know

by Tanya Anton | GoMamaGuide.com

Now that it’s Charter Season, we want you to be prepared. In this article we’ll cover some basics and a few specifics you should know about charter schools.Charter Draft

It bears repeating that California is at the forefront of the charter movement with more students enrolled in charter schools here than in any other state. There are 23,000 students enrolled in charters in LAUSD alone, and that number is growing every year.

Charters are tuition-free semi-independent, somewhat autonomous schools operating with public funds, authorized by either the local school district, the county or the state board of ed. Charters get their name from the lengthy legal document that outlines all facets of the operation of their charter school – from the vision to curriculum to governance to fiscal and academic and campus procedures.

Some charters are chains of schools replicated on multiple sites run by large charter management organizations (CMOs), and others are small individual school start-ups launched by an ad-hoc group of parents, educators, business leaders or entrepreneurs with a shared vision of an alternative model of education.

In Los Angeles There Are Two Types of Charters

Independent charters have the most autonomy to operate with full flexibility on staff hiring and firing (they don’t typically use the UTLA teachers contract), can make their own decisions in terms of budget, governance, overall school direction and operation, and are unaffected by district cuts or policy changes. Unless they are extremely well-endowed, most independent charters apply for classroom space via Prop 39 and are given a minimum number of classrooms co-located on the side of another neighborhood school campus, thus severely limiting its expansion. Highly sought-after charters can sometimes have wait lists in the hundreds each year.

The other type of charter is the affiliated conversion charter - schools that were a traditional neighborhood school that “went charter” after 51% or more of the staff voted to convert to charter status. More of a hybrid, these charters have some autonomy on curriculum and textbooks, some budgetary flexibility with monies they get directly from the state, but are bound by LAUSD district policy on things like teacher contracts (must hire UTLA teachers therefore subject to seniority and bumping rights), and are affected by district decisions such as class size increases, calendar changes, lateral reductions in specific staff positions and programs. Affiliated charters may have less autonomy than the independent charter, but more importantly they get to keep their facility (building), and must give enrollment priority to those who reside within the neighborhood attendance area. Many conversion charters are so full of neighborhood kids that few remaining seats ever go up for lottery, and if they do, hundreds of students apply for them.

In terms of applying to charters, anyone from any district may apply, and you may apply to as many charters as you like. Most charters give priority enrollment to founding families if it’s a start-up, staff members, and siblings of current students. In order to attract more socio-economic diversity some charters will also give priority to those who reside within the local school district (LAUSD) or qualify for the Free/Reduced Lunch program. Each charter application process and lottery is overseen and run independently by each school site.

Built-in Academic Accountability

Unlike a neighborhood school that can fail year after year after year, a charter school, because it is reviewed when up for renewal every 5 years, MUST meet state standard requirements or it can be in jeopardy of being shut down. This can, and has happened to some schools.

Many charters (but not all) have excellent academic results in core subjects. Some are able to offer small class size, and small overall student body size can lead to excellent individual attention. However, sometimes this is at the expense of other “peripheral programs” or enrichments, such as visual or performing arts, an instrumental music program, PE or sports, languages, or technology.

Not all charters outperform neighborhood schools. In fact, most recent numbers show that charters, on average, aren’t performing any better than district schools.

Charter = Alternative to the Traditional District Model
One thing charter schools do offer is a panoply of educational options, ranging from strictly college-prep academic, to crunchy-granola storyteller theatreschool, to language immersions, to STEM-focused (science, tech, engineering, math), to developmental project-based co-constuctivist leanings, to pumped-up traditional schools whose only difference to the garden-variety district model is a nicer demeanor and curricular flexibility. There’s a whole range of charter schools out there.

