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Charter schools surging

Last modified: 4/29/2012 12:00:00 AM
While other states - and even some cities - boast hundreds of charter schools, after 17 years on the books, New Hampshire's charter school law has spawned 11 public education alternatives.

Progress for charters in the state since 1995 has been slow, halting and at times completely stagnant. But now, like mushrooms after a summer rain, charter schools are popping up all over.

In July 2010, state officials won a competitive $11.6 million federal start-up grant to use over five years. The result? Six new charter schools are scheduled to open in September, and another half-dozen or more are in the pipeline.

About $3.5 million of the federal grant has been allocated so far, with just over $1 million given to help existing schools share their experiences with startups. The rest will be allocated to new schools, ranging from about $400,000 to $600,000 per school, depending on factors such as enrollment. Department of Education administrator Roberta Tenney said she's confident the entire grant will be used before the July 2015 deadline.

The grant was awarded through a federal charter school program that had rejected New Hampshire's applications at least twice before, at least partly because the state wasn't allowing new charters for several years.

When the state first authorized public charter schools in 1995, the funding was to come from the student's local district budgets. No charters were created until 2003, when Franklin Career Academy, North Country Charter Academy and a handful of others tested the waters.

The funding formula changed about once per year in the beginning, and some charters battled with their local school districts for state dollars. In 2007, the state stomped the brakes and instituted a moratorium on new charters.

The ban was lifted when the state applied for the 2010 grant, and "there was a bit of bottled up energy at that point," Tenney said.

This year, more than 1,160 New Hampshire students attend the 11 current charter schools, up from 320 students in seven schools in 2006. With higher enrollments predicted at all current schools, plus the six that are poised to open, the number of students in charter schools is expected to double in the fall to more than 2,500.

 'I want to go there'


One of those students is Jennifer Minicucci's middle child.

Five years ago, Minicucci made a passing remark to her husband about an email from a friend, a comment that eventually landed her at the top of the board of trustees for one of the pending charter schools.

Back in 2007, a group of parents and educators were opening a charter school in Merrimack for middle-schoolers, called the Academy of Science and Design.

Her older son, then in elementary school, piped up from the other room.

"I want to go there," he said, not knowing more than the school's name.

Promising her son only one year of attendance at a time, she and her family dipped their toes into the world of charter schools.

"I went to public school. I always thought my kids would go to their district schools," Minicucci said.

"When we were looking for a house, we wanted to live in a town that was known for good schools," she said. "I wouldn't have even thought about a charter school if it weren't for him. I'm not even sure I really understood what a charter school was."

Eventually she learned, and she volunteered to be on the board. Then she saw her second son struggling in his local public elementary school.

She joined a group of other parents and educators, some connected to the Academy for Science and Design and some not, bounced ideas around and developed committees. Then, under the moratorium and with no start-up funding available, they waited.

Only a few months after the moratorium was lifted, they submitted a formal application. Polaris Charter School, which will open in Manchester this fall, will accept about 60 students between ages 5 and 11, for project-based learning in mixed-age classrooms and a move-on-when-ready approach to grade levels.

 Hot topics


Several of the other charter schools opening in the fall - Mill Falls Charter School, also in Manchester; Robert Frost Charter School in North Conway; and The Birches Academy in the Salem area - will feature mixed-age classrooms and project-based learning.

Many of those philosophies have been hot topics in the education industry for decades, and are gaining traction in places where charter schools are already well-established, such as Massachusetts and New York, said Jill Cane, the start-up director for Polaris.

"New Hampshire is really late to the table when it comes to charter schools," said Cane. "Massachusetts, for example, has a whole different view. Because they fund their schools differently, they have a different history. New Hampshire is catching up. Local public schools are much more open, they're less threatened now that there's an understanding that we're not taking their best and brightest, that's not the mission."

The attitude in local schools, at the state Board of Education and in the State House has changed, said Matt Southerton, director of the New Hampshire Center for Innovative Schools, a nonprofit organization that supports charter schools.

