Posted on Mon, Dec. 29, 2003
EDUCATION: Charter schools mark a record
It took Minnesota's charter schools 10 years to reach the 10,000-student enrollment mark. But with rapidly expanding interest, charter schools may reach 20,000 students in half that time.
For the second year in a row, the Minnesota Department of Education has approved a record number of charter school applications. Twenty schools were approved in this year's recently completed round of applications and could open next fall.
The growth is attributed to a number of reasons: increased comfort with public charter schools, the entry of new nonprofit organizations getting involved with charter schools and additional money and technical support offered to schools.
"I'm not sure you can pin any one reason for the increase,'' said Morgan Brown, director of choice and innovation at the state education department. "Each school has its own story. Part of the growth is because families in general at all income levels are becoming more savvy about their education options, and charter schools are a part of that.''
The expansion is expected to mean that, come next fall, Minnesota will have more than 100 charter schools with an enrollment of 15,000. Statewide, 840,000 students are enrolled in traditional public school programs.
Minnesota opened the nation's first charter school in 1992, but since then many states have surpassed it in terms of charter school growth. Charter schools are public schools run by teachers and parents that operate independent of school districts.
Across the country, about 2,700 charter schools have an enrollment of more than 680,000. But while there has been a leveling off of charter school enrollment nationally in recent years, in Minnesota the steady growth is accelerating.
"I don't see this slowing down,'' said Jon Schroeder, coordinator of Education/Evolving, a pro-charter school group affiliated with Hamline University and the Center for Policy Studies. "There doesn't seem to be any shortage in people stepping forward with new proposals.''
To help new schools, several organizations have emerged. A partnership between the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools and the Walton Family Foundation will give out $1.2 million to new or expanding charter schools during this school year.
The University of Minnesota's Center for School Change is using a multimillion-dollar grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to help several charter start-ups. Among those being helped in their opening next fall is the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Arts and the Great River School, a St. Paul high school based on the Montessori philosophy.
In 2001, the Legislature granted nonprofit organizations the ability to become charter school sponsors, and this year more than half the new charter schools have nonprofits as sponsors. Friends of Ascension, led by TCF Financial chief executive and former state Republican chairman Bill Cooper, is sponsoring six schools using the back-to-basics Core Knowledge program.
Volunteers of America, a 107-year-old social services agency based in Golden Valley, is sponsoring seven schools that emphasize service learning. Among the schools they are sponsoring are TrekNorth High School, a Bemidji school that touts outdoor adventure as part of its program; and Minnesota North Star Academy, a St. Paul school for students who use American Sign Language.
To VOA, charter schools are a new way to accomplish its goals of serving people and communities.
"We've put a lot of energy into this. It isn't just a side project,'' said Justin Testerman, director of VOA's charter school program. "To us, it is a cost-effective way to meet community needs.''
For many reasons, including the entry of new players in the charter school movement, there has been an increasing comfort with charter schools, said Patty Brostrom, president of the statewide charter school group and deputy superintendent of Minnesota Transitions Charter School, the state's largest charter with 850 students.
The high-profile closings of two larger charter schools in St. Paul in 2000 and reports of other financially troubled charter schools hurt the public trust for several years. Teachers were reluctant to give up more-secure district jobs; parents worried about whether charter schools would offer stability for their children.
But confidence is rising, and that is helping enrollment, Brostrom said.
Since the closing of Right Step Academy and Success Academy, the charter schools that have shut their doors have been relatively small, with most having fewer than 100 students.
"They are realizing that the charter school movement is here to stay and that it's not going away,'' said Brostrom.
CHARTER SCHOOLS APPROVED TO OPEN NEXT FALL, THEIR GRADES AND THEIR SPONSORS
Twin Cities suburbs
John Welsh covers education. He can be reached at 651-228-5432 or firstname.lastname@example.org.