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There are plenty of myths and misrepresentations on charter schools and school of choice and plenty of them are coming from our side of the political divide. The first thing that I would like to point out is that yes there is definitely potential for abuse in the existing charter school laws in this country and no there is likely too little oversight. But Charter schools also provide opportunity, opportunity to try new and innovative teaching ideas or to try the hundred year old methods that worked great prior to the post WWII corporatization of US schools. They provide poor children the opportunity to receive the same education that rich kids get. And in a district with an average class size of over 30 it allows at least some students to experience the feeling of really mattering, of not just being another face in the crowd or a number on a budget spreadsheet. Dive on in to find out more about my school.

Now for a bit of disclosure; I work with a charter school volunteering personal time, money and equipment.  My children both attend the charter school, I sit on the board of stewards for the school and my wife works at the charter school. So yes when you read, read with the understanding that I am biased. I am biased towards my community and my school. This diary is very specifically a look at a very specific charter school from the inside and I would very much like you to know and understand that as you read.

The charter school I am involved with is located in Colorado and is unusual in that it is a liberal arts school based on Waldorf traditions and methodologies located in a very politically and socially conservative community. Many of those with a more liberal mindset in my community are libertarians or moderate right leaners, with most folks I talk to either aligning with the tea party or “establishment republicans.” There are some leftists and democrats and even fewer left leaning independents, so the fact we got approved in the first place was mildly surprising to me even with a public generally in favor of charter schools.

Some facts about us as a school;
1.    We are small, kinder classes are limited to 15, and grades classes are currently limited to 18 students.
2.    We require qualified teachers and we require continuing education with Waldorf specific studies.
3.    We are non-profit, and the property entity we lease from is also non-profit. No one draws salary from the property entity, it exists solely to obtain real property and facilities and then lease them to the school at cost. The only one enriched by this corporation is the lawyer that drew up the papers (he was already on retainer though to assist in creating the documentation for the school itself)
4.    We do not turn away any students and have a slightly higher special education percentage than the local school district. The number of students that would qualify for free or reduced lunch is in line with the district average.

All of this adds up to some special challenges for us. We are not as monetarily efficient as a public school could be. We must also purchase property and buildings from Per Pupil Funding, something a district school is not required to do. We must also accept for enrollment any special education students even though we may not have the resources to properly support that student. With that being said we have still been largely successful both in educating students and in being stewards of taxpayer money.

The first year of school started in August of 2013 though the school itself started two years before that. A small group of parents who were interested in Waldorf educational philosophy began tossing around the idea of creating a publicly funded k-12 Waldorf inspired charter school. Locally there was a private pre-k and K Waldorf school but no option for that kind of education for older students or for poor students unable to afford private education. Some of the parents homeschooled with Waldorf curriculum, some had younger children in the private school and others wanted a Waldorf education for their children but had no viable option other than public school or local charter school with an aggressive homework and accelerated learning approach that many students found overly stressful. We’re talking about giving spelling tests of 15, 5-9 letter words to kindergarteners on a weekly basis. This small group of parents did an amazing amount of work in a short 2 years. They wrote and received approval for a charter and signed a contract with the local school district. They hired eight qualified classroom teachers, two kindergarten assistants, one highly qualified Special Education professional, three part-time specials (Spanish, Games, Handwork) teachers, one part-time music teacher, two administrators and one administrative assistant/School secretary. They also procured a lease on a property and purchased modular buildings for the school, built a playground and transformed a weed filled lot into a school where students feel safe and happy and can learn with friends.

We opened our doors as a k-6 school with the idea that we would add one grade level a year over the next 6 years. We started with two kindergarten classrooms and one each of grades 1-6. Next year if enrollment is sufficient we will have two first grade classrooms. Waldorf uses a unique method called looping in which ideally a teacher will stay with a group of children from first grade all the way through the grade school grades. This minimizes the classroom norming process at the beginning of each year and allows the teacher a huge advantage in knowing how best to reach each individual child in his or her care.

We are not a test oriented school and feel that pushing too hard on children to obtain favorable testing results can actually damage a student’s ability to learn in the future. The theory is that certain pathways in the brain are forged in certain stages of development. If a child is pushed to learn a concept before they are developmentally ready for it then they will learn it but they will not learn it using optimal pathways. It is for this reason that we have a play based kindergarten program. Kindergarten at our school is not about getting them ready to read or do math; it is instead focused on teaching them how to live and play together, how to be a productive part of a classroom and how to behave properly in school.

