Specialized public education is in demand.
Deciding on a charter school can be like finding the right pediatrician. Parents set out seeking a good recommendation, hoping for an exceptional personal experience and creating a plan that includes individualized attention once a child is enrolled.
Charter School 101
By definition, charter schools have the flexibility to design and deliver innovative curriculum in nontraditional ways in order to meet the needs of participating students, and each school’s teachers are licensed, state-certified and employed by the district, according to state requirements.
“Charter schools allow families to choose the right environment that will inspire children to be engaged,” says Lene D’Hondt, parent of an eighth grader at Fox River Academy (FRA) at Jefferson Elementary in Appleton. “FRA has an environmental focus, but [Appleton Area School District (AASD) charter schools] also offer the arts, technology, languages, project-based learning, individualized learning and online learning.”
The process to create a charter school starts with a series of meetings between parents and educators who share a common goal to expand public education options. After that, charter schools in the Fox Cities require a contract, start-up funding and a commitment between organizers and the school board to meet student body needs now and in the future.
Teachers within the charter schools are licensed, state-certified and employed by the district, according to state requirements.
Close to 20 charter programs are offered in the Fox Cities, all of which are non-religious and no more expensive than any other public school abiding by core state curriculum and standards. They receive the same allotted funds based on attendance and fundraise to support advanced classroom offerings, various teaching methods and variety in instruction.
Attendance is mostly open to any student who wants to apply.
The Charter Difference
Charter schools differ from the public school system in classroom size (averaging between 25-30 students) and school community, which can be as small as 40 students.
Parents say this closeness creates a “feeling of belonging” and multi-age classes give students a better chance to learn from one another.
Educators say charters with “loop” teaching (a method of keeping students and staff together for more than one year) helps both sides ramp up knowledge faster because everyone picks up where they left off rather than starting over each fall.
The program variety is appealing for students who excel when challenged by nontraditional modules. For instance, children attending United Public Montessori (grades 7–9) are taught an independent method of project-based learning using the Montessori philosophy. At Appleton’s Kaleidoscope Academy, students (grades 6–8) and parents are exposed to advanced technology through an online reading program and virtual materials.
“We are an evolving, 21st century school and so much learning involves creating digital products,” says Allen Brant, principal at Roosevelt Middle School and Kaleidoscope Academy in Appleton.
Regardless of reading level, for example, Kaleidoscope teachers use an online news service that adapts current events stories into many reading levels for group discussion.
Some families may be concerned about transportation since the bus system used to transport children to public schools is not available for children attending the charter schools.
While some charter schools, such as Classical School, have their own building, many are housed within a neighborhood school. This creates opportunities for children who desire more from the public school experience. It also encourages exploration and better learning experiences between the groups without losing traditional public program benefits.
“We share resources between the 500 students at Johnston and 112 at Appleton Public Montessori,” says Dom Ferrito, principal at Appleton Public Montessori charter school and Johnston Elementary. “Anything that we do for kids outside of the classroom (such as intramural sports, drama club, service club, safety patrol) is available for all so the kids get to know one another without segregating.”
In addition to shared-space and resource arrangements––whether it’s the principal, teachers, classrooms, extracurricular activities or lunch time––there are also elementary charter schools that have activities, such as salsa dancing and ski club independent of neighboring Edna Ferber Elementary.
Making the Big Decision
Parents of children who are enrolled in the charter system will tell prospective applicants that this type of education will challenge an above average student and all the extras will spark added enthusiasm for school.
“Rather than breaking up learning into separate, individual, unconnected parts, all the learning takes place in an integrated framework with real-world experiences,” D’Hondt says about her eighth-grade son’s experience at FRA (Jefferson Elementary). “The inquisitive learning at FRA keeps active, curious children, like my son, on their toes.”
But it’s not only parents who are making educated decisions about whether a charter school program is right. Their children are often involved in the decision-making process, too.
“As parents we wanted [our daughter] to consider Kaleidoscope because we saw an opportunity to do more [with her education],” says Dawn Fritzell, parent of a seventh grader at Kaleidoscope. “She was impressed after she saw what was going on in the classroom and wanted to start [mid-year] because they had openings. Two weeks later, we were there.”
