Choose Your Own Adventure

Published on: January 6th, 2010

The kids don’t seem to notice the quickly approaching storm and the wicked wind chill. With puffy jackets and youthful metabolism to warm them, they play and run and scream and giggle and play more, enjoying the playground before it is blanketed in snow. Inside, the songs of Grease whir from the auditorium’s backstage. A class across campus brainstorms adjectives for Macbeth. The school bell rings, and the hallways fill with kids, backpacks and banging lockers as though the classrooms are hemorrhaging. It’s a normal day at a normal Colorado school.

Normal, however, is a subjective condition. Especially in the modern Colorado classroom—where some students are required to wear uniforms and play chess; some watch music videos and address their teachers by first name; and others are transformed into living, breathing studying machines. No doubt, the charter school movement has turned the norms of public education upside-down.

Charter schools continue to be the subject of political debate, negative media attention and hostility from certain states and school districts, but these autonomous public schools also continue to pop up everywhere from Erie to urban Denver and are the first choice for tens of thousands of Colorado parents and students.

“None of the naysayers have stopped the progress,” says Rep. Jared Polis, a former Colorado Board of Education member who started two Colorado charter schools. “Charters are making a difference. Public schools are learning from them every day.”

Ten years ago, according to the Colorado Department of Education, slightly more than 17,000 students attended 67 charter schools. Today, more than 60,000 Colorado students attend the 160 charter schools in Colorado.

It’s a reality political leaders envisioned when they proposed the Colorado Charter Schools Act in the early 1990s: An educational landscape where parents can opt for their trusty neighborhood school or specialized, chartered schools near or far away.

“Very clearly, from day one, (the development of charter schools) was to provide parents with options and choice,” says Jim Griffin, president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools. “It was also intended to spur innovation. It was intended to provide new learning opportunities for kids.”

Now, 15 years later, the schools have created their own niches within the spectrum: from alternative to college prep, from young child to young adult, from friendly to firm. And with that, they have become unique sanctuaries for students.

Sitting down with Carolyn Jannsen, advancement director for nine-year-old Peak to Peak Charter School in Lafayette, the first thing she does is print a handout that clarifies myths about charters in general and Peak to Peak in particular. At an open enrollment tour at Peak to Peak, an older man in the crowd asks if the school admits only students with the best
test scores.

“No, sir. We are a public school and we take the kids the lottery process gives us,” Principal Anthony Fontana says smoothly, “but by the time they leave here, they will be the students with the best test scores.”

From simple definition to overall philosophy, charters are like the black holes of the educational world: We know they exist but we don’t know what goes on there. Truly, many people do not understand the details of the options that exist.
One unarticulated misconception is that charter schools are the hobbyhorse of helicopter parents who want extra-specialized schools for their kids. Boulder Prep sounds like it could be one of those schools, where parents drop off their kids in shiny SUVs on the way to yoga class, where students wear ascots and loafers.

But this small charter is an alternative high school dedicated to a diverse population of students who travel from all over Boulder County. Some might use the term “at-risk” but Lili Adeli, Boulder Prep’s development director, says the term is too confining for her students. Instead, she says, these students simply do not fit in a traditional high school setting.

Boulder Prep is incongruously nestled in a busy commercial area in Gunbarrel. Part of the building used to be warehouse space until they turned it into classrooms. It’s filled with windows and common areas, and a kitchen sits in the middle. The school provides both breakfast and lunch.

Students joke, laugh and freely roam around the communal space. It’s laid back and incredibly upbeat. A spread of muffins, cereal and fruit is laid out, and teachers begin to rally the troops for their morning ritual. Each day before classes start, a teacher, headmaster or student stands up in front of the 80 or 90 students and shares a lesson or story. Today is “music Monday,” and one of two headmasters gives an inspirational talk on perseverance through hardship.
“Sometimes it’s the pain that in the end, makes you happiest,” he says. “Not when it’s happening, but in the end.”

He plays the song “Happy” by Leona Lewis. When the song ends, the students rambunctiously head to their classrooms.

It’s not just the students who are non-traditional here: Teachers work to create an atmosphere that is engaging and comforting and very different from what students might find elsewhere.

In one classroom, two or three teachers will work with fewer than 10 students. Teachers go by their first names, and they focus on being nurturing and supportive. Terms last just eight weeks, and Fridays are dedicated to “life skills.” Boulder Prep’s intensive program allows students to graduate high school in two years. Students who have fallen behind can play catch up. Students can also receive college credits.

“We believe that education is rehabilitation,” Adeli says. “We say, if you are not happy with a situation, get educated.”

While there are challenges here, there is optimism and achievement all around. Adeli says if a student becomes indifferent to their education, teachers work harder at connecting with the student. Just 140 students are enrolled and about 90 make it to school each day, usually because of transportation or home issues.
“Our goal,” Adeli continues, “is to make school so interesting that they want to be here. In everything we do, we ask the question, ‘Why does this matter?’ Our teaching emphasizes that the information ties into their lives.”