Even in First grade many students are no yet ready to read, so we focus on just getting them ready teaching them letters and sounds, giving them the tools to read. Then, about halfway through the year; amazingly, seemingly overnight, most of the kids just start reading. There is no pressure, no anger with those not yet ready yet, they just become readers on their own because they had the tools available and as soon as their brain was ready to make that leap, it did. Another batch of kids the same thing happens to sometime towards the end of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth. Currently we have no children in the first grade who are unable to read and most of them are reading and comprehending above grade level. This philosophy makes it very important to make sure that children are grouped with their peers both physically (age), and developmentally (psychological). We will advocate retaining children in kindergarten who are just not quite ready to move into the grades to begin learning.

All of this puts us at odds with the prevalent educational philosophy of high pressure classrooms and high stakes testing. We try to teach the whole child; what good is a person that can perform equations if they have no ability to reason? What good a person who can read but cannot interact with others as a human being? We teach the mind of course, but we also teach the body with physical activity like games and play and even knitting and wood working. We even teach the soul (gasp! Yes I said soul!), not the religious construct (though that is often conflated), we teach the inner being that spiritual part of ourselves that is nourished with art forms of all kinds; dance, paint, literature, music, song. All of this is part of the human existence so all of this is part of the educational experience for our students. We nourish the mind with words and numbers. We nourish the body with nutritious food from our garden and our many activities on the field and with our hands in the classroom. We nourish the soul with the art and stories that are part of every lesson and with the music and verse and dance that the students learn.

I plan on posting more about our school, with no particular bent. Some entries may just be about how our school is doing, while other might be about challenges that we are facing, or opportunities that have come along. I plan on discussing at some point in the future how Common Core and PARC standards have affected us as a school as well as other legislation local and national. If you have any questions you would like me to answer please feel free to ask and of course my own role as a board of stewards member in no way makes anything written here official, I am writing as my own voice as a community member not the voice of the board or school.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Us Charter Supporters are (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    jan4insight, Villanova Rhodes

    fighting a difficult battle here, but it's worth it.

    It's also worth remembering that charter law changes state by state so while Charters in California and Colorado may be strong, it's different in Ohio, Florida, Arizona, and Mass, among others.

    Credulant (adj): Something that is not fully credible because it is unsourced but it sounds true so it is accepted without argument.

    by xajaxsingerx on Wed Mar 26, 2014 at 11:39:07 AM PDT

  •  Charter schools actual effect (10+ / 0-)

    What charters do is use public money without supervision by the school board, which is private profit and public risk; socialize risk, privatize profit. What charters do is destroy unions and teachers, pushing them down the scale from professional to hourly wage slaves. What charters do is make a mockery and a canard of the phrase "public charter school".  What charters do is allow the best students, the easiest to educate, the non-IEP students, to be pulled out, leaving the actual public schools to do the rest.

    I will NEVER vote to increase or authorize tax monies where a charter is involved. And if you are in a charter district, I suggest you do the same.

    Charters are an evil and bad idea, and are destroying the public school system.

    •  Like Anything Else In Modern America, It Worksq (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      as intended.

      Not as advertised.

      We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

      by Gooserock on Wed Mar 26, 2014 at 11:58:25 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  You forgot (0+ / 0-)

      Give kids a chance to escape a failing school. But, that's not really your motivation is it?

      You best believe it does

      by HangsLeft on Wed Mar 26, 2014 at 01:19:56 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  That may be true in some areas (0+ / 0-)

      but as someone who has navigated the charter process in Colorado I can speak to each of these issues. We are a district authorized charter meaning we are very closely monitored by the local school board, we must be re-approved annually, we must submit budgets to the district who then posts them for public review, we must have independent financial audits. We are subject to Colorado's open meeting laws and we legally operate as a board under the authority of the local school board. The only private profit is to those we purchase supplies from (mostly from the district warehouse) and our curriculum provider (no different than a public school). Yes we could affect union membership except for the fact that all of our teacher were district teachers last year save one. None were union members, and the one teacher who was not a district teacher happens to be ideologically opposed to unions making her not likely to join either. Colorado is a right to work state. But even so all of that is moot as our contract with the district binds us to rules set forth in the union contract. We have waivers for very specific areas of the union contract, but those waivers must also be renewed each year. Beyond that our teachers have the ability to join the union if they choose to, they just can't join through the local as the local does not have a specific contract with us. They get all the same benefits of membership including legal representation and political representation, and they get the other benefits by proxy because of our district contract.
      We also have a higher percentage of IEP students than any district school, in fact several area medical professionals are referring parents of autistic and ADHD children to our school. And we accept them until we run out of resources. State law only allows us so many staffed IEP students, were it up to us we would take any child we could help. Both of my children have IEP's and one is staffed SPED.
      I don't make any claims about charter schools being any type of panacea but there are good things that can come out of bad legislation. And charter schools provide opportunities that do not exist in public education. Yes, some of those opportunities are for profiteers, but some of those opportunities are for the children. Using the current system to do good does not preclude one from advocating for changes to the system.

