Charting a New Course

Charter schools offer students and parents a welcome alternative to traditional public schools, but not everyone thinks they're God's gift to education

by Christie Chisholm, Weekly Alibi, February 23, 2006

Amy Biehl is six years old, but until last month she had spent her entire young life in a little space attached to a church in the Northeast Heights. You might call it humble beginnings. Yet, despite her confined living quarters, which were never really meant to house her anyway, she's done surprisingly well for herself. She gets great test scores. Parents rave about her. She's even sent some of her kids off to college.

Amy Biehl is one of Albuquerque's newest and most impressive high schools. The school recently moved into the historic post office building Downtown on Fourth Street and Gold, becoming the first urban high school in Albuquerque in more than 40 years. Named after Amy Elizabeth Biehl, a woman who devoted her life to scholarship and humanitarianism, the school's mission is in community service, in keeping with Biehl's life ambitions.

Amy Biehl is special for several reasons. It's a mentor school with the Coalition of Essential Schools (one of only 20 in the nation), which means its faculty have the rare opportunity of visiting other high-performing schools around the country and, in turn, helping other small schools get started. It's also located in one of the most historic buildings in the city, and it has the unique advantage of being able to use nearby attractions as part of its classroom—the Main Library for research, the Barelas Community Center for gym class. Lastly, more than 93 percent of its students use public transportation.

Another element that certainly sets Amy Biehl apart is its classification. As one of the first charter schools not only in New Mexico but in the entire nation, the high school is part of an educational trend sweeping the country.

Most people have heard the term "charter school" without fully understanding what that term means. Commonly misperceived as schools for troubled kids—or the places where "bad kids" go—charter schools are the underdog of the public school sector.

What exactly is a charter school? Look around and find out. Albuquerque has 36 out of 61 in the state and more than 9,000 New Mexico students attend them. On average, about nine new charter schools pop up within our state's borders every year. Some are highly successful, a few have failed, but mostly, charter schools offer an innovative educational opportunity rarely seen beyond the private school sector. They're already starting to change the ways American kids, and their parents, view learning.


The Big Picture

Charter schools are a little tricky to define, as each one is different. Actually, that's a huge part of their appeal. Some are aimed at helping troubled kids or dropouts get back into the traditional public school system, others have missions geared toward specialties such as math and science, performing arts or community service.

Technically, charter schools are nonsectarian public schools that operate outside of many of the regulations that traditional public schools adhere to, although they're still held accountable to their sponsor (usually the state) for academic results and fiscal responsibility. What this basically means is that charter schools are separate from much of the bureaucracy in traditional school districts. They therefore enjoy much more flexibility. It is this flexibility and room for creative teaching styles that's made them increasingly popular with students and teachers frustrated with the engrained attitudes and techniques of traditional public school education.

Some charter schools, such as Amy Biehl, have taken a progressive approach to education and have started requiring the completion of college courses before graduation, to ensure that students have real-life skills for the world they've been prepared for. Such efforts usually pay off; according to Tony Monfiletto, CEO and cofounder of Amy Biehl, seniors enrolled in college classes generally outperform college freshmen. "We have them transition while holding their hand," he says, "and because we're providing support, they succeed."

Not all charter schools use such an approach; in fact, charter schools are all so different from each other that it's hard—not to mention unscientific—to talk about them too generally. Even so, they share a few commonalities: They all have small student bodies, most with 250 kids or less; they all specialize in a distinct mission; and they're all relatively young.

The first charter school law was passed in Minnesota as recently as 1991, with California passing one of its own the next year. By 1995, 19 states had passed charter school laws, and today 40 states have such legislation, with New Mexico passing a charter school law in 1999. Nationally, there are 3,600 charter schools with more than 1 million students attending them. The surge in charter schools has picked up speed—more than one-third have been in operation for three years or less. Because of this rapid development, a number of new schools have fallen by the wayside, with 400 charter schools shutting down between 1991 and 2004.

Overall, charter schools seem to be a nonpartisan issue, with both President Clinton and President Bush creating initiatives for them during their terms of office. Yet despite their political support, charter schools have become controversial over the years, partially due to mixed test scores concerning their success rates. In 2004, the Department of Education released a number of reports based on findings from the study of 6,000 fourth-graders, which found that, overall, charter schools were performing lower than their traditional public school counterparts. Yet, in the same year, a Harvard study was released that included 99 percent of all elementary charter school students, and found that, on average, charter schools performed better than nearby conventional public schools. The study also found that the longer the school had been in operation, the better the test scores.

