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Charters could shake up education
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What is a charter school?

A charter school is a public school that operates under the terms of a charter, or contract, that has been agreed upon both by the local board of education and the state Board of Education. The school may request waivers from provisions of Title 20 of Georgia state law and any statutes, regulations, policies or procedures relating to schools in the school district.
In exchange for flexibility, the charter school is bound by contract to be held accountable for meeting the performance objectives specified in the charter. A school board cannot submit a proposed charter to the state Board of Education unless both the community and school faculty has voted to support it. A charter must be at least a five-year contract and can be terminated by school parents, faculty, instructional staff, the local school board or the state Board of Education.

Different types of forthcoming charter schools:

Schoolwide Enrichment: Sardis Elementary, Spout Springs Elementary
The Schoolwide Enrichment Model is a blueprint for total school improvement that encourages students to exchange traditional roles as lesson-learners and doers-of-exercises for more challenging and enjoyable roles that require hands-on learning, first-hand investigations, and the application of knowledge and thinking skills to complex problems.

Multiple Intelligences: Wauka Mountain Elementary
The theory of multiple intelligences promotes equal emphasis on eight different intelligences rather than a traditional emphasis on reading and math skills. The theory suggests that teachers be trained to present their lessons in a wide variety of ways using music, cooperative learning, art activities, role play, multimedia, field trips, inner reflection and more.

Math, Science, Technology: Martin Elementary
A school built upon math, science and technology foundations would offer students hands-on math and science learning opportunities enhanced by technology. Martin Elementary is also pursuing a partnership with Dell, Inc.

International and Legal Studies: Johnson High
A charter school with an emphasis on global or legal studies or both could develop at Johnson High School. The global studies program would prepare students to contribute to the world community through multicultural and international perspectives in languages, geography, history, politics and economics. The legal studies arm of the program is for students who have an interest in the law or ethical issues.

Fine Arts: McEver Elementary
A fine arts charter would allow McEver to enliven the state curriculum with fine arts. The school would be able to grow its strings program and further develop art, theater and dance programs.

Inquiry and Talent Development: Chestatee Middle
This type of charter would encourage teachers to understand students' individual learning styles to promote student-interest based learning. Teachers would also be trained to identify students' strengths and apply those talents to help them learn other areas of the curriculum.

China now has more gifted students than the United States has students.

The number of English speakers in India rivals America's own English speaking population.

And multiple Asian countries' students can run circles around American kids in mathematics.

How can local schools even begin to compete?

Hall County schools Superintendent Will Schofield says charter schools are just one vehicle America can use to shake up its traditional "lockstep" school model, unleash learning and turn out innovative students who can compete globally.

While Schofield said district leaders have been careful not to push schools toward charter status, Hall County will open two new charter schools, Sardis Enrichment School and Lanier Charter Career Academy, on Aug. 10. The schools will join the World Language Academy in Hall County's burgeoning charter movement.

Six other Hall schools, including Wauka Mountain, Martin, McEver and Spout Springs elementaries, Chestatee Middle and Johnson High, are in various stages of attaining charter status for the 2010-11 or 2011-12 school years.

Last year, the entire Gainesville school system became a charter school system made up of seven individual charter schools.

"We've challenged all of our schools to think differently and to realize that schools of the year 2009 need to look different from schools of 1959, and charter is one way that you can get there. It's not the only way, but it's one way," Schofield said.

"... Since 1983 when the ‘A Nation At Risk' report came out, we have been as a nation obsessed with these low-level competency tests and that, I believe, from the bottom of my heart, is to the detriment of the most powerful predictor of learning that we have control over, and that is engagement," he said. "Charters are just one way that we can get at individual students and individual teachers' areas of passions, areas of expertise. We know that the most meaningful learning in any of our lives has come when we've been allowed to learn those things that we find incredibly interesting."

Schofield said to better engage students, other Hall County schools not pursuing charters are integrating more technology into the classroom, using International Baccalaureate programs or developing schools like the da Vinci Academy, which is a hands-on arts and science academy fueled by community resources and expertise.

With some liberation from state laws on spending and class sizes, how will Hall's newest charter schools operate differently this year?

At both Sardis and the career academy, students' learning will be driven by their own interests, said Gerald Boyd, school improvement specialist for Hall County schools.

"We've got to build niches in education. We've got to build niches in schools ... because the kind of accountability we are required to do in schools tries to make every kid the same," he said. "But we want every student to excel and not just meet minimum requirements but to go past No Child Left Behind and pursue their interests and that's what charter schools allow us to do."

The new charter schools will continue to use the state curriculum as a framework for lessons, but teachers will harness students' passions and curiosities to drive student learning and navigate through state standards.

Although the charter schools will enjoy some freedom from state laws governing education, the schools will still be held accountable under the federal No Child Left Behind Act and students must pass state tests to retain their charter status. And the schools must go a step beyond adequacy, Boyd said, to get students performing at higher levels.

"What a charter really does is to raise the level of accountability ... to go beyond goals of the state," he said. "In addition, they can have goals that are related to their particular focus to produce student interest and to accommodate their learning styles."
Sally Krisel, rigor specialist for Hall County schools, said there's nothing magical about labeling a school "charter."

"The power of the charter school process to me is that study of what does our community want? How can we promote higher levels of achievement and much more enthusiastic engagement for students and their families?" she said. "And by exploring that together and then setting your sights on something that really will bring the community together, that's the power of the charter process.

"Whether it ends up being schoolwide enrichment like Sardis or multiple intelligences like Wauka Mountain, whatever the charter foundation is, to me, is not as important as the ownership that the teachers and the community take in it, because that's where you get that sustained effort and enthusiasm for it," Krisel said.

She said the three current charter schools and six forthcoming charter schools, which are schools of choice open to all Hall County families, provide parents with more quality options for education.

Boyd said the role of parents is vital in a traditional school adopting a charter. Without a community vote supporting the charter proposal, the state Board of Education cannot approve it. Charters are an opportunity for parents to be involved in their child's curriculum and the governance of their school, he said.

Sardis Enrichment School Principal Jan Hughes said her school will be rooted in the Schoolwide Enrichment Model, which trains teachers to promote structured exploratory learning.

"We're going to see students as practitioners of their own learning," Hughes said. "It's going to be authentic learning, as opposed to sitting in a chair in a classroom lecture learning."

She said the biggest difference at Sardis will be the wide range of class sizes and cross-grade grouping of students.

"When you come into a classroom, you might see students of mixed abilities and mixed ages at some points in time," Hughes said. "... There may be a point in time where you just want to deliver some instruction, meaning you're going to share some information with students and you might put them in a large group. But then when you're getting down to the nitty gritty and they're working on their individual interests or ability level or readiness level, then we'd be breaking them down in small groups based on their needs."

Krisel said Sardis teachers will capitalize on children's strengths. Teachers are already developing "enrichment clusters" where children who are interested in similar topics, such as poetry, dolphins or video production, can explore those in depth.

Schofield said charters can trigger the teaching creativity needed to get students to pass what he calls the "dinner table test."

"That is when children come home at the end of the day without being asked, they can't wait to tell their parents or significant caregivers, ‘You wouldn't believe what we did at school today,'" he said. "That's when real learning occurs. That's when the learning will occur that will help our students compete with the Asian tigers and the Eastern Europeans and that's what we'll continue to stress in Hall County."