Samuel goes to Charter(?) School

February 16, 2005 | 34 comments
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Next fall my firstborn will start kindergarten. As such he has the choice between the local elementary (4 blocks from home) and the charter school (Freedom Academy). He has other choices but he isn’t going to exercise them, so we’ll ignore those.

1. Several of our nearest neighbors attend the charter school, thus it is as much our “neighbor” school as the elementary.

2. The charter school is currently far away, but we can carpool and they expect to move closer within a year or so.

3. The charter to the charter school specifies a unified curriculum of Spalding, Saxon and Core Knowledge. They track kids into the math that works for them.

4. They do Spanish once a week which the elementary doesn’t.

5. Ideologically I am in favor of the concept of charter schools, but not so much that it is a big player in the decision.

6. The charter school will be in its 3rd year.

7. The charter school requires 40 hours of volunteer work and is run by a board of parents.

8. They also have a uniform policy. Currently this means little to me but since they will likely have classes through 8th grade a uniform policy might be very nice later on.

9. The elementary school is about what I expect from an elementary school and seems competent.

So here’s the question. Does anybody have anything useful to say about 1-9. Does anybody have experiences that would be useful to us in making our decision? Are there important questions we should ask? Does grade school Spanish do kids any good? Are these curricula noticeably better or worse than any other?

I imagine that both options are actually just fine, with good people teaching in both places, but I thought I’d see what the collective brain has to say.

34 Responses to Samuel goes to Charter(?) School

  1. HL Rogers on February 16, 2005 at 5:07 pm

    My only worthwhile comment is that Freedom Academy sounds kind of sketchy. Have you checked for a bunker in the basement stockpiled with guns? And now you ask: worthwhile? Well, if you find the guns it was worthwhile and you’ll thank me later.

  2. Julie in Austin on February 16, 2005 at 5:07 pm

    I hate Saxon. Let me tell you why: It is way, way, way too much. Overkill. Almost guaranteed to beat the interest in math out of any breathing child. Unless . . . the teacher modifies the program, by not requiring all of the drill. I’d look into this, because unless your child is just extremely slow, Saxon is painful.

    Core Knowledge I have mixed feelings about. On the one hand, the concept of a core of knowledge is very, very good. On the other hand, they don’t study history sequentially, which I think is just downright stupid and confusing.

    But this isn’t an ideal world. The only point is to compare the charter school with the public school. The public school may not require memorization of math facts (Saxon will), which is a huge mistake. It might teach fluffly math. It may not teach *any* history (just ‘social studies’) which is a huge mistake. So, Saxon and Core K. may be preferable. Spanish is a big plus. Concerned parents are a big plus.

    Honestly, though, the most important factor to me is one that you didn’t mention (unless it has something to do with Spalding, which I’ve never heard of): how is reading taught? I would not send my child to a school that didn’t teach phonics (unless I planned on just teaching that at home) along with lots and lots of living books read by the teacher.

    Probably TMI, but you asked.

  3. Ana on February 16, 2005 at 5:16 pm

    Choosing a school can be a daunting decision. My Samuel started kindergarten last fall in a private, Lutheran school and then due to many factors switched to public school, where he has been much happier and more successful.

    Some other factors which may or may not apply:
    - Is one of the kindergartens full time? Is he ready for full time? (A factor in our change)
    - Have you met individual teachers? Do you think one teacher’s personality will mesh better than the others with your son’s personality?
    - What will happen if (as happened in our case) your child is discovered to need extra resources to help him learn? Do both schools have equal access to school counselors, state funds, and other resources to help him?
    - “Idealogically,” how do you feel about the fact that when parents who can afford the uniforms, money, and/or time take their kids to a private or charter school, the only ones left in the true neighborhood public school are the kids whose parents cannot afford those things? What does that do to the natural diversity of a classroom? How important is it to you that your kids do or do not go to school with kids whose skin colors, moral values and/or economic lives are quite different from their own?
    - Who will be doing those 40 hours of volunteer work? Is that for the whole year? I hope?
    - How does your wife feel about this decision?
    - What does the Spirit say? Sometimes there are things you can’t know in advance, but the Lord does. (I am sad to admit I never really prayed about that Lutheran school. It was traumatic for all of us.)