In July 2005, another analysis was released by the Charter School Leadership Council that looked at 26 different studies that had attempted to analyze change over time in charter school student or school performance. Twenty-two of the studies found that charter schools performed as well as or better than other public schools.


Dollars and Sense

Lisa Grover, the director of the New Mexico Coalition for Charter Schools, thinks charter schools have had such mixed test results primarily because they're still so young. "Schools are like a business, and you're starting a school from scratch. Sure, a few years ago test scores [for charter schools] weren't as good as other [public] schools—in 2000, there were only seven charter schools in existence in [New Mexico]. But last year, charters schools did slightly better than different schools throughout the state."

Grover says alternative schools have faced a number of hurdles in establishing themselves, the biggest one being lack of funding. "Statewide, charter schools receive $479 less per student than other public schools; in Albuquerque, that disparity raises to $712 a student. On top of that, charter schools have to give 2 percent of their budget to the local school district."

Recently, tension has been building between local school districts and charter schools. Despite the fact that local school boards generally don't oversee charter schools (instead they have their own governing board), in New Mexico, it's still up to the district to approve new charters. Some have argued that such a setup increases the competition between districts and the independent schools they approve, as the funding a school gets every year is based on the number of students they have enrolled.

Elizabeth Everitt, superintendent for Albuquerque Public Schools (APS), says she doesn't believe such competition is negative: "There's some healthy competition; I would hope that it would make our schools want to be as good or better than charters. If charters can fill a niche, it's fair game."

However, a new New Mexico law passed last year has caused strain between the two types of schools. The law sets forth the requirement that, by 2010, all charter schools need to be in public facilities equal in code to current public school buildings. This came as a result of the fact that most charter schools, due to their grassroots nature, start out in whatever spaces they can find: old grocery stores, banks or, as was the case with Amy Biehl, church-adjacent spaces.

The bill also specified, however, that local school districts are financially responsible for upgrading any charter schools that don't meet the requirement. According to Tom Savage, deputy for district resources with APS, getting all of the charter schools in Albuquerque upgraded to the standard will take an estimated $115 million. Considering that APS' general obligation bond that was approved by voters earlier this month was $125 million, and is supposed to last the district until its next GO bond election in February of 2009, such a task could create some problems.

The district isn't entirely alone—the state will match the $115 million by 47 percent—but in the eyes of some, it's not nearly enough. "In order to [make the necessary upgrades for charter schools], the district has to take money away from other projects that we promised the community," says Savage. "We want to work with the state in a way that will support education; we recognize that education is part of economic development, and we recognize that the whole initiative is important, but we don't want to have to pick and choose with priorities."

Currently, Savage says APS has put together a task force that is looking at ways to accomplish all of its goals with the funding it has. Additionally, this year's Legislative Session dealt with the issue, and discussions took place over whether charter schools should have their own district or a separate fund should be created for them. A bill was also presented this session that would remove the district's ability to approve charter schools and would put that power in the hands of the Public Education Commission. At the time this article went to print, the outcome of these issues had not yet been decided.


Passing Notes

Despite these controversies, for many people, the benefits of alternative education are worth the headaches and hassles of establishing a new kind of school system. Many of its supporters are students. "This school is different; there are smaller [student to teacher] ratios in the classroom, more one-on-one time with teachers, it's more interactive," says Chassity Garcia, a 10th grader at Amy Biehl. "The environment here is energized, more upbeat, and we know they're preparing us for the future."

Joe Giannotto, also a 10th grader, has similar sentiments. "At my last school, there was little to no freedom—we were told how to express ourselves. But it's great here—we're allowed to apply ourselves to different things, and with college courses, we can experience going in different directions." Another thing Giannotto says he likes about the school is the fact that violence is practically nonexistent. "I have a friend who goes to [a traditional public school], and he tells me stories about drama there, kids getting beat up. Nothing like that's ever happened here, and I think it allows us to get a better education." Garcia attributes the lack of violence to the small number of students in the school. "Everyone here basically knows each other; it's really friendly."

For some teachers, charter schools also provide opportunities that are oftentimes absent in public schools. Bryan Wehrli, a humanities teacher who worked at APS for 10 years before coming to Amy Biehl, says for him Amy Biehl has changed everything about teaching. "There's freedom we have as teachers here that's impossible to get in district schools," he says. "It can be harder work, because you're always working with new ideas, but it's also more gratifying." Wehrli does recognize, however, that not all charter schools are necessarily as successful as Amy Biehl. "Not all charter schools will work out," he admits, adding that if many traditional schools weren't failing so miserably, we wouldn't need to search out alternatives in the first place.