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Published in Print: May 29, 2002, as Shut Charters Leave Families Revising Plans

Shut Charters Leave Families Revising Plans

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Lori L. Mathews thought Georgetown Charter School was the perfect school for her two elementary-age boys. Its Direct Instruction curriculum, enthusiastic teachers, school uniforms, and friendly environment seemed to make for an ideal place for all of its students, she says.

But her satisfaction turned out to be short-lived. When the popular K-6 school in Georgetown, Del., shut down March 27 after only seven months in business, more than 600 students and their families were left scrambling to find new schools or to make other arrangements.

The closing of a charter school always shakes up the lives of parents and students. But when a charter school closes near the end of the academic year, as did Georgetown Charter, the transition to other schools or learning environments can be even tougher.

Usually, former charter students go back to regular public schools, said Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based research and advocacy group that supports charter schools.

According to the center, about 4 percent of charter schools close annually. Currently, nearly 2,400 of the publicly financed but largely independent schools exist nationwide.

The Delaware Department of Education estimates that about 195 of the 600 students from Georgetown Charter School have returned to regular public schools. Another 152 are being home-schooled, and 85 are enrolled in private schools, said Ron Gough, a spokesman for the department.

Because the school had a full-day kindergarten that had already met the minimum hours required by the state for this year, the kindergartners did not have to return to school, he said.

Many parents of the Georgetown students, though, did not want to send their children to other public schools, especially so late in the school year.

"Not with 10 weeks to go," Ms. Mathews said. "They would have gotten nothing out of it."

Search for Alternatives

Georgetown's closing had a great impact on parents, who had rallied to the troubled school's defense once they heard of its financial problems. The school had accumulated more than $1.5 million in debt, and school leaders decided to close its doors in March. The state is debating whether to revoke its charter. ("Parents' Efforts Fail to Save Delaware Charter," April 24, 2002.)

Since then, the Mathews family's two boys, who were in grades 1 and 4, and seven other Georgetown pupils have been taking part in a home schooling group, an arrangement Ms. Mathews said was working well.

Next year, she's hoping the Georgetown Charter School will reopen under new management. For now, she's looking at other charter schools and private schools, just in case it remains closed. While the neighborhood public school in her hometown of Lewes, Del., is good, she said, she thinks her children have done better in alternative environments.

Vance Phillips, whose three children attended Georgetown Charter, has also chosen to home school for the rest of the academic year. Then he will likely send his children back to the private Christian school they attended before enrolling in the charter school.

"We're just trying to find the least disruptive environment," Mr. Phillips said.

State Secretary of Education Valerie A. Woodruff went to several school districts to talk with administrators and teachers about how to ease the transition for the charter students who chose to return to regular public schools.

"The districts have welcomed all the students with open arms and done everything they can" to help smooth the way, Mr. Gough of the state education department said.

Few Choices

Except in Arizona, which has the largest number of charter schools of any state, and in some cities such as Washington, students in most communities do not have another local charter school to attend, Ms. Allen said. But in the long run, she added, people who choose charters in the first place are more likely to look for alternatives to the public schools.

"The mere fact that they're in charter schools implies they are more willing to exercise choice," added Lyle H. Skillen, the charter school liaison for the Arizona Department of Education.

Not every charter- school closure results in the disruption that the Georgetown students faced. And rarely have charter schools, at least in Arizona, shut down without warning, Mr. Skillen said.

At the end of this school year, two charter schools in Arizona will close because of insufficient enrollments, he said. The schools' officials have met with parents and helped plan a transition for the next academic year to another charter school.

In California, the Fresno Unified School District revoked the charter of Gateway Academy, a Muslim- oriented charter that had expanded to 11 sites, early this year. The district charged that the academy had mismanaged funds and violated numerous building codes in several facilities. ("Muslim-Led Schools Say Sept. 11 Affected Charter Decision," Jan. 30, 2002.)

Jill Marmolejo, a spokeswoman for the 81,000-student Fresno Unified district, said some of the schools stayed open for about a month after the charter and the state funding were revoked. Eventually, most of the 250 Gateway students attending sites within the Fresno district returned to public schools.

But because the district did not have records of the approximately 600 students in the Gateway sites, some of which were in other districts, Fresno officials were unable to get in touch with the students' parents to notify them of their options and responsibilities, Ms. Marmolejo said.

Under California law, it is the charter school's responsibility to notify parents if it is closing.

"In cases where the closure is amicable, or foreseen, we encourage the charter schools to work with the district," said Eileen Cubanski, the manager of the charter schools office in the California Department of Education. The regular public schools usually need access to attendance information and other school records for incoming students, she said.

The newness of most charter schools, however, continues to make them vulnerable to financial and administrative problems. And in some recent cases, rumblings of mismanagement and closure sent worried parents scrambling.

Earlier this year in an affluent Atlanta suburb, state officials began investigating the Academy of Lithonia charter school after concerns that it was not offering the specialized instruction it had promised. If the school's charter is revoked, it would be the first charter school in Georgia to close. While the school has stayed open during the investigation, dozens of the school's approximately 195 students have transferred, according to state officials.

Transition Help

In Minnesota, which pioneered the charter school concept a decade ago, a nonprofit organization is working to help struggling charter schools stay afloat so students and parents won't be stranded by sudden closings.

The Minnesota Association of Charter Schools, located in St. Paul, does not want to be an apologist for failing charter schools. Instead, the charter advocacy group works with its members to ensure they understand and can deal with the complexities of running a charter school. And if they can't, association officials say, the group will attempt to persuade school leaders to shut down their school, or urge its sponsors to withdraw the charter.

The group, which has 64 charter schools as its members, has also helped parents and students who were displaced by charter school closings. Last year, when a school shut down in the middle of the year, the group worked with another nearby charter school with a similar curriculum to take in the school's students and its teachers.

Steve Dess, the executive director of the Minnesota group, said it is important for charter school sponsors to keep a close watch on day-to-day activities and not be afraid to revoke a school's charter if school leaders mismanage money or the school strays from its mission of teaching children.

Under Minnesota law, only school districts or higher education institutions can sponsor charter schools.

"What we've learned is that it isn't too tough to monitor a charter school," Mr. Dess said. "The one thing that we saw happening with the early closures was that sponsors didn't take the time to know what was going on there."

The group also requires, as part of its code of ethics, that school officials inform parents if a school is at risk of losing its charter. Often, Mr. Dess said, parents are unaware of financial or other problems that threaten a school's existence until the school closes.

Charter schools "are started with good intentions, but that isn't enough," he added. "We all know that if they don't do a quality job, they won't be any different than the schools they're trying to supplant."

Vol. 21, Issue 38, Pages 1,13

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