Las Vegas Sun

October 23, 2014

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Time is on charters’ side

Schools find it can take a few years to measure up to federal standards

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Tiffany Brown

Joan Sando, recently retired principal of Explore Knowledge Academy, says charter schools must try harder than public schools to prove themselves.

Beyond the Sun

How long does it take for a charter school to find its groove?

In the case of Clark County’s Explore Knowledge Academy, five years.

“This year, the fifth year, is when we really pulled everything together,” said Joan Sando, founding principal of the charter school, which opened in 2003. “The instructional model, the retention of staff and students — the pieces are finally in place.”

Explore Knowledge may be the only district charter school this year to meet all the student achievement requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act across all grade levels.

The Clark County School District will announce results for all 350 of its schools at a news conference Thursday. Public schools must show “adequate yearly progress,” often called AYP, on standardized test scores. Officials expect the implementation of tougher standards this year to lead to fewer schools showing adequate progress.

Charter schools are given more freedom in hiring, schedules and instructional methods, but they must still meet the requirements of the federal education law.

This year, Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy, the region’s most highly regarded charter school, again posted strong scores for its elementary and middle schools. However, the high school program, which was measured for the first time, landed on the “watch” list for falling short on test results.

The school is appealing those results to the Nevada Education Department.

Several other charter schools are also appealing their “watch” list designations.

The 100 Academy of Excellence, North Las Vegas’ first charter school, did not make AYP for its elementary program and will be added to the state’s watch list. It’s the second consecutive year that 100 Academy, which is managed by Virginia-based Imagine Schools Inc., scored poorly.

But the academy, launched with the support of the nonprofit group 100 Black Men of Las Vegas, successfully appealed last year on the grounds that it was a brand-new school. This year, the academy is appealing its middle school program’s watch list designation on the same grounds.

The academy has come under scrutiny in recent months as the Nevada Education Department has voiced concerns about the school’s business model. Imagine Schools built the campus, and one of its affiliate companies is the academy’s landlord. The academy also relies on Imagine Schools for such essentials as staff and textbooks.

Nevada doesn’t allow for-profit charter schools, but campuses are allowed to contract with outside providers, known as education management organizations, for services. But 100 Academy’s deal with Imagine Schools goes beyond what the statute intended, state education officials say.

Several parents told the Sun they were impressed by the challenging curriculum provided by Imagine Schools, but would not re-enroll their children at the academy because of concerns about the personnel and daily operations, including high staff turnover.

However, many supporters remain.

“We need a fair chance to really show what our potential is,” said Denise Dixon, who has two children enrolled at the academy. “You can’t expect everything to be perfect right from the very beginning.”

In a written statement, Napoleon McCallum, a member of the academy’s governing board, said that while “there is still a lot of work to do,” students at the school are making progress. “The staff’s commitment to the youth and the community support from organizations like the 100 Black Men have made a tremendous difference,” McCallum said.

Joan Sando, who retired in June as Explore Knowledge’s principal, agrees it takes time for a charter school to develop from a good idea into a learning community where teachers, parents and students are “all on the same page.”

It was particularly tricky for Explore Knowledge, where students are expected to spend much of their time working independently on projects that incorporate the state’s required curriculum.

As families became more comfortable with the school’s model, students thrived. And each year more teachers came back, which meant Sando didn’t have to spend as much time training newcomers. Now 75 percent of Explore Knowledge’s staff and 80 percent of its students are returning for the 2008-09 academic year, a campus record. Total enrollment is expected to top 500 for the first time.

Charter schools can’t expect a free pass until all of the elements are in place, Sando said. Instead, they should expect even more scrutiny and criticism.

“I think that’s the definition of a charter school,” Sando said. “You are allowed more freedom in how you operate in exchange for stricter accountability. That’s the deal we have to live up to.”

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