Chartering a course for the next eight years
March 27, 2013 6:34 AM   Subscribe

What have you experienced/what would you ask about at a soon to be opening charter school?

When I moved where I moved in Florida, I picked some pretty decent public school areas and thus far with my exceptional* kids, it's been ... okay. In some ways fan filliping tastic, in other ways okay, in other ways meh.

They say the plan doesn't always fit the planning, so we're looking at adjusting courses. The only thing I knew about charter schools before this week (an oppty has come up that might put all our kids in a charter school) was that they existed, sometimes they fail loudly, and I wished that their apparent flexibility could be done in county-run public schools. Overall I'm still iffy about the concept but my kids don't have time for waffling.

Thus far, we have the kids at two different schools, two different tracks, though they all are qualified for education plans (basically what passes for gifted testing and education around here).

The charter school would make some bits of life easier, including a nice four year span of ONE DROPOFF in the morning, and likely ONE PICKUP (though I have been enjoying that for the past six months, what a delight!). ONE PTA board meeting would be nice, as would ONE Portfolio night and ONE school program night ...

The charter school, as far as we can tell, would fit the childrens' educational needs (one reason they are split up are differentiated needs - one currently does not get gifted pull outs or classes).

I sat with the ViceP for fourty minutes yesterday and have been doing my reading on charter vs non charter as it is run in Florida ... but not sure what else to ask.

Topics we did ask about - classwork, homework, enrichment (arts and sports), fundraisers, uniforms, extracurricula, gifted instruction, inclusion instruction, hours, code of conduct, computers, PTA, parent and student volunteering, Safety Patrol, National Honor Society, National Merit Scholars, teacher communication, projects, facilities, experience with the "teaching plan and philosophy" they're using (expanding campuses - there's already a few locations, this is a new campus).

Based on my reading, looks like they expect to be able to expand the enrollment - I need to ask about class size and teacher student ratios (right now about 140 kids per grade) but what else should I be asking before enrolling my kids, in your experience?

*EPs for gifted, IEPs recently converted from 504s when we got all the paperwork and demonstrations of measurable problems submitted. Still learning my way around the process.
posted by tilde to Education (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
At present I work as a FAFSA specialist, which has given me the opportunity to work in a number of public schools and a number of charter schools, so I've seen a lot of the differences.

What I would ask about the charter school is this: how is the school working on developing a commitment to work-life balance for its teachers?

Here's why this is important: charter schools appear to me to be mainly run by exploiting the energy of smart, young, new teachers, who will burn out very, very quickly and be replaced by another group of smart, young, new teachers. Certainly this is true of education in general, but charter schools are particularly bad. One team of teachers I met has to be at school at 6:45 every morning to hold office hours before classes begin. They then hold another set of office hours after school that might last until 5 or 6 PM. That doesn't even touch on the time they stay after the office hours are over. It's just not sustainable, and if charter schools truly want to change the model for education and build strong communities in their schools, I think they need to look at this issue. And I think potential parents asking about it is one very important way of making it happen. Are they investing in talented teachers, or are they investing in their model, for which the personal lives and energy of young, ambitious people are sort of collateral damage?

(I would also ask about the discipline system.)
posted by liketitanic at 6:43 AM on March 27, 2013 [12 favorites]

I know you mentioned it, but gifted education, gifted education and gifted education again.

If it comes to it, will they let your kid skip a grade? In particular, what about eighth grade (or whatever the last grade in the school is)? Will a non-charter school acknowledge the grade was skipped? (Where I went to school, the high school was a different district and wouldn't enroll you until you turned 15 unless you 'graduated' from eighth grade. My junior high refused to let you 'graduate' early, meaning you couldn't skip eighth grade.)

Can/will they bus your kid to the high school if that's the only way for them to be in an appropriate class? (This was the solution to the 'can't skip eighth grade' problem, as stupid as it sounds. I took history at the high school before the junior high's day started and just suffered through eighth grade science (we had appropriate language arts and math). The other school district that fed into my high school wasn't large enough to have an eighth grade geometry class, so they sent 5-7 kids a year to first period geometry at the high school.)

