Sunday, December 23, 2001

Charter schools gain enrollment

Innovations spur surge in students

By Jennifer Mrozowski
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Oak Tree Montessori, a Cincinnati charter school in its fourth year, has something Cincinnati Public Schools wants: Increasing enrollment.

Oak Tree teacher Angela Leszinske writes a sentence for student Desiree Victor, 7.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
| ZOOM |
        Oak Tree's growing population prompted founder Pauline Childs to move the school this year from its cramped space downtown at the Anna Louise Inn to two sprawling floors in a renovated building on East Central Parkway in Over-the-Rhine.

        “Kids were literally on top of each other,” Ms. Childs said. “They would trip over each other when they moved around.”

        Oak Tree isn't alone.

        Charter schools, which first appeared nationally in Minnesota in 1992, are catching on and increasing enrollment in Ohio and nationwide. President Bush's education bill, which just passed in Congress, would expand students' access to charter schools.

  This is the first of a two-part series examining charter schools in Ohio.
  • Monday: Critics speak out
  Charter schools are free, independent public schools run by parents, teachers, community groups, private companies or other interested parties. Under Ohio law (and in most states), the schools must be non-profits, but in Ohio they can contract with for-profit companies. The first charter school law was passed in 1991 in Minnesota. Charter schools now operate in 34 states and the District of Columbia. Indiana passed a charter law earlier this year. Kentucky does not have charter schools.
        In Greater Cincinnati, 18 charter schools, primarily in urban neighborhoods, enroll more than 4,000 students. In 1998, two schools enrolled about 260 students.

        Madisonville resident Sharon Knox said Cincinnati College Preparatory Academy, a West End charter school with a math and science focus, provides her two daughters educational options not available in public schools.

        “I wanted to make sure they got the fundamentals in reading, writing and math,” Ms. Knox said, adding that she has seen a big improvement in her daughters' proficiencies in those subjects.

        Because the schools are primarily in urban neighborhoods, the vast majority of students attending are African-American. In 2000-01, 90 percent of Cincinnati's charter school students were black.

        The schools are run by parents, teachers, community groups and private companies — anyone who agrees to improve student achievement and meet other performance goals in exchange for fewer regulations.

        Approved by the Ohio Legislature in 1997, charter schools are tuition-free, independent public schools.

        In Ohio, charter schools' governing boards are not elected, but assembled by the founder. A school's charter can be revoked by its sponsor, such as the state board of education or local school board, if it fails to fulfill its contract. For example, charter schools must outline student achievement goals in their contracts.

        Parents choosing charter schools want charter schools to deliver what they say their neighborhood public schools have not — things such as smaller classes, longer school days and innovative classroom teaching.

        Yet charter schools are not without their detractors. Among criticisms:

        • Teachers are less experienced.

        • Test scores have been lackluster.

        • Many students return to public schools after becoming disenchanted with charters.

        Still, many parents say they appreciate the alternative to costly private schools or neighborhood public schools.

        Ohio's charter schools have increased sixfold since 1998, when the first 15 opened. Now 23,000 students are enrolled at 92 charter schools statewide, up from 70 schools a year ago.

        Ms. Knox pulled her daughters Tamara, 12, and Alisah, 10, from Cincinnati Public Schools in 1999 to enroll them in Cincinnati College Preparatory Academy.

        Ms. Knox said she likes the college-driven mission of the 430-student, elementary school where students begin age-appropriate physics lessons as early as kindergarten and are required to wear uniforms.

        The school's principal and founder, Lisa Hamm, said students always are expected to be learning — even in the hallways. One hallway — called Animal Lane — is lined with snakes, birds and fish in cages.

        Students can't walk down the halls without seeing posters of college emblems and the phrase, “It's your future, Where do you see yourself?” in bold letters.

        Tamara Knox, a seventh-grader, recently learned about atoms in science. Weeks earlier, her class dissected frogs.

        “I think you're learning more here with all the hands-on and attention you get,” Tamara said.

        Her mother added: “It's very family-oriented. They know immediately who I am and who my children are.

Parents want options
               The choice that Ms. Knox and parents like her are seeking is a prime reason why Mr. Bush pushed for increased federal funding of charter schools in his education bill.

        “My kids were in a public school last year and it was too overcrowded,” said Joan Walker of Price Hill. She enrolled her two daughters this year at W.E.B. DuBois Academy, a year-round charter school in Over-the-Rhine.

        Rising enrollment at char ter schools doesn't surprise Clint Satow, director of the Ohio Community School Center in Columbus.

        “What this indicates is a broad demand for options to the existing educational opportunities,” he said. “These schools are entirely market-driven.”

        It's also no surprise that the majority of students attending Ohio's charter schools — restricted by law to urban areas or low-performing districts — are black or low-income, Mr. Satow said.

        Charter schools provide a desired option, Mr. Satow said, for parents of students who never have been able to move out of urban districts for higher-achieving schools.

        Charter options in Greater Cincinnati include:

        • W.E.B. DuBois, which requires students to attend 10 hours a day for 250 days a year and take martial arts classes as part of physical education. Lunch and uniforms are free.

        • Harmony Community School in Price Hill, where the classrooms are without walls and students are divided into schools within the larger school.

        • Summit Academy Community Schools, Middletown campus, where the school caters to students who have attention deficit disorders.

        Charter school teachers and administrators make many decisions in-house, rather than deferring to a board for approval.

        Ms. Childs, director and founder of Oak Tree Montessori, said the system works for the 11 teachers in her school. The school has 110 students, including infant care and preschool. Being a Montessori school, many of the lessonsare student-driven.

        “We're not going through six committees to (make changes) that are best for our children,” she said.

        • Monday: Critics speak out.

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