  4. Amira on February 16, 2005 at 5:17 pm

    I don’t think Spanish one time a week will do much for your son, but it’s still worthwhile to have it. It would be great if you had a way to supplement the Spanish at home. I agree with Julie on Core Knowledge. It is almost certainly better than what the local elem will be teaching. I also agree with her on reading- there is no skill that is more important than learning to read, and sight reading/whole language/whatever they are calling it now is not the way to go. It often works, but not often enough.

    We haven’t been faced with this particular decision, but if we were, I’d choose the charter school. And, really, kindergarten is a good time to discover if one option isn’t going to work. Many families go through several different schooling options before settling on one that works for them. I really wouldn’t worry about it too much at this point.

  5. Rosalynde Welch on February 16, 2005 at 5:21 pm

    I am not at all expert about children’s education, but I remembered hearing on NPR a somewhat negative assessment of their performance:

    http://www.aft.org:8765/query.html?qt=charter+school&col=aft&charset=iso-8859-1&searchbtn.x=16&searchbtn.y=7

  6. Amira on February 16, 2005 at 5:29 pm

    Ana,

    Charter schools should not have siginificant extra expenses or lack of diversity like private schools often have. Charter schools are still public schools. In fact, my son would have had *more* diverse classmates if he had gone to a charter school since it pulled kids from all over the area instead of just our little, very white area.

    I really don’t think that charter schools can be accused of leaving the rest of the kids to wither in a public school in the same way private schools can.

  7. Bill on February 16, 2005 at 5:31 pm

    Julie, what are living books?

  8. Jordan Fowles on February 16, 2005 at 5:38 pm

    I’d look into this, because unless your child is just extremely slow, Saxon is painful.

    Ouch! Add me to the ranks of the super slow then, because I did Saxon and LOVED IT! (And I went on to tutor math in College to earn extra ca$h…)

    I can see why it wouldn’t work for every kid, but it doesn’t mean that those who like it are slow. Unless I am, which is possible I guess.

    I still know home-schooling families who SWEAR by Saxon, because it is so well structured and provides ample practice opportunities.

    As for public versus charter school: my wife and I went through this debate over and OVER AND OVER again. We finally settled on homeschool, until we didn’t any more. What a waste of time that all was. Unless kids are dealing drugs in your school, I don’t think any one choice is better or worse (generally) than the other. If the parents stay VERY VERY involved no matter what educational means is used, then the child will excel, keep moral values, and love learning, in my opinion.

    Some kids in my law school were home schooled. Some were charter schooled. Some were private schooled. Some were public schooled. Every one of them turned out to be a smart, contributing, well-adjusted member of society.

  9. Julie in Austin on February 16, 2005 at 5:38 pm

    Bill–

    That’s homeschool-speak for non- textbooks. If you can find it at Barnes and Noble, it is a living book. If it was written for a classroom, bury it.

  10. Julie in Austin on February 16, 2005 at 5:42 pm

    Jordan–

    I was probably a little too harsh about Saxon. It’s just that there are so many other programs out there, it is definitely not a selling point for me. (Again, that’s in an ideal universe. It may be far preferable to what FM’s public school uses.)

  11. Russell Arben Fox on February 16, 2005 at 5:43 pm

    Amira is correct. Obviously, there are ways in which charter schools can be critiqued from a public, egalitarian, and/or “diversity” perspective, but those involve issues that have been hashed out alot on T&S before (see here and here). Frank said that his ideological preferences really don’t factor into this decision that much, but for what it’s worth, charter schools are one of those rare initiatives which, in theory at least, manage to bridge a lot of ideological gaps. They are part of the public system, only a part which is capable to serving a specific–and, yes, to a degree, self-selected, but rarely meritocratically so–niche, thereby enriching, rather than dividing, the social fabric.