At the high school level, charter programming is available on a part-time basis in advanced disciplines, which is designed to better prepare students for college.
“High school is a time to experiment and explore,” says Sean Schuff, teacher and coordinator at Tesla Engineering Charter. “It’s much more costly to do that when you’re paying tuition at a university.”
Tesla enrolls more than 100 students annually and hosts students who are attending Appleton East High School as well as many other high schools in the area.
There are many reasons families wait months––sometimes years––to get a spot in local charter schools.
In the Fox Cities, charter performance reports echo anecdotal accolades, increasing the demand for a limited number of spots. Once you have determined which school is the best match, the next step is preparing for the application process.
“We chose to enter Classical School’s lottery system because several AASD schools we wanted our children to attend did not offer open enrollment,” says Wendy Patzlaff, parent of a third and first grader at Classical in Appleton.
Filling out an application is a simple process that involves only completing a single-page form with the district where a charter school is located. But space is limited. While the district dates for open enrollment begin in January for in-district students and February for out-of-district families, the majority of charter schools receive more applications than available seats.
Some charter schools, such as Odyssey (grades 3–6) and Magellan (grades 7–8), require advanced test scores in order to be accepted as part of their application process.
“No preparation is needed for students [at either Odyssey or Magellan] because normal public school program leaders identify students who are high-performing,” says Paula Sween, coordinator at Odyssey-Magellan.
Getting the Grades
Charter programs are available for all age groups and welcome new students at any grade or time of year, if space is available. Foster Middle, Johnston Elementary and Jefferson Elementary schools in Appleton and Roosevelt Elementary School in Neenah all host a charter program for early learners.
Core Knowledge programming continues through middle school at Classical School. Fox River Academy also teaches students with a hands-on environmental focus from first through eighth grade.
Students who transfer to charter programs at the middle school stage might be apprehensive about switching gears to a new environment, which might not
be any smaller in class size, but require a change in learning style.
“[Our daughter] can pick her own electives [at Kaleidoscope] and even though she didn’t select the school for dance or theater, taking those classes creates energy and enthusiasm that carries into academics because she’s happy to be there,” Fritzell says.
High school charters in the Appleton area, such as Tesla, the Appleton Career Academy and Renaissance School for the Arts, provide a higher level of instruction in career-focused pursuits.
By taking morning classes, students at many levels have the option to dabble or catapult into future careers while attending high school.
Similar to a university environment, students attend a few classes each day in their preferred area of specialty, such as engineering or marketing. These students fill the remainder of their day with core curriculum required for graduation. Unlike a university or other tuition-based programs, charters make it practically free to explore and advance student interest in subjects they can later apply on the job.
Whatever the age or grade point average, students in the Fox Cities area have a vast variety of choices when it comes to where to study. What may appear as a traditional public school on the corner or across town is full of many options to suit any students’ educational needs.
Alternative Education: Charter schools teaching parents
According to area principals who oversee both public and charter programs, students adjust quickly to changes in environment and expectations. This is especially true in cases when a school inspires curiosity in a child.
While it might be less of a transition for a young mind than older minds might think, one part of the parental adaptation to a charter school involves grasping changes in reporting and recording a child’s progress.
The school principal and staff work with each new student to help them adapt to new styles of learning and teaching or methodology, such as seeing the same teacher two consecutive years or having an older sibling in the same class.
Parents are also taught the nuances to better help their student succeed.
“Because of the focus on SharePoint reporting, I can see what is going on [with my student],” says Dawn Fritzell, parent of a seventh grader at Kaleidoscope Academy at Roosevelt Middle School in Appleton.
Montessori schools host evenings—“Time for Me” nights—where students can show parents their progress, taking a tour with their child to understand project development and goals, which isn’t demonstrated in traditional worksheet-style homework or on a traditional report card.
“These nights allow kids to come in with parents and show them what they’re working on without teachers and see what’s going on in the room,” says Stacy Dornfeld, United Public Montessori in Appleton. “We also offer three sessions to explain Montessori.”
Touring schools and visiting fairs can also be an educational opportunity for parents who are just getting started considering changes in public education.
—By Jamie Popp