Do they have enough gifted kids for gifted classes? Are they going to end up sending all the gifted kids to one campus, splitting up your kids or giving you a long trip to school? (Busing the gifted kids ultimately happened in my elementary school district. I don't know what they did about siblings.) If they have gifted classes, what's the plan for a kid who needs enrichment beyond that? If there's a only a gifted math class, how do they handle a kid who needs social studies enrichment?

If the school goes through 12th grade, do they (mistakenly) assume that AP classes fulfill the needs of gifted students?

None of this is really specific to charter schools, aside from that which deals with their relationship to the rest of the school system, but it's what I remember from being in school and from when my family toyed with the idea of sending my brother and I to private schools. (Which ultimately didn't happen. Despite the stuff I alluded to above, we were better off in the public school system than in private schools catering to gifted kids.)
posted by hoyland at 7:12 AM on March 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Let me say that liketitanic's answer is perhaps the best comment/data point I've ever read regarding Charter Schools and hits the nail on the head.

Most charter schools are for profit organizations and, in order to grow (meaning MOAR SCHOOLS!), and to show a profit, they need to cut costs where ever possible. And, as mentioned, the largest expense at a school is staff. So, they do a cookie cutter curriculum at every school (no point in differentiating based on the population of kids, it's just too expensive) and hire at entry level.

If you can find a school that can provide evidence of addressing liketitanic's question, it may be worth considering, if they stumble on that one, walk away.

I would also ask to see the financials for the school, how much "profit" are they showing. If they are unwilling to do this, I would, again, walk away.

Good luck, being a parent and advocating for your kids is a tough job in this educational environment.
posted by HuronBob at 7:19 AM on March 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the thoughtful replies so far, all.

HuronBob, their bare bones financials are available online. I assume that a more detailed accounting may be available by asking, or by making oneself a big part of the PTA/involved parent (I'm currently active at both schools as much as I can be, since I'm employed full time and also have the bulk of the parent work for 504/IEP external testing (some internal has been done but it's not very speedy - usual strapped public school system, and I know the charter school might not be much better). AFAIK, they aren't "allowed" to have a surplus, but I'm sure the corporation may have some profit somewhere, TANSTAAFL.

Ah, I need to ask who comprises their child study team.

As for work/life balance, liketitanic, excellent. I have just remembered I may know someone who works for a charter school (possibly different corporate owner) who might be able to give me more insight. :) I also wonder if they are allowed to unionise.

hoyland, yep, that kind of was covered yesterday; the most they would speak to at this time was looking at full class of gifted (not sure if/when they start teacher switching rather than one teacher most of the day for core classes) or gifted pullouts - depending on enrollment data. They kinda said that the environment was flexible to keep individuals occupied beyond the basic curriculum, but I've always expected to shoulder some of the extra education my kids will need (right now one of them, working in conjunction with the teaching team, does extra reading of fiction or on topical work when the daily work is complete).
posted by tilde at 7:31 AM on March 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'd ask how many teachers on staff have state teaching credentials and/or Nat'l Board Certification. The former is the bare minimum of training educators should have (flawed as teacher prep systems are); the latter is a serious professional commitment.

It's also important to know about their real estate situation: some charters don't have a sustainable strategy for their plant.

Many charter schools do not allow teachers to unionize. In fact, there are those in the educational reform movement who believe that some are using them as a vehicle for busting the teacher unions.
posted by smirkette at 7:37 AM on March 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

If I were in your position, I would want to talk to other parents about what they like and don't like about the school. I would also be interested in staff turnover/ student retention rates. I would also ask if there is a course catalog/ course descriptions/ (course syllabi) and compare it with the offerings from the public school.
posted by oceano at 8:34 AM on March 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Many charter schools do not allow teachers to unionize. In fact, there are those in the educational reform movement who believe that some are using them as a vehicle for busting the teacher unions.
posted by smirkette at 7:37 AM on March 27 [+] [!]

