Boom Continues in New Charter Schools

Published March 1, 2000

A record number of new charter schools–more than 550–opened across the nation at the start of the 1999-2000 school year, bringing the total to 1,682, all created since 1991. Charter schools now serve 350,000 students in 31 states and the District of Columbia. Only 14 states do not permit charter schools, while five states that permit them do not have any.

Charter schools are heavily concentrated by state, with more than half of the 1,682 schools in just four states: Arizona (348), California (234), Michigan (175), and Texas (168). Since the Michigan state legislature failed to remove the state’s cap on charter schools last year, Michigan is likely to be overtaken this year by Texas and possibly by Florida in the charter school rankings.

Participants at a recent education industry conference in Scottsdale, Arizona, were offered a small sampling from the rapidly expanding smorgasbord of choice schools when they visited three quite different charter schools in the Phoenix metropolitan area on January 20. The conference, “Emerging Public/Private Partnerships in America’s Schools,” was organized by the World Research Group.

Building Schools “Just-in-Time”: Fletcher Heights Public Charter School

While the idea of delivering parts “just-in-time” to manufacturing facilities is widely accepted, the idea has been applied only recently to building schools in new housing developments.

Typically, a young family moving into a new development finds that the infrastructure necessary to support their new community is missing one critical element: schools for their children. While urban planners make sure that roads, sewers, and utility lines all are in place before people move in, new schools are usually built only when additional children make existing schools intolerably overcrowded.

But new families moving into the rapidly growing Fletcher Heights Community in Peoria, Arizona, needn’t face that headache, thanks to a new “just-in-time” model for community development.

A new school, the Fletcher Heights Public Charter School, already has been built to provide the additional capacity required for children moving into the new homes near Phoenix. The school and an adjacent park are the product of a cooperative venture between the City of Peoria, Fulton Homes, The Eastridge Companies, and The TesseracT Group.

Dennis Johnson, the school’s principal, said the school already has 700 K-8 students from all over the Phoenix metropolitan area. Parents lined up to enroll their children on a first-come, first-served basis because the TesseracT name is well-known and well-respected as the operator of two local private schools. The charter school offers multi-age and multi-grade classes with individualized curricula and gifted, music, and foreign language programs.

Specialty Schools: New School for the Arts

While it’s unusual to find a high school located outside a residential area, it’s even more unusual to find a high school focused on the arts located in a shopping center whose stores are normally dedicated to the pursuit of commerce. But that’s where Scottsdale’s five-year-old, 210-student High School for the Arts rents 24,000 square feet for its performing and visual arts program. It’s one of the oldest charter schools in Arizona–one of the first 25 approved to open in 1995-96.

The school’s aim is to serve talented students who want to perform and exhibit their work in the performing and visual arts fields, preparing them for a professional career in music, art, or drama but also preparing them for college with a strong academic curriculum. Students are drawn from all over the Phoenix metropolitan area.

“If you want to come here, you have to have talent and you have to work hard,” school founder Ronald F. Caya tells prospective students, who must submit a portfolio of their work for review and explain why they want to come to the school. This year, staff made clear to applicants that if they have no interest in performance or display, then the High School for the Arts was probably not the school for them. This student orientation effort has caused the school’s enrollment to drop from its original 250 students, but now the school and its students are better matched.

“The novelty of charter schools has worn off in Arizona,” said principal Bill Scheel, explaining that parents also have become more discriminating in their selection of schools.

Civility and High Expectations: Phoenix Advantage School

“We are guided by a mission: All students can learn,” declares Kate Ford, director of the Phoenix Advantage Charter School in Phoenix, Arizona. Every child at the school not only is expected to learn, but also is challenged to meet his or her potential. Instruction is delivered over an extended school day and a 200-day school year.

Started three years ago with grades K-5, the school now has 930 students in grades K-7 and is one of the largest charter schools in the nation. By next year it will become a K-8 elementary school–Arizona’s preferred model for public schools–but the Advantage plan is to grow the school to a K-12 college prep academy. More than 80 percent of the school’s students are from low-income families, 78 percent are Hispanic, and many start with very limited proficiency in English.

“Every student can achieve mastery,” says Ford. That’s accomplished at the school by providing a highly structured curriculum in the basics, using the research-proven Direct Instruction method. Lessons are scripted and highly interactive, allowing enthusiastic students to work off some of their youthful energy by shouting out answers. Errors are corrected immediately.

Students wear uniforms and are expected to observe the school’s Code of Civility–as are staff and parents. The Code–which applies not only in class but also during passing periods, at the lunch table, and on the school bus–makes for students who display remarkable self-discipline, who can focus on their work, and who can treat adults and each other with politeness and respect.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.