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Charting courses for success

WEEKEND EDITION: May 2, 2004

On a breezy spring day at one of Clark County's newest charter schools, three students carry musical instruments outside for a meeting of the band they've organized.

Inside two girls drape a blanket over a table and duck under it, sharing the tiny space. A paper sign attached to the blanket reads "quiet study."

And down the hall of the converted office building first graders and fifth graders stretch out together on the carpeted floor, writing in their journals.

"There's actually an educational philosophy at work here -- students should have the opportunity to rise to their own level of ability regardless of their age or grade," Kathleen Erickson, one of the school's founders, said.

What's happening at Explore Knowledge Academy is hardly orthodox in public education.

With increasing pressure on public schools to show achievement -- and the federal No Child Left Behind Act mandating sanctions for those that fail -- curriculum and instructional methods in Clark County have become more regimented.

Charter schools, however, are given more freedom in the way they teach, although they must still use the district-mandated curriculum.

In the five years since the Clark County School Board approved its first charter school, charter school educators have continued to look for alternative ways to reach students who otherwise might not find academic success.

Charter school proponents have faced a steep learning curve. Strict state and county regulations, coupled with newly toughened federal requirements for showing student achievement, have made operating charter schools a challenge. But with Clark County poised to become the nation's fifth-largest school district, educators say the choices that charter schools provide students and families are more needed than ever.

"Our district is so large that to say there's one educational model that's right for all kids isn't realistic," said Agustin Orci, deputy superintendent of instruction of the Clark County School District. "If we want to reduce our dropout rate and increase our graduation rate, we have to open our doors to different ideas -- and that includes charter schools."

There are five charter schools operating in Clark County, with a combined enrollment of 2,300 students -- less than one percent of the district's total student population of 268,357. But while their numbers may not be large, charter schools are making an impact.

"Charter schools are taking the same kids who weren't doing well at regular schools and, when given the authority to develop (new) approaches, turning those kids into successful students," said Anna Varghese, spokeswoman for the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based watchdog group that promotes alternatives in public schools. "Even if just one student ends up getting what they need from a charter school, I would call that school a success."

In Nevada charter schools need approval from a local or state school board. The schools receive state funding but are run independently from the local school district. They accept public school students who want to attend and typically target a niche not always filled by the public system, including teaching at-risk students.

Unlike other alternative forms of education -- magnet schools, alternative schools and privately run public schools -- the charter schools are not under the school district's direct control.

Clark County's charter schools vary in both scope and methodology:

A real test

One of the key measures used to gauge a school's success is standardized tests. Charter school students take the same annual tests as their peers at traditional campuses and must meet the same state and federal standards for achievement.

Keystone Academy showed the largest gains of any Clark County charter school on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, given statewide every fall. The school showed increases of seven to 14 percentage points in reading, writing, mathematics and science between the 2002 and 2003 tests.

"We're in a unique situation," school administrator Sally Armstrong said. "We have four or five kids in our study skills class. We can watch each one and figure out what they need and what they're not getting. That's something the district can't really do with thousands and thousands of students."

Odyssey's Iowa scores showed little fluctuation between 2002 and 2003, with the exception of the school's fourth graders. Those students showed a 15-point drop in math and a 16-point drop in science. The school's 10th graders scored an average of 10 percentage points below the district average in math and science but were higher in reading.

At Agassi Prep, Iowa scores were nearly unchanged between 2002 and 2003 in grades three, five and six. Fourth graders gained 15 points in science and 13 points in language. Agassi Prep students' scores were all within striking distance of, or above, the district average.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires charter schools to show the same "adequate yearly progress" that is demanded of traditional campuses. Every school must show annual increases in student scores overall as well as gains by ethnic subgroups, special education students and students for whom English is a second language.

In Clark County, 131 of the 277 public schools, 47 percent, failed to show yearly progress in 2003. Statewide, 220 of 548 public schools, or 40 percent, failed to show progress.

Of the 14 charter schools in Nevada, six campuses are on the state's watch list for failing to show progress for a single year, including Odyssey and Keystone in Clark County. Agassi Prep met the state and federal standards. Explore Knowledge and Clark County Team Academy were too new to be judged.

