At What Price Charter Freedom?

KARIMA A. HAYNES asked an administrator at Fenton and a university dean to discuss benefits and drawbacks of the charter concept

Four charter schools, including Fenton Avenue in Lake View Terrace and Vaughn Next Century Learning Center in Pacoima, last week won votes of confidence from the Los Angeles Board of Education, allowing them to continue for five more years their experiments in educational reform.

In return for promises of greater student achievement, the charter schools operate independent of many state and school district guidelines. An independent research group recently praised the local campuses for generally outperforming comparable non-charter schools while building strong parent and staff ties. Even so, not all classes have achieved all goals set when charter status originally was sought.

KARIMA A. HAYNES asked an administrator at Fenton and a university dean to discuss benefits and drawbacks of the charter concept.

JOE LUCENTE / Co-director, Fenton Avenue Charter School, Lake View Terrace

There are so many different types of charter schools and each one is peculiarly designed by the community it serves. The value in being a charter school is that the community is brought in as a viable partner and staff members are intimately involved in the school. We no longer have anyone or anybody to point a finger at.

We are able to make curriculum and budget decisions quickly. We no longer depend on a board downtown to make decisions for the school. We [are] a little separate district.

As a school principal in the normal setting, I would be responsible for everything here, but I would have little say. Now I am one of the stakeholders and involved in the decision-making process. I work for this school community.

We have five governing councils that are policy-making bodies. They have supplanted the school board and district staff. We all work together.

For example, on a Friday morning a teacher fell and broke her ankle. On Monday morning, she was in a wheelchair and she wheeled herself into class. She said: "I can teach from a wheelchair. I don't want our teachers' compensation [expenses] to go up."

We always said that if we could get our ducks in a row--that is have everything that you could possibly want in your dream school--then student achievement would improve. Finger-pointing was always the way out. Now there should be no excuses [as to] why things don't get done. It takes awhile to put things together and get people moving in the right direction, but that's what makes it challenging and invigorating.

The one main drawback is that a charter school takes a great deal of effort. There are so many nights when I don't leave here until 7:30. I also come in on the weekends. I don't do it grudgingly because I know that whatever efforts I am engaged in are having a direct effect on our students. The bottom line is that I am helping kids.

CAROLYN ELLNER / Dean, School of Education, Cal State Northridge

Charter schools are just another instrument of learning. There is a level of freedom given to charter schools that allows the team to think outside the box.

You have to have goals in mind, know where you are going and be clever and intelligent in how you get there. I think that is true of all reform. It cannot be done from the top down or from the bottom up. Everyone involved in children's learning has to be part of the solution--from the custodians to the superintendent of schools.

The benefit of any reform effort is high achievement, a better quality of life and the safety and security of students.

Parents want what is best for their children. They benefit from charter schools because there is better communication between the home and the school, and they know that their children are in a place that is productive.

A charter school also gives more power to the faculty to develop plans with others within the school community to best serve children and to achieve those objectives.

There are drawbacks to charter schools. The reason that there are rules and regulations in school districts is for the protection of the children; not all out-of-the-box thinking is beneficial to children.

In Nashville, Tenn., officials at one school have redesigned the way they operate the school, and they have seen very good results. They did this within the existing system. There are many different roads that lead to the same place.

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