Charter schools offer Fox Valley students, parents educational options
By Patricia Israel
Primary and secondary education is constantly adapting to the diverse needs of today’s youth. As parents, caregivers and guardians, it is crucial to understand the many options available for students that will promote success for all learners.
While charter schools may still be unfamiliar to some, they have existed in Wisconsin since 1993. These schools are publicly funded and community created, offering innovative approaches to student-centered learning. While traditional K-12 schools do a great job of servicing the educational needs of area youth, the one-size-fits-all approach does not work for every learner.
“Public education does excellent work in our country; charter schools are an opportunity to help improve what we offer in order to meet the needs of all students,” says Nick Pretasky, associate director of the Wisconsin Resource Center for Charter Schools.
In his role, Pretasky provides technical assistance and resources for all schools within the state; however, it tends to be the charters who most often request his assistance. Currently, he provides assistance and resources to all charter schools within CESA 6, which includes school districts in the Fox Cities. Currently, there are 18 operating charters in the Fox Cities – this includes 13 in Appleton, one in Neenah and two in Kaukauna and Little Chute, respectively. The Appleton Area School District houses the second-largest number of charter schools in the state, second only to Milwaukee Public Schools.
Dr. Al Brant, principal at Kaleidoscope Academy in Appleton, explained that the first charter school in Appleton was developed 20 years ago. Back then, Brant says the mindset was, “If the idea was good for our kids and it brought money into the district, why not do it?” Over the course of seven to eight years, charter schools blossomed into all the choices and options local students have today.
Establishing a Charter
Pretasky says charter schools allow communities to design schools based on recognized community need. While establishing a charter school can differ by community and specific need, it usually begins with identifying the need and brainstorming solutions that may already exist. If there are not obvious solutions for the identified educational need, a charter school can be considered. Parents, community members and educators can then come together to propose design ideas for an alternative education pathway and charter school that can meet these needs.
These ideas are presented to the local school district as each typically has their own application process for reviewing proposed charter school plans. A charter contract is drafted between a governance board of community stakeholders and the district complete with a specific mission, vision and performance measures that will hold the charter accountable.
All 32 charters in the Fox Valley are instrumentalities. Instrumentality charter schools are very similar to the other schools within the district except for specifics that are spelled out in the charter contract. Pretasky explains since these schools are public schools; they receive public funding very similarly to the other public schools and are held to the same accountability standards by the state of Wisconsin. However, they do have much more autonomy over their program, schedule and structure, thus creating the motto, “autonomy for accountability.”
“They are truly schools of choice,” Pretasky says.
Schools that are not funded by their respective districts are called non-instrumentality charters. These charters are privately operated, are provided state funding and are not governed by a school board. Within the state, the majority of non-instrumentality schools are located in Milwaukee.
Pamela Kinsell says her son, who attends Tesla Engineering Charter School in Appleton, loves the program because it engages him as a student. “He is getting more involved with his projects than I have seen him in the past,” Kinsell says. “As a parent, my main reason for enrolling him in this program was the positive feedback I heard from other parents whose children attended it and went on to find successful avenues after high school as a result.”
All of Lori Murphy’s sons attended Alliance Elementary Charter School in Neenah. Murphy appreciated the flexible and student-focused approach to learning the school offered.
“Sending our three boys to Alliance Charter Elementary School in Neenah was a huge blessing for our family,” Murphy says. “My husband and I loved the Montessori curriculum. The boys had open-ended chunks of work time where they could choose what they wanted to work on. It was so different than a traditional classroom where you work for x amount of time on math as a group and then you all move to x amount of time on language arts. Within their work time, they could choose how much math they wanted to complete. If they were on a roll, they could keep working on that math for the entire work time.”
Diane Luft, principal of Alliance Charter School, says the Montessori method of learning is a child-centered approach that blends various ages together to explore hands-on learning. Alliance currently has 125 students in K-5 classes. Parents and caregivers who wish to send their child to Alliance must follow the application process. Currently, Alliance is not at full capacity in all grades, however. They currently have a waitlist for grades K-3. Names placed on the waitlist will then go through the lottery system. Lottery enrollments are randomly selected so as to offer everyone an equal opportunity to be admitted. The lottery system is how most, if not all, charter schools within the Fox Valley select new enrollments.
Fox River Academy in Appleton is a K-8 environmental charter where students engage in hands-on learning projects while working outside. Jim Birch, 5th-8th grade math teacher, says the lottery process is a serious one. “Everyone who teaches at Fox River Academy must be in attendance. Because it is a matter of public record, it is video recorded,” he says.
Birch recommends that parents and caregivers research what each charter offers before engaging in the application process. “Do your homework. Ask the question: is this school the right fit for my child?” he says.
A Customized Education
Appleton West High School and Appleton Technical Academy English teacher Paul Endter is one of five educators who make up the core of the charter. He says the one thing that sets Appleton Technical Academy apart from other institutions is a student’s ability to earn technical college credits in the high school setting. The charter maintains close partnerships with area businesses and Fox Valley Technical College to offer students unique educational opportunities.
“True, other venues offer this, but we are unique in that we can provide to those who are motivated opportunities to earn as many as 37 credits before they graduate,” Endter says. “The majority of these would be devoted to a particular area or program of study. Additionally, by the time students are in their junior year, they have the potential for working half days as an intern at a local business. Students work for a business in their particular area of emphasis and are paid to do so.”
From the Classical School of Appleton to the Fox West Academy in Hortonville, each charter school within the Fox Valley has their own unique approach to individualized learning. For more information on charter schools in your specific community, visit your respective school district website.
Charter Schools 101
While the Wisconsin State Charter School Law gives charter schools the freedom from most traditional state mandates and regulations, it is important to note that charter schools are still held accountable for state mandated tests including MAP. Other important factors to think about when weighing your options include:
– Charters are tuition free.
– They have the flexibility to design and deliver innovative curriculums in nontraditional ways in order to meet the needs of their students.
– They may not discriminate in admissions, programs, or activities.
– Teachers are certified and licensed by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.
– Employees are district employees and subject to all district policies and regulations.
– Each school has varied focuses and clientele, so know the differences of the ones you are considering.