      •  I am not saying that current schools are good (0+ / 0-)

        nor am I a huge fan of certain areas in the union approach to education - the Chicago teachers' strike of 2 years ago led to a huge unsustainable increase in teachers salaries, which led DIRECTLY to the closing of 59 schools the next year.

        What I think is the problem is the lack of neighborhood control. Every big city school system is a disaster, BECAUSE it is a big city school system. The size of the system leads to huge salaries for administrators, lack totally of any neighborhood input, and no control for the parent.

        What I believe we need is local schools with local neighborhoods, an end to busing or student relocation of any sort (which has been the biggest disaster in my 40 years of observing schools, and which has DIRECTLY led to huge loss of support for public schools). What is needed is a simple system of 3-4 elementaries which feed 1 middle school and 3 middle schools feeding one high school. No one can move outside their district. No school board would govern more than 2-3 schools.

        Your system does sound better than most.

        •  Another approach (0+ / 0-)

          is what my kids attended - a K-8 school, in which the middle school was a part of the elementary. This school has very strong community support. People are willing to pay more for it, and willingly endorse tax increases. In my area, we had several systems like that. I knew almost all the teachers. My kids walked 2 blocks to school.

  •  Charter schools suck (3+ / 0-)

    resources from public schools for the enrichment of private interests who are opposed to the very idea of public education. I hate charter schools and Illinois Nazis.

    Let's go back to E Pluribus Unum

    by hazzcon on Wed Mar 26, 2014 at 11:44:28 AM PDT

    •  "Public Chart School" is the Big Lie. (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      spacecadet1, houyhnhnm, hazzcon

      We're seeing that phrase in television ads in New York.

      Yes, it's a lie.

      They also have parents crying on camera that Bill de Blasio is stealing their public charter schools and keeping their kids from getting the best education.

      "Stealing kids' lunch money makes them strong and independent." -- Rand Ryan-Paul Koch

      by waterstreet2013 on Wed Mar 26, 2014 at 02:15:47 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Charter schools differ significantly in how (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Villanova Rhodes, xajaxsingerx

    they are structured and in how they function. Some are closely supervised by some aspect of the local school system.(NY) Some are set up in conjunction with a supervising school such as a local university.(WA) Some have a sister public school with which they share resources. (OR) Some are unionized.(NY) These are just variations I know about. I'm sure there are more.  

    "Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?" King Lear, Act III, Scene 6.

    by kkkkate on Wed Mar 26, 2014 at 12:04:17 PM PDT

    •  You're correct. That's why I seldom (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      xajaxsingerx, kkkkate

      bother with these discussions here (along with having no dog in the fight beyond concerned taxpayer & citizen). We're often not talking about the same things. I know some great charter schools that contradict virtually every element of the critiques already being raised in these comments, and others that fit the critique, though not any involving Nazis. There have always been differences from school to school, but the differences from state to state these days are getting huge. California and Ohio are like night and day.

      I wish the diarist luck, but the chance of sensible discussion on the topic here is exceedingly remote.

  •  Yes, I agree with you (0+ / 0-)

    I know a lovely place in Beaver Creek called The Charter at Beaver Creek.  Only thing I know of that's good with the name Charter in it.

  •  Thanks for an interesting post. (0+ / 0-)

    I have mixed feelings about charter schools. On the one hand, I don't like the system where for-profit entities siphon money off from the public system. Too often, they either claim improved results that can be traced to selective entry criteria, or deliver far worse results and abscond with the money.

    On the other hand, though, I sympathize with parents and teachers who are fed up with the increasingly regimented, micro-managed, test-oriented approach now widespread under "no child left unbored." Not everyone can afford private school as an alternative. A nonprofit charter like yours offers a pathway to implement a different teaching and learning philosophy, to some extent at least within the broader scope of the public school system. The devil, as noted by other commenters, is in the details, which vary widely. Yours sounds like an exemplary, open effort; it would be especially nice if the school district not only supported your work, but also monitored that learning is taking place, and even better, learned themselves from what you are doing.

    I believe strongly in public education. I went to a modest but superb K-8 school, that allowed me to survive a mediocre high school. We sent my daughter to private school for 5 years in TX after a disastrous confrontation with an elementary school principal who was dumber than Louie Gohmert, but back to public school as soon as we left. But she is now home-schooling her children as part of a group through a non-profit charter. Somewhat Waldorf-inspired, but with traces of her private school (Latin, for example, which the kids adore). They meet individually, monthly, with a master teacher from the public school district. They'd love to have the kids in public school, but even our supposedly outstanding district is addicted to worksheets, teaching to the test, and rigid expectations at each level, at least through 8th grade or so.