Across the district, Summit Middle School has a Frankenstein quality to it. The older school building—once housing Majestic Heights Elementary School—has been extended and renovated everywhere you turn. The long spine of the building is anchored by a sunny library, which was added two years ago, and a sparkling new gym, which will be ready for gym classes and teams soon.

Summit opened in 1996 as Boulder Valley School District’s first charter school.
When applying for a charter, applicants must prove they offer a unique, desirable product, and the parents that opened Summit saw a void in BVSD’s middle school offerings. The founders wanted an academically rigorous middle school where students could prepare for challenging high school curriculum. The school has since received a long list of accolades and has found its niche in making the best of those awkward pre-high school years.

“Traditionally, middle school is seen as a holding pattern,” says Summit Principal David Finell. “We see it as an opportunity to get kids excited about scholarship. Learning is cool at Summit.”

Summit places students in classes by ability—not by grade. They focus on “learning how to learn,” as Finell calls it, which includes organization, managing time, listening, study skills and critical thinking. They are taught at a high level, where classes are not overwhelming but are also far from boring.

“We celebrate the life of the mind,” Finell says.

Many charter schools, just like Summit, were developed to become academic generators for students, turning energy into scholastic electricity. While Summit has been incredibly successful at doing so—with some of the best test scores in the district—there’s still a question of how effective charters overall have been.
This summer, the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University released a controversial study that said only 17 percent of charter schools reported academic growth significantly better than traditional public schools; 37 percent of charter schools showed less growth than their traditional public school counterparts.

The report, however, listed Colorado as one of few states in which charters reported reading and math gains significantly higher than those at traditional schools.

Local officials—and numerous charter administrators—say area charters have excelled specifically because traditional public schools are so good. Deirdre Pilch, BVSD’s assistant superintendent for school leadership, middle schools and high schools, says the fact that there has only been one charter application to the district in the last five years speaks to satisfaction among local parents.

St. Vrain Valley School District, which has seen a couple of charters fail over the years, continues to add new charters; the SVVSD Board of Education just approved the charter for a new school in Erie, Aspen Ridge Preparatory Academy, which will open in fall of 2010.

This time next year, they will likely consider another new charter school—one that its founders hope will also become an academic powerhouse.

Twin Peaks Charter Academy, a K-8 that was St. Vrain Valley’s first charter, has formally begun the exploratory process of starting a charter high school. It would be Longmont’s first.

The board has developed a website, longmontcharterhs.org, to survey parents about what they would like to see in a charter high school. Imagine Charter School has agreed to help Twin Peaks with development; they are waiting to hear if Flagstaff Academy is on board as well.

“For us, it’s been about preparing our kids for a college-preparatory high school,” said Kathy DeMatteo, who sits on Twin Peaks’ board of directors. “But as we go through this process, we are looking at developing something very different.

The end result for a high school is getting students into the best possible college.”

Other successful Colorado charter schools, like Peak to Peak and Fort Collins’ Ridgeview Classical Schools, are being used as models. While Twin Peaks uses E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum, they plan to implement a Classical model for the high school. They are expecting challenges but look forward to the payoff: a charter education for all ages.

Over the last 13 years, Twin Peaks has grown slowly but surely. This year, they moved from a historic school on Longmont’s Main Street to a new building—a former warehouse transformed by bonding through the Colorado Educational and Cultural Facilities Authority.

The large building glistens in its newness. With high white ceilings and white walls, it almost feels too clean and pristine to be a school. But then, peeking into a science classroom, it’s apparent that Twin Peaks is a very active school filled with more than 600 kids dressed in uniforms.

The back half of the building could one day house the high school.

“We have room to grow,” assistant principal Danielle Feeney said, “which is great.”

A tiny boy dressed in a baggy shirt, a tiny pair of jeans and tiny tennis shoes walks out of a classroom and approaches a water fountain. He picks up a stool and flips it onto its legs, stepping up so he can take a drink. He looks up and smiles softly.

“Believe it or not, he’s in kindergarten,” Marcos Martinez says, walking through the one long hallway of his Ricardo Flores Magon Academy in Westminster. Martinez enters classroom after classroom. Students barely pause from their work.

Just a few years ago, Martinez successfully applied for a charter through the Colorado Charter School Institute. The school has grown carefully, but classrooms are packed full with eager children. It’s K–4 but will eventually grow to be a K–8.

The focus here is college preparation—for even the youngest of students. That means that even the little boy, too small to reach the water fountain, is more or less being groomed for ACTs, advanced placement classes and even freshman orientation.