For public schools, continued failure to show improvement means sanctions, up to takeover by the state. Continued failure at a charter school means the charter could be revoked.

Both Odyssey and Keystone have been on the state's list of campuses "needing improvement" at least once prior to this year.

The charters for Agassi Prep, Odyssey and Keystone all call for the schools to serve at-risk students.

"When gauging the success of a charter school you can't ignore the fact that some of those schools have elected to serve an at-risk population," said Craig Kadlub, director of public affairs and the charter school liaison for the district. "A school that takes on that mission may be starting with a few more odds going against it."

Charter law

While the charter school movement is growing in much of the nation, it has been slow to catch on in Nevada.

There are more than 2,100 charter schools in 37 states and the District of Columbia serving more than 500,000 students.

Neighboring Arizona has more than 400 charter schools.

Nevada, however, charted a conservative course when the 1997 Legislature passed the law that allowed the schools.

Nevada does not allow for-profit charter schools, as does Arizona.

Either a local school board or the state Board of Education must approve charter schools, and the board that approves the school must provide technical assistance and routinely audit the school. The charters can be revoked with 90 days notice.

Charter school advocates have criticized Nevada's law as too restrictive.

But Nevada Department of Education officials say the restrictions are designed to make sure students get an education to state standards.

The state also limits the number of charter schools that don't serve at-risk students, and it requires charter schools to follow the same laws that public schools do, including teacher credentialing.

In Clark County, charter schools have to abide by the district's collective-bargaining agreements with the teachers union.

To win school board approval, charter schools must show community support, usually by having established residents lead the school or serve on the board of directors.

While the district builds schools using bond money, charter schools are on their own when it comes to finding facilities. The initial installment of per-pupil funding from the state isn't available to build or rent facilities.

All of the district's charter schools receive the same base per-pupil funding as the rest of the district's schools -- $5,100, which doesn't include extra state and federal dollars allocated for at-risk schools and special education students.

Advantage, Agassi

Only one charter school -- Agassi Prep -- spends significantly more than the allocated amount. In fact, Agassi Prep per-pupil spending is several hundred dollars above the national average of $7,431, said Perry Rogers, chairman of the school's board of directors.

The initial outlay came from the tennis professional himself as well as corporations and foundations eager to back his endeavor. The school has received $686,597 in grants and donations this year, raising the operating budget to $1.88 million.

Those donated dollars and goods include everything from the latest classroom technology to providing uniforms and meals for all students, Rogers said. The school's nurse also arranges dental, hearing and vision screenings for students, Rogers said.

Agassi Prep has the luxury of providing the "extras" that should be standard in public schools, Rogers said.

"The cuts have been outrageous, but they (the school district) have been forced to do it, it's not anyone's fault," Rogers said. "We're trying to show Nevada and the country that along with excellent teachers and a challenging curriculum, you have to provide health care and nutrition if you expect children to be in a position to learn."

Agassi has been in the news recently as complaints about teacher and staff turnover surfaced. School officials say part of the issue has been the school's insistence on getting the best and brightest teachers. The day is also longer and the demands are high.

The school has assembled a strong foundation with support from community leaders which, educators say, has helped push the school's success.

That's not always the case for charter schools.

To open Explore Knowledge, Kathleen Erickson and her husband combined their own funds with grant money and prevailed upon a local Lutheran church for facilities on Sand Hill Road at Tropicana Avenue.

"Without a community partner I don't think you can do it," said Joan Sando, Explore Knowledge's principal. "The challenge of finding a building that's up to code and ready for children -- it's a huge hurdle."

Explore received $200,000 in grants for its first year of operations and hopes to raise even more, Sando said. The additional funds are earmarked for lowering the teacher-student ratio from 25 to 1 to 20 to 1, Sando said.

Erickson is no stranger to educational innovations. In 1980 she helped write Nevada's home schooling statute, and she homeschooled her eight children until Explore Knowledge opened.