    As a citizen, I'm sad for the decline in public education. As a grandparent, I'm glad the kids are learning and happy. As a researcher, I'd like the decisions on public education to be evidence-based, but when the only evidence put forth is standardized testing, I fear we will have to wait years to document the damage done by a testing-driven approach to education.

    •  I too have mixed feelings about charters (0+ / 0-)

      I don't disagree with detractors, there is huge potential for abuse and waste. I do have to deal with facts on the ground though. Charters are here and likely are here to least in Colorado. My district has a capacity problem and voters here will generally not approve capital construction funds until schools are bursting at the seams. and then we go from 35-40 student classrooms to 30-35 for a while. Students are suffering from test anxiety, bullying and a host of other problems. In these situations parents simply home school children. If anyone thinks charter schools are poorly regulated then they should take a look at rules for homeschooling. A home schooled child here can literally be up to 12 years or older before the school district figures out the child is learning absolutely nothing and homeschooling authorization is yanked. In the meantime the district still doesn't get the funding for that student and that student doesn't even get a decent education. At least with a well regulated charter a teacher has a job that pays very close to union teachers (actually our teachers got a COL increase this year, district pay has been frozen for something like 5 years) the student gets an education, the parents get peace of mind, and the district gets some relief from overcrowded classrooms.

  •  A friend of mine teaches at a local charter school (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Laurel in CA

    in California, and his school takes on a large %age of learning disabled or special needs students that the regular school system can't or won't handle. He dreads the idea of ever having to go back to what he calls "education factories" where he would be forced to teach to the tests and tests scores rather than to the student.

    I do understand charter schools vary widely from state to state, though.

    Welcome from the DK Partners & Mentors Team. If you have any questions about how to participate here, you can learn more at the Knowledge Base or from the New Diarists Resources Diaries. Diaries labeled "Open Thread" are also great places to ask. We look forward to your contributions.

    Rick Perry doesn't think there should be a minimum wage
    and Ted Nugent doesn't think there should be a minimum age. Merica
    ---> @LOLGOP

    by smileycreek on Wed Mar 26, 2014 at 02:12:30 PM PDT

    •  Thanks for your comments (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Many of our teachers left public school for precisely that reason. They felt they were no longer teaching children but were instead training workers who were a "product". Yes charter schools do vary greatly and even greatly within a state. In Colorado some charters are authorized by the department of education while others, like us, are authorized by local school districts.

  •  Nobody is saying there aren't good (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    charter schools. There are good traditional public schools, too. (There are terrible charter schools and terrible traditional public school and a lot in the middle.)

    It's not about  this individual case or that individual case.

    It's about what is good overall public policy.  If you think there are not 99 sleazeballs ready to move in and slop at the public trough for every school like yours, you are naive.

    Google "Bakke Imagine Schools".  There was one where I live.  I have talked to students who went before it was forced to close.  It was a hell hole. Luckily there was still a public school system for those families to fall back on.  That may not be the case if the relentless drive to privatize education is not stopped.

    Light is seen through a small hole.

    by houyhnhnm on Wed Mar 26, 2014 at 05:45:18 PM PDT

    •  actually yes, (0+ / 0-)

      Many people say exactly that. And I get it, I really do. Even in this district if certain people had won seats on the school board and we had different people on my schools board of stewards we could just as easily be one of the bad ones. Really I guess my point is that each school needs to be seen and judged as an individual school, there is nothing inherently good about a public school simply because of it's status as a public school, and the same goes for charters or private schools.
      I am really not trying to make a point about public policy at all. Public policy is here and there likely will not be any significant changes for some time to come. I am trying to help those who wish to, "look for the helpers." and I am using an account of a specific school to illustrate that. So this post is very much about this individual case.
      I would very much like the public school district to provide and arts and nature based education that focuses on the child as an individual with teachers protected by a union and reasonable class sizes that provides specialized support for struggling non-IEP students. But that is not going to happen. So in the meantime I can rail ineffectually against the machine or I can use the machine to do good, to provide an example.

      I would love to fix failing schools, but that takes time and while we wait students, children, are hurting. And even if we "fix" the failing schools we are left with a public education system that trains children to pass a test, but does not teach them to think, to see, or to feel. If charters are hellholes then we need to look at the oversight or legislation that allows them to be hellholes. While I believe that repeal of charter laws to unachievable in most areas, I don't see improvement as completely out of reach. And some ideas for pedagogy in charter schools simply won't work, or won't work as well as public schools. In Colorado according to the law, those charters will lose their charter and be taken over by the parent district.

      I have also been active in the state charter school alliance and I have met many boards and staff of charter schools in this state. from on the ground, my perceptions is that the sleazeballs are the exception and not the rule, at least here in Colorado. There are those that profit from Charter schools but I think not more than Pierson Education profits from testing and test based curriculum in the public school. There are tradeoffs, I am only trying to point out that not all of them are bad.

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