The students learn chess and play tennis in addition to a full load of core classes. Martinez opens the door to one classroom where handfuls of children sit on the floor intently watching their chessboards. He says the focus on chess and tennis builds concentration. Plus, he says, it will be another way for his students to fit in once they get to high school and college.

“We are all business here,” Martinez says later, sitting in his office. “Everyone is on point and focused. It’s a no-nonsense type of school.”

He and his staff have enormous faith in their young students. On each classroom door, there’s a sign that reads “class of 2021” or “class of 2020,” indicating the year students will graduate from college.

“We believe in everything we do that every child is able to meet or pass our rigorous standards,” said Antonio Vigil, director of curriculum and instruction. “We ask a lot of the students and their parents.”

Within schools like Ricardo Flores Magon Academy, status quo is not a term that is used. Innovation—in everything from concept to curriculum—and choice are pillars. Because of that, each charter is unique as the children that fill them.
“The ultimate innovation is the concept of self governance within public school,” Griffin says. “Our whole public school system is built around districts. (The charter movement) is saying that this is not the only way to organize. The idea of independent public schools making their own decisions—hiring, schedule curriculum, budgeting, the day-to-day stuff—that’s the biggest innovation.”

While the charter movement has been gaining steam for decades, the Obama administration’s Race for the Top challenge, which will provide grants to states as a reward for encouraging reform in education, has put a special emphasis on the schools. “With the current leadership and Race for the Top, there is such a focus on charters and innovation,” says Karin Piper, author of Charter Schools: The Ultimate Handbook for Parents. ”The movement has been sprinting in the last 12 months, and we are seeing it reflected in the numbers. The more schools and the more students, the more on the map the movement becomes.”

The administration has promised to double funding to support the creation of more “successful” charter schools. Through Race for the Top, states that are “friendly” to charter schools could have the upper hand to be awarded money.
With an estimated 365,000 students on charter school waiting lists nationwide, there is a need for more high quality charters.

As a parent of two charter school students, Piper waited for four years before her first child was able to enroll in their first choice charter—because of a lengthy waiting list. In a statewide study, 66 percent of reporting Colorado charter schools had waiting lists in 2007-08. The average size was 462—ranging from two students to 7,500 at one school.

Locally, waiting lists and limited openings are fairly common. In BVSD last year, there were 2,200 students on open enrollment waiting lists.

Supporters of charter schools say the waiting lists and growing enrollment means that the concept of choice in public schools is increasing in popularity and acceptance.

“For me, what I love about charters as a parent and a board member is that there is now choice for families,” said Gina Nocera, executive director of the Jared Polis Foundation and a member of two charter school boards. “If a neighborhood school is not right, you can go out and look and explore through open enrollment.”

Peak to Peak Charter School, a spacious K–12 campus that’s almost hidden beyond a mobile home park, is known for its ability to produce an army of ambitious, college-bound teens. It’s often named among the top schools in the country, and it’s used as a success story for Colorado charters. Waiting lists are commonplace.

In the auditoria of Peak to Peak, handfuls of moms and dads, a grandparent or two and several indifferent-looking youngsters gather for an open
enrollment tour.

They have come to take a peek at Peak to Peak.
Principal Anthony Fontana takes the crowd through a PowerPoint presentation, filled with student and alumni profiles, statistics and a few of the many accolades. He explains the concept of charters and the philosophy of the school, the AP classes and the electives, the lottery system and the enrollment caps. He informs the crowd that there will likely be fewer than 35 openings for freshman enrollment, and several parents trade eye-rolls.

Fontana then introduces a group of students. They are well spoken, and they later take groups on tours through classrooms, the new library and the busy counseling center. The kids—can you even call them kids, these mature, articulate young adults?—are teeming with potential. Not latent potential, but the kind that will take them from National Merit Scholar to CEO.

“I feel like at Peak to Peak, we are all nerdy at something,” one student tells the crowd. “But that’s accepted. We all support each other’s nerdiness.”

Students at Peak to Peak don’t just focus on studying—though, they do focus a lot on academics—they also spend school time selecting, visiting and applying to colleges.

The class of 2009 had a graduation rate of 98 percent; 2008 was 100 percent. Peak to Peak’s 2009 grads, 100 percent of whom were accepted into college, were offered $7.8 million in scholarships.

“We have a model that works well,” Advancement Director Carolyn Jannsen says, sitting in her office where you can hear laughing and conversing from a neighboring classroom. “You have all your kids get into college, well, that strikes a nerve.”

Neither Jannsen nor Fontana spend too much time bragging about their awards and accolades. They do brag about their students and their staff and their parent support, but they both make clear that Peak to Peak is not for everyone. Just as charter schools, in general, are not a fit for every student, every family. But, really, that’s the point.

“Parents are searching for what’s best for their kids,” Jannsen said. “There is nothing wrong with any of the other schools in the area. It’s honestly about what is best for the family.”

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