Prop 39 Co-Locations
Charter schools apply for District space every year via Prop 39 which requires districts to provide classroom space to charter schools. Due to space limitations, many charters are co-located on the side of another district school campus, housed in a set of temporary bungalows, or a side wing of another campus. Charter schools can also be housed in a church, a business park, or even a strip mall. Sometimes they share facilities, and sometimes they have no dedicated library, or sports field for PE or recess, or auditorium for assemblies, performances, speaker series, or specific lunchroom or cafeteria, or outdoor green space at all. Sometimes having a charter on the same campus as a traditional school can cause friction and a literal turf war. Sometimes it works in a collaborative way, and sometimes the schools, like siblings, just ignore each other.

What makes a charter great? Could be an innovative teaching model, collaborative learning, special partnerships, flexible learning environment, enthusiastic teachers, motivated students and a great community of like-minded families.No two charter schools are alike. One must tour and do one’s research and apply directly at each school site, as there is no one-stop application booklet that covers all your charter options in one fell swoop.

Charter Highlights:
-Can apply to as many as you like
-Apply directly at each school site
-Each school site maintains its own lottery and timeline/deadlines
-Some make you attend a mandatory open house/tour before you can apply
-Some allow you to apply online site unseen
-Conversion charters give priority to residents within the attendance area
-Each charter has its own lottery priorities: founding families, staff, siblings
-Some also give a priority to LAUSD residents, if you qualify for Free/Reduced Lunch program (Title 1), or come from a certain feeder school
-Charters = Commuting (no transportation provided)
-No accumulating wait list or points – must reapply yearly if you didn’t get in

What are the charters in your area? Please consult my color-coded maps on the school finder page of my website. Charters are marked in green.

Or book a consultation with me and together we’ll go over all your charter options.
In-personPhone.

Or check out the California Charter Schools Assoc for more info.

Want to use this article? You can as long as long as you include this complete blurb with it:
 
Tanya Anton is the creator of GoMamaGuide.com helping parents demystify and navigate their public school options in Los Angeles. To read more articles by Tanya or to learn about her Guidebooks, House Chats, Consultations, and Seminars, visit GoMamaGuide.com or email us at GoMama@mac.com.
© 2012 by Tanya Anton, GoMamaGuide.com All Rights Reserved. 

Why Public School? (The Backstory)

by Tanya Anton | GoMamaGuide.com

written March, 2007

Many people have asked me why I have become so active helping parents navigate the challenging, not so top-of-its-class public monolith that is LAUSD. It’s a good question, one I wrestle with constantly.

I suppose I never would have even considered public school education reform a serious issue to focus my energies on prior to becoming a parent. As a matter of fact, collaborating, building community, gathering info and sharing answers with others was only done if it involved musicians, a gig, and some cashola…for me.

Nine years ago, when we bought into this sleepy little Westside neighborhood, a mostly retired blue collar, post-war community, the last thing on our minds was school districts. In fact, I distinctly recall our housewarming announcement. It stated matter-of-factly: “No rings, no kids, no nonsense. (To answer your next question.) But please bring a bottle of your favorite wine.”

Er herm. Yes, well.

Now that I’m married, with child, specifically child about to enter Kindergarten, it seems that there’s a whole mess of nonsense around here to wade through.

Cue favorite wine, please.

The only reason we landed over here to begin with is because the lots were bigger (I wanted a patch of green), slightly more affordable, and we needed a detached garage to house the new recording studio we were going to build. We didn’t want a postage stamp-sized lot with neighbors breathing down our backs as musicians came and went day and night pushing their Anvil cases up and down the driveway. Little did we imagine that with the advent of computer technology, sampling, flying tracks and vocals over the ‘net, the need to actually SEE musicians anymore is a rarity indeed, but that’s beside the point.

By a stroke of good fortune and incredible timing on my husband’s part, we ended up in our little fixer-upper neighborhood almost a decade ago. Who knew it would eventually become a desirable family destination?