    Most of the studies done so far on charter schools suggest a mixed record; some real improvements over public education, some real declines. As always, parental involvement is what matters most, one reason why this option which Frank describes (with its required 40 hours of voluntary work) sounds fairly appealing to me.

  12. Julie in Austin on February 16, 2005 at 5:44 pm

    Jordan–

    You commit a grave error in your reasoning about the students in your law school. Everyone there *got in* to your school. That means that their charter/private/home/public school worked for them.

    But did disprortionate #s of applicants from one of those groups NOT get in?

  13. Jordan Fowles on February 16, 2005 at 5:50 pm

    Good point.

    I am just tired of hearing that one method of doing things is better than another, when usually if the parental involvement is where it needs to be, both things are just as good.

    When parents decide to home school, they are automatically barraged by opinions from public schoolers who swear public school is better. And when people decide to public school, they can often be subjected to criticism just as harsh from died-in-the-wool home schoolers- that home-schooling is the *only* viable approach to education.

    I think both sides are wrong. Successful education depends on parental involvement, not on the choice of school (or unschool). In my opinion.

  14. Julie in Austin on February 16, 2005 at 5:55 pm

    You are right, Jordan, about the animosity. It’s almost as bad as the working vs. at-home mother debate (and, of course, within the homeschool community we judge each other by our choice of math curriculum. I’m serious.)

    Animosity comes from insecurity about one’s own choices.

  15. Ana on February 16, 2005 at 5:58 pm

    Amira, and others, thanks for the correction. I fully confess not having ever researched a charter school. Looks like I’m still too much immersed in my own child’s school dramas to do a good job giving input here.

  16. Frank McIntyre on February 16, 2005 at 6:07 pm

    I am pretty sure the school is not stockpiling ammo, judging from the parents I know. But one never knows!

    Research-wise charter schools as a group underperform public schools for the first 2-3 years. Then the bad ones tend to close. Whether they excel as a group after that takes more time to determine because they are rather new, but I don’t think there is strong evidence that smacking the word “charter” on it makes it automatically better. On the other hand Rosalynde, I would not trust the AFT’s research farther than I could throw it. Their conclusions are predetermined by the fact that charter schools are less unionized.

    Spalding is some kinda phonics thing I think. As for the “living books”, I don’t really like textbooks much.

    As far as diversity goes, I am not too concerned. Our local school is probably more racially diverse but I don’t really march under that banner. Charter schools like this one tend to select on having a combination of active parents and annoying parents, so it is in some ways nice for the local elementary school.

    Thanks for all the input so far. It is good to think about.

  17. JKS on February 16, 2005 at 6:41 pm

    I faced a similar decision just recently. I have a first grade daughter, a Pre-K son with a speech delay, plus a baby. For K, I drove my daughter to a non-neighborhood school (our district is open if there is room at the school and you drive your child there). Then we moved and our new local elementary school had a better reputation and so I looked forward to my child beginning first grade there.
    Then we got the call. She got into the district wide school that has a lottery to get into. So, we had to make the big decision for her, plus for our son who would follow just the next year. And I was deciding between 2 schools that my children had never attended. How do you decide?
    I can list all the pros and cons of each. But ultimately, I went with what had worked for me when choosing the school for the kindergarten year. I researched. I prayed. My husband and I talked about the pros and cons. I spoke to friends. I spoke to acquaintances that might have some knowledge. And my husband and I spoke again. And we prayed.
    I went with what ultimately felt right.
    D&C 9 comes in handy once again!!!! Because when we first got the call we were leaning towards that school….that’s what seemed automaticly would be the best call. But we didn’t rest at ease. When we finally chose our neighborhood school, we felt good about it.
    And we continued to feel good about it.
    I still am happy we chose our neighborhood school. Despite the “reputation” of the lotter school–which 2 principals since inception, I don’t think it is the same school that it was 10 years ago when it acquired its rep. Then there was the fact that all those parents who bother to take their kids their must really care about their kids education and therefore volunteer more and work more with their kids at home. Wouldn’t our kids have a better quality of friends? Wouldn’t they have better this and that? Better test scores?
    On the con side. Driving your children to school, especially when you have babies, is a big pain. And the longer the drive the bigger pain it is. The kids on our street do go to the neighborhood school and its a big plus to get to know your neighbors. The lottery school also had some non-traditional aspects (multi-age classrooms) that I wasn’t really sold on. Plus there was the exclusivity aspect of it. If you have a problem, they can remind you how lucky you are to be there and there are 5 people just waiting to take your place. Another friend with a child there puts a lot of pressure on her son to perform up to par, when I think he’s doing just fine.
    Anyway, our decision felt right. And are happy with it. I volunteer once a week for an hour. And so do 5 other parents. In a class of 20, that’s pretty good parental involvement.
    Interestingly, the test scores for last year came out, and surprise–our neighborhood school beat the lottery school in several sections. Didn’t that make us chuckle.
    Good luck.

