Originally created 02/22/98

Charter schools may become a reality soon



Imagine a school with no report cards. Students of all ages in class together. Parents picking the textbooks. School boards having no say about anything.

You're thinking of a charter school, in its varying forms, an idea that made Augusta education shudder for years. Twelve Georgia cities have charter schools, and nine others plan them. But in Augusta, nervous coughs followed the rare conversation about the subject, switched suddenly to another topic, any topic.

"Everybody was pretty scared of it," said Lisa Lyles, a second-grade teacher at Warren Road Elementary School.

"Have you seen the paperwork? Unbelievable," said Marie Cooper-Draves, principal at Gracewood Elementary School. "Unbelievable."

But the fear is fading. In the next few months, it may be conquered altogether.

"Actually, we're working on it right now," said Peter Paige, Warren Road principal.

Warren Road is exploring how it could convert to a charter school but has not decided whether to apply. It has received an application, is studying the process and is giving the idea a stronger look than other Augusta schools have. School system leaders, trustees and other officials were not aware of Warren Road's work because it is so new.

"We just kind of need answers before we kind of go forward. We haven't written anything or done anything," said Ms. Lyles, who's leading Warren Road's research. "It could be that we look at it and say, `Nah, this isn't for us."'

But the school's burgeoning application is remarkable, given the dearth of discussion about charter schools here while the issue has been one of the most frequently fought-over topics in education for nearly eight years.

Charter schools are autonomous public schools that draw taxpayer funds but are governed by a private group and not boards of education. They are more experimental than magnet schools, a more familiar education reform in Augusta. Although they resemble ordinary schools -- students still sit in desks, teachers still have lunch duty and so on -- it's the way charter schools are organized and operate that makes the difference.

For example, consider Midway Elementary School in Alpharetta, one of the state's original charter schools.

"We don't have report cards in kindergarten through second grade," said Principal Dennis Whittle. Instead, each child gets a "narrative report," detailing his progress. "The teacher writes out what they are learning, what they are doing in class.

Midway also combines children of different ages in the same classes through the third grade, although fourth and fifth grades are separate. Parents and teachers decide whether it's best for a first-grader to be in a class with kindergartners and second-graders or if he should stay with children his own age, Dr. Whittle said.

"It provides a lot more choice than regular schools," he said.

Each charter school is unique, setting its own teaching philosophies, governing rules and so on. At most, parent involvement means a say in hiring teachers or buying books, not just baking cookies for a class. One constant in all charter schools is their level of freedom.

"We, of course, do not have to honor all (board) policies," said Julia Timmons, assistant principal at Addison Elementary in Marietta, also one of Georgia's first charter schools. "As a staff, we make that decision."

That's precisely why charter schools have hit roadblocks across the nation, and one strong reason the idea hasn't taken hold in Augusta, educators and officials said.

"That's probably some of the fears of the charter schools, I think, is that they don't have to answer to the school board," said Barbara Padgett, a Richmond County school trustee.

Even so, Superintendent Charles Larke said he'd gladly look at any school's request to become a charter school, saying if it's going to improve Richmond County education, "I'm willing to give it a try."

Dr. Paige first talked with his Warren Road staff about charter schools nearly five years ago, but nothing came of the discussion. Still, the teachers frequently found themselves wondering what they could do with more freedom, Ms. Lyles said.

Take the phonics textbooks, for example. Warren Road's teachers didn't feel the books the county bought were challenging enough, so the school's PTA bought extra ones. If Warren Road were a charter school, it could choose books it wanted.

"That's the type of thing that we're looking at as far as charters," Ms. Lyles said. "We feel like there are some things we could be doing, but our hands are sort of tied."

But being a charter school isn't the only avenue available for changing your school, other educators say. Langford Middle School decided about three years ago not to pursue its interest in charter schools because it found the flexibility it wanted in the regular school format, said Dr. Cooper-Draves, then Langford's assistant principal.

"It seemed like people thought you had to have a charter to do anything creative," she said. "And there's a lot of creative things you can do without a charter."

Richmond County's strong magnet school program is an example of that, she said. And it's perhaps one reason the county hasn't truly explored charters. Jackie Hayes, the county's school improvement coordinator, mulled a question if magnet school success leaves room for charter schools in Augusta.

"That's a toughie. There could be, because a charter school is like a school where you're thinking out of the box," he said. "We traditionally think within a box with a magnet school."

In Georgia, charter schools can be formed only by converting existing public schools. South Carolina allows both conversions and charter schools created from scratch. Both states require a majority of the school's faculty, staff and parents plus the local school board to approve the charter; Georgia also requires state school board approval.

After that, the local school board no longer has a say in how the school is run. Instead, the private overseer -- specified in legal detail in the charter itself -- is held accountable for the school. School trustees have a say only when the charter is up for renewal, every three years in South Carolina or five years in Georgia.

Such freedom, a big attraction to supporters, worries skeptics, who question spending public money on something that may not work.

"People ask the same question everywhere: Are they really making a difference? We can't answer that yet," said Chip Jackson, South Carolina education department special assistant for charter schools. "It is our expectation, our hope. But only time will tell."

The first charter schools in Georgia, opened in 1995, are up for renewal this summer, as the original charter law allowed just three years of operation. South Carolina's law took effect in 1997 so its first renewals won't come until the year 2000, Mr. Jackson said.

It takes about a year for a school to apply and win approval to be a charter school, in either state. Both states also offer one-time planning grants, adding another year or so to the process. In Georgia, schools get a one-year, $5,000 grant to plan their applications. South Carolina gives $40,000 grants for 18 months of planning.

The process is arduous, with every detail from what teaching philosophies to use to how to mete out discipline to operating hours required in precise, legal terms in each charter. Warren Road is beginning to understand the depth of work it faces before deciding whether or not to continue, Ms. Lyles said.

"We are just curious right now," she cautioned. "We are at that curious stage, where we want to know more about it."