However, it is quite simply unacceptable to me that the average price these days for a 1-story, 1200 sq ft tear-down over here has risen to just shy of a million dollars, and yet our local schools are in such a sorry state parents seem to be abandoning them left and right for anywhere better. Now if you can afford the additional $18-25K (choke, wheez) per child per year for private elementary school on up, bravo to you. But some of us just can’t. We need other options. We need public options. You know, for the people. The just folks. Not the let’s-hemorrhage-money-just-because-we-can type folks.

And furthermore, if the real estate values are where they are, I damn well think my kid ought to be able to go to her neighborhood school and get a decent education. Right?

There are many problems, but a big one is size. LAUSD services almost 750,000 children and is the 2nd largest school district in the country. That means that the tax dollars we throw into the kitty over here in our hot little neighborhood get dispersed with everyone else’s, and wind up all across this urban sprawl, not just in our own back yard.

Another issue we’re facing is this very real post 9/11 baby boom. I see it on the ballooning mom boards and on the ever-growing preschool wait lists. There is a swell of kids just about to enter the school system. I have heard many parents tell of even being willing to pay the 20-some-thousand-dollars per year for private school, applied to 5 or 6 of them, and then didn’t get in. Any of them. Too many children, not enough slots. That’s just the reality of the situation. And each year as this boom (and their siblings) enter Kindergarten on up, the available slots per applicant will get even slimmer. Those children will have to go somewhere…perhaps back to their neighborhood schools.

I’ve heard it said that if the state of California were a nation–what with the output of Silicon Valley, Napa Valley and the entertainment industry–it would be ranked the 7th or 8th wealthiest country in the world! Yet we are ranked near the bottom of the country for public education. Our schools just don’t line up with what Californians are capable of. With all our resources, intelligence, ingenuity, creativity, wealth…couldn’t we do better educating our next generation?

So, what’s a concerned parent to do?

Luckily, there ARE public school options. If you know about them. If you apply correctly and on time. There are magnets, independent charters and converted charters, inter and intra-district permits, each with their own application rules, procedures, timeline and lotteries. Additionally, many neighborhood schools are really improving as parents roll up their sleeves and get involved.

In an attempt to sort through and understand all this, I began coordinating parent ed nights at our preschool a few years ago to discuss the options and the process, bringing in alumnae parents who’d already been through it for one event, and both a magnet and charter elementary school principal for another event. I went on countless school tours, and sat in on local PTA and booster club meetings at neighborhood schools, keeping tabs on their initiatives and progress.

Branching out to an even wider community, I agreed to join humorist Sandra Tsing Loh and author Christie Mellor, along with The LA Times, a vodka sponsor, generously donated Gourmandise chocolate desserts, and co-hosted a wildly successful “Martinis, Magnets & More,” public school survival seminar on my own Westside turf.

With the flood of emails following these events, I realized the scope of questions parents had, even fundamental ones, which weren’t readily answered by the District. That’s when I sat down and put it all together in one easy-to-understand Guidebook.

At the heart of all this work is to be able to offer nuts and bolts info on school options, how to navigate the often confusing (and disparate) application lotteries, but also to connect parents to each other and encourage them to get involved locally instead of flee.

In addition to writing my guidebook, I have spoken to many preschool parents in an attempt to calm fears and identify their public school options.

On the horizon:

Public speaking to prospective parents, preschools, booster club leaders, community leaders.

More Westside public school community events.

Considering ways to unite core parents from different schools to share successful strategies, resources, and support, working together to grow our neighborhood schools.

Perhaps I will give up this noble idea of community activism and become instead a private, self-serving, mind-my-own business capitalist as so many have done before me. But then an idea strikes me, and I envision an intuitive way to proceed.

Though at times I resist it, I feel called to do this work. Can’t explain why. I just know things, and am not afraid to try them. I actually feel I can make a difference, and am encouraged when others seem to respond when I speak out.

It’s time to revitalize our neighborhood schools. It is already happening in little pockets of dedicated, core parent groups at many neighborhood schools. We’re building awareness and momentum. With a little twist. I hope you’ll join me.

Cheers.