- The Washington Times - Monday, February 11, 2002

A cursory look at the numbers, particularly in the District, makes it clear that charter schools represent a significant movement in educational circles.What isn't so obvious, though, is all the grueling work behind every charter school that opens its doors.
The schools, which operate independently from existing school districts but draw upon the same economic resources, are seen by some as credible alternatives to traditional school systems. They can offer specified training, such as an arts-intensive curriculum, or general courses of study.
Each, however, demands exhaustive preparation by its founders, coupled with the good will of the community it hopes to serve.
Robert Cane, executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, or FOCUS, says the schools' rapid ascent camouflages the effort behind each school.
"It's really daunting to start these kind of schools," says Mr. Cane, whose Washington-based group offers advice for those looking to start new charter schools.
A charter school typically involves a written guarantee to the government-created board that approves it that it will meet certain academic guidelines over a three- to five-year period; if it doesn't, its charter will be revoked. In the District, approval can be granted either by the Board of Education or the D.C. Public Charter School Board.
According to the D.C. Public Charter School Resource Center, the District's charter school laws were created in 1996, opening the door for two schools. More than 33 public charter schools currently operate in the city.
Some, like the Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom school in Northwest, Mr. Cane says, were started by social workers who deal with school-age children.
"They're doing what they can for these kids," he says of the social workers, who he suggests feel limited by what they see as the children's poor educational training. "Unless we get these kids educated, it's all for naught."
Other schools, such as Capital City Public Charter School in Northwest, are founded because of impetus from concerned parents seeking an educational alternative for their children.
Whatever the inspiration, the first step involves gathering a group of talented people to design the school and then make a presentation to the local charter school authority.
"You need to show evidence that you've brought together an interim board of trustees that has expertise in the academic realm, the business realm," Mr. Cane says. "You're not just starting a school, you're starting a small business."
Some schools with noble ambitions get blocked if their applications aren't specific or realistic about how the school will operate. Using vague terms to express their goals can get their applicaton rejected.
One application in the District was denied last year, Mr. Cane says, because its budget did not provide for special-education teachers to instruct the large number of children with learning and physical disabilities the school would have served.
Funding for charter schools comes from the local governments, the same source from which traditional public schools draw. Economic backing is based on a per-child allocation, just as it is for public schools. In the District, that figure is $5,970, Mr. Cane says, though it is raised by varying factors, including grade level and learning disability. Typically, the cost per child averages about $8,000, he says.
If a school will teach 100 ninth graders in its first year, for example, the projected budget is based on the amount of money earmarked for each student, multiplied by 100.
Most schools locally don't have a problem finding students.
"Every year," Mr. Cane says, "We've added at least a thousand kids to the total."
Mr. Cane says students are recruited through radio advertisements, signs posted on Metro buses, and town meetings. FOCUS pitches in by hosting the annual D.C. Public Charter School Information Fair. This year's fair will be held from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Feb. 23 at the Washington Convention Center.

In the case of Susan Schaeffler, recruitment meant some unorthodox tactics. Ms. Schaeffler is principal of the KIPP DC/KEY Academy charter school. The name stands for Knowledge Is Power Program D.C. /Knowledge Empowers You.
The Southeast middle school principal and her fellow school founders slapped information printouts on pizza-box tops, stapled them up at gas stations and apartment complexes and stopped passers-by on the street before starting classes last fall.
"We bothered people until they agreed to listen to us," Ms. Schaeffler says.
The school, which runs longer days than conventional schools, has a waiting list for new students, and many already accepted are friends or relatives of the school's first-year students.
Ms. Schaeffler's school is open from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. weekdays. Children have class on three out of four Saturdays a month from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Ms. Schaeffler's desire for a different kind of school predated the Southeast neighborhood's acceptance of the alternative.
She taught in both Baltimore and District public schools and routinely found she needed more time than the average school day afforded to teach the lessons.
"I felt like, leaving at 3:30, I wasn't doing my job," she says. That philosophywasn't shared by some of her peers or by the public school system in general.
"I couldn't do the job I wanted to do," says Ms. Schaeffler, whose school meets in the basement of Garden Memorial Presbyterian Church on Minnesota Avenue.
She met with representatives from KIPP, a charter school group headquartered in San Francisco that runs schools in New York City and Houston. She spent time with the organization through KIPP's fellowship program. She worked in the two existing KIPP schools, wearing every hat she could to get a feel for what would be needed.
When it came time to decide where she might use those skills, she found students in Southeast had lower test scores and higher dropout rates than those in other D.C. neighborhoods.
From there, she and a team of dedicated staffers applied to the D.C. Public Charter School Board for approval.
Each state that permits charter schools has its own application guidelines. In Virginia, Mr. Cane says, a proposed charter school must be approved by the local school district. Maryland has no legislation as yet to allow for charter schools.
Ms. Schaeffler's middle school, only for fifth graders this initial year, has 80 students and will double that amount in 2002-03 to include fifth and sixth grades.
As the school's student body grows, it will need a new space to call home. That's something Ms. Schaeffler hasn't found yet.

She isn't alone. The largest impediment to a charter school's creation, at least in the District, is the lack of available buildings to house charter school students.
Charter schools call virtually any space home, from empty churches to former warehouses and laundromats, as needed. Some charter schools gain conditional approval, assuming they can buy or lease a space for their students.
Applicants rarely receive full approval on first submission for this reason, says Tamara Lumpkin, acting executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board. Some schools are approved on the condition that they soon land a home of their own.
Ms. Lumpkin looks at a potential charter's education, business and accountability plans before considering an applicant's request. Other factors the board considers are involvement with the community, financial preparation and clarity of purpose.
Community involvement can come via partnerships with local corporations that will lend experts in financial or educational matters to the school or with ties to a local boys or girls group to provide recreational help when needed.
Charter school applicants can earn full or conditional approval of "first-stage clearance" or their request may be denied outright.
Conditional approval means moderate tinkering needs to be done. First-stage clearance implies a major overhaul of the application is in order before it can be resubmitted.
Though charter schools have existed just a few years, the path a would-be charter school must follow has become more difficult, says Shirley Monastra, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Resource Center.
"Chartering authorities have improved their processes. They're much more rigorous in their expectations," Ms. Monastra says. Some aspects on which boards are more critical include expertise in nonprofit organizations and legal matters to make sure the board sticks to its plans and avoids unnecessary legal problems.
Ms. Schaeffler cautions those who want to create a charter school in their neighborhood to pool as many resources as possible, from all walks of life.
"Get educators, attorneys, real estate agents," she says. "It's a cliche but it takes a whole village to pull this off."

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