  18. Bryce I on February 16, 2005 at 10:04 pm

    Well, late to the Saxon discussion, but here’s my take:

    I would be very wary of a school that uses Saxon as a math curriculum. Saxon is popular with homeschoolers for a few reasons: it has a Christian worldview, it’s drill/worksheet intensive, and it teaches itself — the instructor doesn’t need to have a deep understanding of the material. It also produces students who get great test scores. Unfortunately, they also tend to have a very mechanical understanding of mathematics (generalizing here of course, Jordan)..

    Saxon has its place in the homeschool world. I don’t think it belongs in a classroom with a competent teacher. They did get bought out this year by Harcourt, so things may change some, but I imagine most of the change will be in the distribution channels — homeschoolers are being cut out, from what I hear.

    Spanish once a week is useless, in my opinion. It’s just something to make you feel good about the school.

    All that said, the fact that we can discuss the specific curricula used by the charter school is a huge point it its favor.. Public (non-charter) schools tend not to be nearly as good about lettting parents know what kids will be taught and how — I imagine that there’s much more room for meaningful parental input at the charter school on curriculum choice and other education-related issues.

    Also, I really like the idea of school uniforms, but that’s just me.

    I think being able to walk to school is a significant plus for the local elementary school. Keeping out of the car makes scheduling life much, much easier. (Maybe he won’t walk at first, but down the road a couple of years).

    Finally, I’m intrigued by the way you describe the situation as your son’s choice. Is there a particular reason for this?

  19. Greg on February 16, 2005 at 10:13 pm

    Pardon my ignorance, but how exactly does a math curriculum for tots have a “Christian worldview”?

  20. Bryce I on February 16, 2005 at 10:36 pm

    Greg –

    Just ignore that part of my post — I was dead wrong about that. Actually Saxon gets a rap for being non-Christian — I was confusing it with another curriculum.

    Basically, you stick a Bible verse on every page and all of your story problems are about angels.

  21. Greg on February 16, 2005 at 10:43 pm

    Sounds fun. I was hoping to hear it used a base 7 number system.

  22. David Rodger on February 17, 2005 at 1:27 am

    Well, apparently Newton, Mass has a math curriculum which seems to believe that eliminating racism is more important than 1+1 = 2.

    So why wouldn’t a Christian math system teach base 3 (the Godhead), base 5 (the Pentateuch), base 7 (the creation), base 10 (the ten commandments), base 12 (the 12 apostles)?

    Wow! now that is a math curriculum which will kick rear.

  23. Nate Oman on February 17, 2005 at 8:32 am

    “On the other hand Rosalynde, I would not trust the AFT’s research farther than I could throw it. Their conclusions are predetermined by the fact that charter schools are less unionized.”

    I was about to post exactly the same thing…

  24. Bryce I on February 17, 2005 at 8:51 am

    Bumper sticker: there are only 10 kinds of people in the world: those who understand binary and those who don’t.

  25. Rosalynde Welch on February 17, 2005 at 9:44 am

    Nate, Frank: The study was performed by the Department of Education, but the results reported on the AFT website. Should have linked directly to the ED, sorry, sloppy with Google. The study may have its faults, but it’s not union propaganda.