When the charter school law was new, state board members read it as all but requiring them to approve any school with a complete application.

"Basically, we were a rubber stamp," Fred Bramante, chairman of the board at the time, told the Monitor in 2008.

"We weren't really sure, as a state board, what we were approving, what we should be looking for," said Judy Reever, who was also then a member of the state board. "We were approving them blind."

Now, applicants must detail what assessment tests the students will take to show achievement, the school calendar, plans for parent organizations, a proposed five-year budget and support from the local community, among other requirements.

If the charter school plan addresses all those questions, the board will approve it, said Chairman Tom Raffio of Bow.

"But I can tell you," he said, "when they present it, we ask a lot of tough questions. As a board member, I feel I'm not just rubber stamping. I think we feel very empowered to ask a lot of tough questions, and most of the plans have had to come back for a second iteration once we've given them feedback."

Even more than at the board level, the biggest change Southerton has seen this decade has been in the Legislature, he said.

"Just a few years ago we had a moratorium on new schools, proposed enrollment caps and a fluctuating funding formula. Now the moratorium is gone, we have a stable funding formula and you don't see the repeated attempts to weaken or kill off the charter schools," he said in an email message.

 Further bills


Several bills making their way through the legislature this spring address ambiguities in state laws on charter schools.

One would clarify that charters are allowed to incur long-term debt, and that the state is not responsible for the bill if a charter school closes before paying off the loan. The Senate Education Committee has held one hearing but hasn't yet scheduled a vote for that bill.

Another clarifies the responsibility for educating charter school students with special needs.

For each student, a charter school receives $5,450 in state adequacy funding. Local district public schools receive a base adequacy grant of $3,450 per student, with extra funding if the student requires special education or free or reduced-price lunch.

Charter schools don't get those extra layers of state funding, and state law is vague about whether the district or the charter school is responsible for the special services the child may need.

The House Education Committee is due to vote on that bill May 8.

The daily tasks of building a school from the ground up mean Minicucci doesn't have time to keep track of what the Legislature is doing all the time. But she hopes in the future to stay involved in education, sharing what she's learned about the process and options available for students who need something other than a mainstream classroom.

 Lessons learned


Bill Grimm of Franklin also learned a lot about charter schools, student needs and the bureaucratic process. After founding and leading one of the four charter schools to open and close in the state since 2003, he's turning his attention to his local public schools.

The Franklin Career Academy was the state's first charter school when it was approved in August 2003, after the state received a $7.2 million grant to fund a 10-year pilot program.

Designed to serve at-risk students, it was the brainchild of Grimm, who served on the Franklin School Board during the time the city had the highest dropout rate in the state. Local school districts refused or delayed turning over state funding for the students at the school, and it closed after its first year. The school reopened in the fall of 2006 and closed for good in the summer of 2008.

Looking back, Grimm says he has no regrets about his decision to brave the unknown waters of charter schools at the time.

"If we were able to press the envelope and get it started, then I think that was a good thing. If we hadn't gotten it started, it would have labored for four or five more years," he said.

Though their battles over state dollars were public and lengthy, Grimm said he doesn't blame the local public school district for his school's funding woes and ultimate closure.

His efforts now are focused on improving the local district schools, which are among the lowest performing in the state. He sees hope in what charters are doing. Not the bureaucratic process they go through to get approval, he said, but the accountability they call for from all stakeholders.

"The schools by and large are doing a good job. It's not an accident and it's not by luck," Grimm said. "They set standards, they're measurable and there's accountability. If it's anything like what my experience was, the parents are probably more involved and are working with the school collectively.

"Charter schools are here to stay. My greatest hope would be that stakeholders of the community see what can go on in public education if you do it right. It's not the money in most places at all. It's the commitment to putting together a plan with accountability and getting everybody on the same page.

"There's nothing or almost nothing going on in a charter school that you can't do in a regular school if you have the commitment. I would hope people would wake up and say, 'Well, jeez, we can do that in our own community, too.' "

(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or spalermo@cmonitor.com.)


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