State’s original charter schools up for renewal - East Valley Tribune: Arizona

State’s original charter schools up for renewal

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Posted: Friday, July 2, 2010 3:14 pm | Updated: 4:35 pm, Wed Dec 3, 2014.

An 11th hour Legislative amendment forever changed the landscape of Arizona's education system in 1994.

It created the state's charter school movement.

In June, some of the original schools started another first: the renewal process.

Arizona charter schools are public schools that receive state funding, but are operated privately. According to state statute, they were created to "provide a learning environment that will improve pupil achievement" and "additional academic choices for parents and pupils."

Because of a law change after the original bill, some schools up for renewal have been around since Day 1. Others came onboard within the next year or so. Some received their charters through the state Department of Education, others through the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools.

Districts that hold charters are rare, but follow a different renewal process.

All together, 53 schools that received charters in 1995 and 1996 will undergo the State Board for Charter Schools renewal process between now and November for new 20-year charters.

When classes ended this spring, there were 385 charter holders with 502 charter sites across Arizona.

Leaders say they haven't calculated how many schools have survived and how many have fallen off the scene since the original 42 were approved.

But the movement continues to grow, albeit with changes. The process to attain a charter is one big area, said DeAnna Rowe, executive director of the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools. Schools must now prove proposed curriculum aligns with state standards.

"That has not always been there," she said. The business plan must also show how state dollars -- per pupil funding -- will be spent the first three years of operation.

Funding has changed, as well. In the beginning, the state provided start-up money. Now, operators must attain financing -- such as loans or grants -- to get off the ground.

There have been more reporting and accountability requirements, too, operators say.

Two of those original schools are in the East Valley. Both received approval for renewal in June.

Sue Douglas runs Mesa Arts Academy, which started as a partnership with the Boys and Girls Club (which still holds the charter and owns the building) and the Mesa Unified School District.

"We were started because we're located in a barrio, basically to serve the local neighborhood," Douglas said.

The nearest Mesa school, Lincoln Elementary, was overcrowded and Guerrero Elementary school was not yet built. Douglas was hired at the end of the first year.

The school's success is measured not only in its retention levels, but its test scores.

"We find the longer the kids are with us, the higher their test scores and the better they do on the seventh and eighth grade AIMS (Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards)," Douglas said. "We typically get 90 percent and above. It's not unusual to get 100 percent."

The state has listed the school as "excelling" or "highly performing" for several years.

Students at Mesa Arts Academy are in class an hour longer than most public schools in Arizona, Douglas said. Plus, they can stay for the Boys and Girls Club's program after school.

The fine arts component -- disappearing from some Arizona schools with budget cuts -- includes musical instruments introduction for all students, dance, drama and different art forms.

The process hasn't been without growing pains. Being a small operation, when new requirements are put in place that require documentation, Douglas and her small staff don't have a legal department or curriculum department to turn that task to. It's up to them.

"The amount of paperwork is increasing. I don't mind the oversight. I think it's good. We're being held accountable. But weren't charters founded to make things simpler?" Douglas said.

New School for the Arts and Academics is another original charter school. Katy Cardenas is executive dean, a post she has held since 2005. The high school opened in 1996, and a middle school opened in 2003.

"As we've grown and worked with the Department of Education and the charter board, we've definitely filled the need for those families that want something outside the box. We're fulfilling the needs academically and artistically," Cardenas said.

About 10 percent of students at public schools in Arizona attend a charter school, according to October's enrollment numbers.

"I think we're only going to grow as traditional schools have to struggle with what stays and what goes in the next couple of years," Cardenas said. "I think we'll attract students who want to focus on the arts and want that strong academic focus."

Like district schools, charters have faced budget cuts the last two years from the state.

About 300 students attend the schools' sixth- through 12th-grade programs on the shared campus in Tempe.

Between 85 percent and 95 percent of students go on to post-secondary education, she said, with a majority studying some form of art.

"I don't think charters are going to be the alternative playground anymore," Cardenas said.

"They're going to offer programs that are college prep or very specific areas for families that want to do that such as ours with the arts."


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