I don't think it's an exagerration to say that the primary motivations behind the charter school agenda are to 1) provide an alternative workforce to unionized teachers and 2) to incrementally privatize a social service.

I am not pointing this out simply to criticize charter schools, though I would not hesitate to do so, but to point out that in order to enroll your kids in charter schools, you need to be willing to fully embrace without reservation the fact that you are perpetuating the effect (if you don't buy that it's the intention) of encouraging an alternative to a unionized education workforce and of privatizing a vital social service.

"Unionized" charter schools with so-called "thin contracts" are company unions (a form of union-busting), not real unions.
posted by univac at 8:41 AM on March 27, 2013 [5 favorites]

My first year of teaching was with a charter school in Southern California. The school had a great pitch, but it had strayed far from its original concept.

Keep in mind that a "charter school" typically has a "charter" for it to serve a specific need. There are charter schools for the blind, or for the gifted, or for the arts. Mine was an independent study school, originally designed for kids who were too sick to attend school regularly, or who worked in the entertainment field (it was LA, after all)... but it steadily became a dumping ground for "kids who just didn't do well in regular school," i.e. behavioral problem kids who got into lots of trouble & didn't care about schoolwork.

You have to watch for that sort of conceptual drift (or "mission creep" as the military would call it). Ask yourself if this charter school really does serve the specific purpose on which it was founded. If that specific purpose is nothing more specific than "we think public schools are dumb," it's going to get sticky fast.

I have to STRONGLY support liketitanic's suggestion about digging into their discipline policy. Also, find out what the drop rate is like -- do they just dump kids who don't perform to their standards? How do their student work expectations stack up against those of the nearest public school(s)?

When were they last accredited? ARE they accredited? Ask them for specific numbers of kids who've graduated and been accepted into four-year universities. Call up the local military recruiter and ask if they recognize this school's diploma. (None of them recognized my school's diploma, because while it was an accredited school the military wanted to see proof that graduates could show up at school every day and "independent study" doesn't do that.)

Also, ask if the teachers have performance bonuses. I worked under that model. Turns out, it's HORRIBLE, because the bonus quickly becomes the standard to which teachers are held, and teachers are quickly put into a situation where every passive, unstated incentive pushes them toward unethical behavior that does the students no favors.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 8:59 AM on March 27, 2013 [4 favorites]

I would be very interested in the details of how the school will support your student who has an IEP. Are they bound to honor the IEP and educational law? How will services be delivered? What is the recourse if they do not provide those services? Do they have differentiated instruction for your child? What is the disciplinary system, especially for a child with an IEP? Can they expel your child? What is your recourse if they attempt to do so? What if your IEP child doesn't perform well on standardized tests? Will he/she be at risk for being asked to leave (as note above?) Charter schools are not necessarily required to serve ALL children, so be wary of these issues.

I don't know much about gifted education, but I would ask the same questions because gifted education is like special education: differentiated based on the needs of the student. I would ask a lot of questions as to how they tackle differentiated instruction and the training of the teachers and specialists who will be working with your children.

All the other questions listed here are also excellent ones to ask; this is a great thread with great suggestions. Good luck!
posted by absquatulate at 9:36 AM on March 27, 2013

Some charter schools are run by corporations. Who started this one, and why? Some of them are even run for profit. Generally speaking, charter schools don't do better than public schools. They can be very slick in what they promise, but they don't always deliver. Can you tell us the name of the school so we can dig deeper? Or memail me, I'm an education researcher, and know about IEPs, G&T, etc.
posted by mareli at 10:48 AM on March 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Will be back with more but adding to the initial question:

How can I phrase "tell me your school's plan teaching methods more specific than 'if the kid gets it, we are happy'" ...