She and her husband, Ranel Erickson, a professor of business management at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas for 20 years, found a school model they liked through an educational cooperative.

But it hasn't been an easy sell.

In Clark County some students who are chronic truants or have behavioral problems are given the choice of attending either an alternative program or a charter school. Erickson said she spoke candidly to parents who called to ask about Explore Knowledge's program prior to the school's opening.

Despite letting students set their pace, the school requires students to meet regular project deadlines and mandates parental involvement.

"I had to tell them this place is not for everyone -- we're not a school specifically for at-risk kids, although we certainly have students with learning disabilities and special needs," Erickson said.

By the end of the first quarter of the school year, about 60 students dropped out, Erickson said.

"It was the parents -- they couldn't handle their kids having that much freedom," said Erickson, whose school has 250 students ranging from first through 12th grade. "We require a serious commitment from the students and their families and some people just aren't prepared for that."

Last resort

For some parents and students, charter schools are a last resort.

Summerlin resident Shawn Chippewa readily admits that when her daughter found out she was pregnant at age 15, finishing high school seemed an unlikely prospect.

"I was worried she was going to drop out and just never go back," Shawn Chippewa said. "There was no way I was going to sit back and watch that happen."

After trying to find a place for her daughter in the district, Chippewa finally found Odyssey, where her daughter could do her schoolwork from home at her own pace online.

"If you want to get up early and get everything done, you can," said Rochelle Chippewa, now 18 and the mother of 2-year-old Aliyah. "If you've had a hard night or the baby's crying, you can sleep in and then work all night. It's up to you."

Rochelle, who works at the Hard Rock Hotel as a lifeguard and plans to attend college in the fall, said Odyssey isn't for students who aren't prepared to push themselves academically.

"A lot of it you have to do on your own," Rochelle said. "People who aren't so independent probably wouldn't like it."

At Clark County Team Academy, founder Frank Mitchell is also trying to reach out to students who are at risk of slipping away.

The school opened in August with 230 students and enrollment has since climbed to 550. More than 25 percent of the school's students are living in foster homes or in the custody of the Clark County Department of Child and Family Services, Mitchell said. Another 30 percent of the students are scattered throughout the state.

The graduation rate for Child and Family Services students hovers around 20 percent, said Mitchell, a longtime high school guidance counselor in Clark County who helped devise the district's independent study program.

"That's a number we're going to try and break," Mitchell said, hoping the school's outreach -- a toll-free phone number and computer instant messaging -- will give students the support they need.

'Better ways'

Craig Butz, executive director of Odyssey, said the school has become popular with families who aren't willing or ready to commit to the rigors of home schooling.

The school also has families who face extensive travel or illness that regularly pulls a child out of school. There are also students pursuing acting careers or training for elite-level athletics, such as gymnastics. And there are students for whom Attention Deficit Disorder or other disabilities make sitting in a classroom for six hours a day an impossibility.

The purpose of charter schools is to find "better ways of offering public education," Butz said.

In at least one example the school district appears to have followed Odyssey's lead. The district's new Academy for Individualized Studies uses some of the same online software that Odyssey provides its pupils.

"I guess we're doing our job," Butz said, noting that the school district opened the Academy for Individualized Studies in August.

The district program for kindergarten through eighth grade is online but calls for students to spend an hour a week in a classroom setting with their peers.

As well, the district -- after six years of offering online correspondence courses -- will open its own virtual high school in the fall, which will focus on Advance Placement courses.

Neither Odyssey nor Team Academy provides those courses.

The Clark County School Board last week approved a charter application for another distance learning program. Evolutions Charter School expects to open in August with 200 students drawn from the Henderson- Green Valley area, said co-founder Kyle Konold.

Konold said his program will have 75 percent of its instruction online and the other 25 percent in a classroom.

With Evolutions poised to become Clark County's third distance learning charter school, the question becomes how many of the models one district can support.

"It's going to be a process of natural selection," said Kadlub, the district's charter school liaison. "With the state and federal demands there are going to be schools that don't make it in the long run, or there are going to be parents who aren't satisfied and pull their kids out."

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