1 charter passes, 1 on hold

Posted: Wednesday, February 04, 2004

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Edu-cation on Monday approved a five-year charter for an arts and sciences-based elementary school in Kenai and postponed action on a proposed academic high school.

The Kaleidoscope School of the Arts and Sciences, tentatively slated to open next fall at Sears Elementary School, received approval for a five-year charter contract with the district. The charter now will go to the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development and the Alaska State School Board for approval.

A proposal for the Northern Lights Charter High School, which also was proposed to open next fall out of Skyview High School, was sent back to planners for more detailed organization.

Alaska law provides for the establishment of charter schools, though on a relatively prescriptive basis compared to other states. All charters must be approved by a school district, as well as the state school board, and must function according to most state laws applied to traditional school. They must be public schools open to all students in a district.

State law also limits the number of charter schools allowed state-wide. Until two years ago, charters were capped at 30, with only three allowed in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. Currently, the state allows 60 charters, with no limit on the number per district.

There currently are 19 charter schools operating statewide, and the Kenai Peninsula is home to three: Aurora Borealis in Kenai, Fireweed Academy in Homer and Soldotna Montessori.

The primary differences be-tween charter schools and traditional schools is that charter schools form an academic policy committee (APC) to approve curriculum and hire an administrator, who in turn hires staff members.

Charter schools are designed to provide choice to parents looking for educational options outside traditional public schools.

Board member Margaret Gilman said she believes the Kaleidoscope school will do just that.

The idea for the school is built on Sears' two existing magnet classrooms, which focus on integrated themes revolving around the arts and science, respectively.

Sears Principal Mick Wykis told board members Monday that due to budget cuts, he fears the school will be unable to continue offering the magnet program next year. The charter school is an attempt to continue the thematic approach to education without the magnet program and to open the choice to more parents.

At present, the school expects to serve anywhere from 44 to 125 students in first, second and possibly third grade in its first year. In following years, it may add 20 to 50 students and eventually may grow to a kindergarten through eighth-grade school.

Tony Lewis, a parent and member of the charter school's preliminary APC, said planners are trying to start small in an effort to build a successful program.

He also said planners are making every effort to address potential downfalls that have plagued some other charter schools around the country.

He said, in the beginning, he was skeptical about the idea of a charter school, worrying that it may not be educationally or financially viable and could cause a rift in the Sears school community.

But, he said, his concerns have all been addressed in the development of the charter.

Ultimately, he said, he believes the charter school will allow parents a much-needed choice in the education of their children within the public school system, and he said he believes in the integrated approach to education.

School board members said they were impressed with the level of planning that has gone into the charter (organizers presented a detailed, 192-page document, which is available for review through the district office) and the stories of success from the existing magnet programs.

The charter was approved unanimously, with board members Marty Anderson and Debra Mullins excused from the meeting.

The charter is expected to go to the state board at its March meeting.

Planners of a high school charter program had a little more trouble selling the board on their idea, though.

Skyview High School Principal John Pothast brought forward a much shorter charter application for an academic-based high school program to be run out of Skyview.

Though the initial idea of the charter school was an academic-based school focused on math, English, science and social studies, additional elements of the plan seemed to confuse board members.

Pothast said an APC, yet to be formed, likely would add a handful of electives to the curriculum. And, he added, the school would focus on outside-the-classroom, experiential learning based on interaction with the community.

Board members said they liked the idea of community interaction in the curriculum and acknowledged the need for educational choices for high school students (all three existing charter schools in the district serve elementary students only). However, they said they didn't see how the charter school would be significantly different from existing high school program, and they questioned both the financial viability of the school and its proposed location at Skyview.

District administration recommended the board postpone action on the charter until the planners could answer some of the questions and add detail to the proposal.

The postponement passed unanimously, and Pothast is expected to bring the charter back to the board in April or May. If approved at that time, the charter could go to the state school board in June with time to open in the fall.

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