I've mentioned before that I taught myself the basics of Jump Math and used it on the kids across many subjects ...
posted by tilde at 1:40 PM on March 27, 2013

I asked this question in 2011 and we did put our son in the charter school (we're in Jacksonville). We're overall happy with our decision, but obviously nothing is perfect. His school is run by Charter Schools USA. I, also, had a long talk with the company's director of education about my concerns and she was very forthcoming on their teaching methods and addressed the concerns I had.


It's K-12 and in one building, so there will always be a finite number of students due to physical space, and my son doesn't have to change schools as he goes to middle and high school. That's a big deal for him, but maybe not for other children.

The school uses technology quite a bit and requires parental involvement. I'm able to see online almost immediately (usually, depending on the teacher) what grades he gets on assignments, homework that's due and when, and message the teachers and get a response within an hour. The public schools in our county have almost nothing that comes close to having the parents this connected unless you volunteer on campus daily.

They really really go the extra mile to tailor the educational experience to each child. The teachers are, for the most part, enthusiastic (and they aren't all young and new graduates. The high school dean was an FCAT grader and trained other graders statewide. The principal, vice principal, dean and over 50% of the teachers have more than a decade of experience and masters/doctoral degrees) and do a lot of extra teaching/tutoring outside of school hours.


My son came in with an IEP for gifted and a 504 for ADHD. They have him in a pullout program once a week for the gifted studies, but his regular ed teachers have a problem adjusting to it. I have to be on top of it (which is fine) to make sure he gets any handouts or assignments that he misses while he's in gifted. Frankly, while the gifted pullout was a bonus for him in the public school, the regular ed curriculum and standards in the charter school are more stringent so if it continues to be a problem next year, I may consider just pulling him out of the gifted program altogether.

This is the second year for the school and they're having growing pains. The student body grew by 1/3 and trying to get the logistics of tons of students dismissed efficiently, fed in the cafeteria on time and how to have children ages 5-18 in one (large) building has been tough at times.

I would ask about their methods of evaluating the students' understanding of the material. In my son's school, they spend 90% of the lesson time teaching and 10% evaluating what the kids' learned. If they see that the majority of the kids didn't get it, they revise their method and do it again the next day. If a few didn't get it, they revise how they teach those specific kids and do it again with those kids the next day in a smaller group. (Team teaching and parent volunteers greatly help this work out).
posted by hollygoheavy at 2:33 PM on March 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Thanks for the responses, folks. Especially about IEPs and capital funding; there are more than a few schools that faded here based on the loss of their building; also a few spectacular stories that seemed to indicate all records were lost in the closure as well.

This school (I still can't tell who the heck owns it) seems to be solid (don't they all!) so I'm less worried about space problems (though with talk that "good" schools can expand, I will ask how many kids the building is made for - the "initial enrollment" amount, or more!?) and more about coping with ... what was the term, twice exceptional children.

Got a brain wave on the weekend and asked my kid what interested them for middle school. Not sure. Liked the idea of staying at current school for two years and then jumping into middle school in the middle, liked the idea of the neighbrhood middle school (which isn't so bad after a little googling, maybe).

Thye are, afaik, required to support the IEP (trying to get things written into it to make sure this happens ... getting some pushback from the current school). How is a very big questoin I will address if the second kid gets waitlisted up and into the school. The current school has the schoolbooks available "online" but the new school won't have access to that from what I could tell (I asked in generalites but will use software names once I hone in on that second admission).

Going to get more information of the why and the charter, on team teaching, and discipline and more. AFAIK, the way it works is that I can register for any school (including theirs) and likely not lose my current (magnet) school slot and even if I do, we still have a home school to go to ....

Thanks again, all. I still am not a huge fan of the concept of charter schools and the harm they do to the retular school system (which is effed up enough by byzantine reality) but if it's what's best for the kids (never mind the siren song of ONE DROPOFF) ....

I appreciate all the thoughful and experienced answers. :D
posted by tilde at 6:07 AM on April 1, 2013

Wow, the management companies that manage the school get $650 per student to manage the schools.
posted by tilde at 5:13 PM on April 3, 2013

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