Education takes many forms to meet student needs, plenty of room for them all

By Janet Wolcott

Director

Plumas Charter School

 

As the director of a California charter school, I would like to clarify some of the issues raised in Ms. Biggs’ Where I Stand in last week’s newspaper.

To begin with, my colleagues and I at Plumas Charter School are in complete agreement with her statement that there are “many reasons to begin high school in, and graduate from, a traditional brick-and-mortar school …” The majority of the teachers on the PCS staff have distinguished themselves as educators in the conventional school setting. We are well aware of the advantages and drawbacks of such schools. We also know from experience that while they serve many students well, they don’t meet the needs of all.

The passage of the Charter Schools Act of 1992 opened the way for creating educational opportunities for those students who do not thrive in the conventionally structured school.

Fortunately for these students, there is room in our community for more than one kind of school; one need not denigrate one model to support another.

Ms. Biggs also said, “Charter schools exist because they had education code waived.” This is partially correct; the Charter Schools Act did waive a number of the provisions of Education Code to provide a climate of innovation.

The rationale behind the waiver was to free educators from some of the bureaucratic restrictions that can hamper timely, innovative responses to local needs.

Charter legislation provides individual communities access to public funds so to act in an entrepreneurial manner, starting up schools in direct response to the needs of the children in their communities.

That freedom from restriction, however, does not mean freedom from responsibility or accountability, and charter schools are far from unregulated.

Plumas Charter School bases its curriculum and instruction on the California State Standards. Our graduates fulfill all California mandated graduation requirements.

We are a K–12 school accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges—the same accrediting body that evaluates district schools and Feather River College.

Our entire teaching staff is made up of California certificated teachers, all of whom are “highly qualified” under federal No Child Left Behind criteria.

It is these professionals who are “teachers of record” for our students, not, as Ms. Biggs claimed, the parents. In addition, PCS teachers work collegially, so the expertise of each is available to all.

There is a double lesson for students in this: They not only partake of the subject area knowledge of a variety of excellent teachers, they also see adults model cooperation and mutual respect.

Ms. Biggs advised parents to log on to the California Department of Education website to “see for themselves that the various local charter schools do not have the same success in testing, especially in math.”

If they take her advice, they will see Plumas Charter School’s Academic Performance Index score is indeed lower than that of district schools. However, those who paid attention in high school math and science classes know correlation does not necessarily indicate causation.

Our students’ scores are not necessarily low because they attend our school. In fact, the reverse is true: Our school has a low API because it has offered a home to students who are having difficulty elsewhere and who, in many cases, are in danger of dropping out.

In most instances, we are able to give those students the help they need to make a degree of academic growth. However, because they come to us—usually after eight to 10 years in conventional schools—with very weak academic skills, they will receive relatively low test scores even after they’ve achieved improvement.

For example, a student may come to us in ninth grade with STAR scores in the “far below basic” range. We can work hard with her, helping her build skills, with the result she scores “below basic” or even “basic” on the next year’s tests. Seen as an individual case, this is success.

 

The API does not track individual growth; it treats students as aggregate. Since PCS has a very high mobility rate—between 45 and 60 percent of our students are new to our school each year—our students come, improve, leave and are replaced by other students in academic distress.

Because of our demographics and mobility rate, the API is not an appropriate instrument to assess the effectiveness of Plumas Charter’s program.

To provide a more accurate measure of our success, Plumas Charter has adopted Scantron Performance Series Tests, a computer-based assessment program for our students. Each student tests at the beginning of the school year and again at the end of the year to document actual, individual academic growth.

Regarding the equality of diplomas, graduates of Plumas Charter are fully eligible for Cal Grants. If Ms. Biggs reads the qualifying regulations more carefully, she will note students who graduate from WASC-accredited schools need not supply ACT or SAT scores for Cal Grant applications.

It is true, however, that our graduates are not on an equal footing with conventional schools where admission to the military is concerned.

Plumas Charter places a great deal of importance upon getting to know our high school students well as individuals and helping them to make the right educational choices in pursuit of their personal goals.

If a student’s goal is to enlist immediately upon graduation, we advise her of the relevant regulations, advising either transfer to a conventional school or concurrent enrollment in a series of community college courses that will give her the requisite 15 units by graduation.

When it comes to learning to get up in the morning, our program requires students to develop sufficient self-discipline and organizational skills to succeed academically with a reduced level of supervision.

That provides high school students with a good transition to the freedom of college or work life while they are still in a context of supportive oversight.

Some students are unable to manage this level of independence, and we refer them back to the more highly structured environment of the brick-and-mortar school.

To attend or support a charter school is not to undermine or devalue conventional schools. A healthy community can and should offer education that serves all of its youth.

We educators need to work for the needs of our community as a whole and to view our schools as complementing one another, not as competing with one another.

Our children learn as much or more from how we conduct ourselves in the course of providing their education than from what we tell them in their texts and curriculum.

Let’s demonstrate a reasoned approach to providing the most effective, appropriate schooling we can for all of them.

There is room in our community for more than one model of education; we just need to make more room in our minds.


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