New charter schools under consideration

Art, academic schools offer choices for parents, students

Posted: Monday, February 02, 2004

Two groups of area educators will present plans to the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education tonight for new charter schools in the Kenai-Soldotna area.

The proposed schools -- The Kaleidoscope School of the Art and Sciences and Northern Lights Charter High School -- are designed to offer academic options for parents and students on the peninsula outside the district's traditional format.

The Kaleidoscope program would serve students in kindergarten through third grade with hands-on thematic units and integrated lessons centering around the arts and sciences. The school would operate out of Sears Elementary School.

The Northern Lights school would provide an academic-based high school program "grounded in the ABCs of academic core classes of English, social studies, math and science, broad-based life skills including world languages, vocational, health-fitness, creative and practical arts, and civic and community responsibilities focusing on cooperative efforts between students and government, community and service organizations," according to the draft charter. It would operate out of Skyview High School.

Charter schools are specially targeted public schools designed to give parents and students a choice of educational offerings.

Many states in the nation allow for public charter schools, though laws vary from state to state. In Alaska, laws are relatively prescriptive. Charter schools must be approved by a local school board, as well as by the Alaska Depart-ment of Education and Early Develop-ment and Board of Education. Funded by public tax dollars, the schools must be secular and must be accessible to all students in a district and are held accountable to the same standards as public schools.

The number of charters allowed to operate in the state at any given time is capped at 60. Currently, there are 19 charter schools in the state, including three on the peninsula: Fireweed Academy in Homer, Soldotna Montessori in Soldotna and Aurora Borealis in Kenai.

The difference between charter schools and traditional schools is simply the approach to education.

Traditional schools within a district are staffed based on decisions of the central administration and school board, and the school board approves districtwide curricula.

Charter schools, however, are overseen by an academic policy committee, made up of teachers, parents and community members, which approves the school's curriculum, sets the budget and hires a principal, who in turn hires teachers.

Charter school proponents say that flexibility allows for alternative approaches to education that may better meet the needs of some students than traditional schools can.

While charter schools are designed to promote innovative teaching styles, the proposed new schools in the Kenai-Soldotna area wouldn't differ drastically from existing traditional schools. In fact, the charter drafts for both schools indicate plans to use pieces of the district curriculum, as well as the same assessment tests utilized by other public schools.

What the proposed charters would do is preserve existing specialty programs and offer parents a little more control in the students' education, particularly in light of the district's budget struggles.

Mick Wykis, the principal at Sears and one of the writers of the Kaleidoscope school's draft charter, said the Kaleidoscope school would be a spin-off of magnet classrooms that started this year at Sears. The two classes target students with particular interests in science and-or the arts and use those disciplines as a core to teach other subjects.

Though the program has been tremendously popular, Wykis told a group of parents last month that expected budget cuts may threaten the future of the program.

"We won't be able to maintain (the magnet classes) -- at least that's what we're anticipating -- because of the budget," he said.

The charter would be a way to offer the program's ideology outside Sears' normal program.

Skyview Principal John Pothast, who helped develop the plans for the Northern Lights school, said the new high school charter would provide an academics-only sort of program that some parents have been seeking for years. In addition, the school would fill a unique niche in the community, as all three existing charter schools serve elementary students, not high-schoolers, he said.

"We have, for several years, talked about doing something different," he said. "We're trying to write (the charter) based on what the need is in the community."

He said it is important to offer such choices within the public school system, because families often leave the district for programs more to their liking.

"We live in an advent of choice," he said. "It's indicative of the fact that parents do have choices and are willing to go elsewhere if they can't get what they want."

Though there is a risk that growing charter school movements could pull resources from existing public schools, assistant superintendent Gary Whiteley said the district is making an effort to embrace quality charter schools in an effort to draw more students.

"Around the state, a lot of school districts and charter schools have tenuous relationships. We have chosen to try to work things through," he said. "Our experience has been thus far that charter schools have indeed attracted kids back to the system."

Despite organizers' high hopes for the schools, both charters indicate plans to start small and build slowly.

The Kaleidoscope school would offer enrollment preference to students currently in the Sears magnet classes and would start out with 44 to 125 students, while the Northern Lights school would start with 50 to 75 students.

Funding for the school would come from the state's standard funding formula, with additional revenue possible through federal grants and state charter start-up monies.

The proposals will go before the local school board in work sessions scheduled for 12:30 p.m. for the Northern Lights school and 1:30 for the Kaleidoscope school today. The board is slated to take action on the charters at its meeting tonight.

If approved, the charters would next go to the Education Depart-ment, then to the state school board in March.

If all goes well, the charter schools are expected to start taking applications in the spring, with enrollment lotteries tentatively scheduled for April if applications exceed enrollment limits. The schools would open in August.

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