About 40 Alaskans met Friday and Saturday in Kenai to discuss challenges and successes related to the state's charter schools.
Educators, parents and officials from around the state gathered at the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska for the 2004 State Charter Schools Association Conference, listening to keynote speeches by education officials, sharing concerns and ideas and attending workshops on successful charter schools operations.
Charter schools are specially created public schools that differ from traditional schools in curriculum and school leadership. About 34 states allow for charter school operations with varying levels of oversight from the state. Alaska has one of the more strict charter school systems, requiring that all charters be approved by the public school districts in which they reside.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is home to three charter schools: Fireweed Academy in Homer, Soldotna Montessori and Aurora Borealis in Kenai, the host of this year's conference.
A new charter also recently was approved for the Kaleido-scope School of the Arts and Sciences, slated to open next fall.
While charter schools and school choice in general is a topic of much debate throughout the country, speakers at the conference Friday lauded the efforts operators have made in Alaska.
Alaska Education Commissioner Roger Sampson started the day, praising charter school organizers for their commitments to student achievement and self-regulation. To obtain charters, school organizers must outline their goals for improving student achievement, and fulfillment of those goals is required for schools to remain open.
As federal legislation such as the No Child Left Behind Act requires a move for more ac-countability for public schools, charter schools can be heralded as leaders, Sampson said.
"In fact, you've been asked to perform from Day 1 with your charters," he said.
He said the existence of charter schools, though controversial in some places, helps Alaska's education system by providing an example of innovation and success.
"Keep your great rapport with your districts; for those of you who are struggling, keep struggling," he said. "You're a model, now take us to the next level."
Among Sampson's concerns for the state's education system as a whole are teacher quality and student assessments. He announced Friday that the Department of Education and Early Development soon will take steps to start addressing both those concerns.
The department will begin a pilot mentoring program for both teachers and principals next fall, hiring 30 of each to work as full-time mentors for new educators in the state. It also will kick off a new three-tiered licensing program for teachers, which would require teachers to show improvement in their skills over time or risk losing teaching credentials.
The state also has been in the process of reviewing the assessment tests districts use to measure student learning and soon will implement a new system that requires all students to be tested each year from third through 12th grade.
He said that the new system will give schools the ability to track student progress from year to year and make sure they are achieving at grade-level appropriate standards.
Later in the day, KPBSD Superintendent Donna Peter-son spoke to gathered educators, outlining some of the ways charter school organizers can help develop strong, positive relationships with the districts their in.
"First of all, be people of good will," she said. She encouraged school organizers to cooperate with their school districts by looking for ways a new school could help the district overall and to approach district officials with positive results and well-prepared documents.
"As advice, I'd say it's important to have a clear picture of your story, how it fits and helps the community, the district and the state," she said.
"Understand how you can make each other look good," she said. "When schools help the district move forward, how can anybody say 'no'?"
The afternoon continued with presentations by Art Arnold, the state's director of special education, and Louie Yannotti, program manager for charter schools in Alaska.
Representatives from charter schools from around the state gave short presentations, outlining the purpose and plans for their schools and sharing ideas.
On Saturday, conference attendees spent the day in workshops, learning how to better apply for and renew state charters and how to seek out grants, and sharing innovative classroom teaching ideas.
"Part of what we hoped to accomplish was to build relationships," said Doug Haralson, chair of Aurora Borealis Charter School's academic policies committee. "(We wanted to) learn from each other."
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