  26. Russell Arben Fox on February 17, 2005 at 10:01 am

    Good, balanced data on numerous charter school arrangements, plus the movement in general, can be found the the Progressive Policy Institute’s blog, Eduwonk (look here). I didn’t see anything specific to Utah, but they’ve published reports on charter schools in Texas, California, Ohio, Arizona, NYC and elsewhere. They’re cautiously supportive of charter reforms in public education, and I think the studies support that.

  27. Nate Oman on February 17, 2005 at 10:03 am

    Rosalynde: Here is the AFT’s description of the DOE study, which you linked to:

    A new U.S. Department of Education report evaluating public charter schools in a number of states confirms findings of two separate AFT reports that raise serious doubts about student achievement in charter schools.

    Here is the Department of Education’s own description of their findings:

    In five case study states, charter schools are less likely to meet state performance standards than traditional public schools. It is impossible to know from this study whether that is because of the performance of the schools, the prior achievement of the students, or some other factor. The study design does not allow us to determine whether or not traditional public schools are more effective than charter schools.

    http://www.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/choice/pcsp-final/execsum.html

    Actually, the AFT is not as blindly committed to the status quo as is the NEA, and they initially supported charter schools.

  28. Rosalynde Welch on February 17, 2005 at 10:22 am

    I surrender, guys! I have absolutely no dog in the fight, just tried to add a data point I had become aware of.

  29. Nate Oman on February 17, 2005 at 10:33 am

    Rosalynde: Actually, I don’t really have a dog in the fight either, and I didn’t meant to gang up on you. I do have some problems with the teacher’s unions, but this is mainly due to very negative experiences with union tenured teachers in high school rather than any real understanding of education policy…

  30. Shelby Ferrin on February 17, 2005 at 10:50 am

    In my experience, charter and public schools are just about as effective for children as their parents choose to make them. I participated in a “special program” as an elementary student that wasn’t technically a charter program but did have its own curriculum and rely heavily on parental involvement. Things began well when the parents were all gung ho about spending the equivalent of an entire work week supplementing the teacher’s efforts, but that didn’t last. Can you imagine what our kids would be getting out of their educations if we committed ourselves to spending 40 hours per week helping them, regardless of the in-class curriculum? On the other hand, I’d be wary of a school program that touts itself as superior ideologically — public school didn’t corrupt me or skew my worldview, but I know a couple of people who didn’t come out of private education or home schooling as lucky.

  31. Frank McIntyre on February 17, 2005 at 11:34 am

    RW, I was actually thinking about not saying anything, because I realize that you were just providing info, not advocating. But then I did.

    Bryce: As for “his choice”, it isn’t. We’ll make the choice for him.

  32. Mark B. on February 17, 2005 at 12:28 pm

    Not only do I not have a dog in this fight–my dog refuses to fight at all. She is peaceful, loving, a friend to all. Now, wouldn’t you rather talk about her than quibble about schools?

  33. Bryan Warnick on February 17, 2005 at 1:12 pm

    Paradoxically, schools of choice tend to be less innovative than public schools. People tend to think that a “good education” is a very traditional, teacher-centered type of education. Research shows that this is the sort of education people choose. So if you want less innovation and a more teacher-centered approach, a charter school may be right for you (although I don’t know anything about how this applies to the “Freedom Academy.”) This is a good example of how free-market models can fail live up to the hype.

    By the way, the Department of Education study simply compares NAEP numbers (National Assessment of Educational Progress). The NAEP is the best measure of school performance we have. Contrary to what others on this list have implied, the study should be taken seriously, at least when formulating educational policy.

  34. Jim F. on February 21, 2005 at 12:03 am

    Bryan failed to mention it, but he isn’t just one more opinion on this topic. He actually knows what he’s talking about.

    Long ago, before our children had children of their own, they went to private schools for a while and then public schools. Our experience was that, in the end, what really made a difference wasn’t whether they were public or private (no charter shools then), nor was it the curriculum. The difference was what several have mentioned: parent involvement. We had to be involved in the school in order for our children to get a good education–in both cases.