The Charter School Advantage
Offering Parents Better Education Options
By Kevin Forest Moreau
Parents searching for a school for their child used to have just two options: independent schools and public schools. While each model has its strengths, many parents found themselves wishing for a third option: one with the flexibility of an independent school, but open to any student, free of charge.
These days, parents have more options than ever before. Charter schools are one such option, offering the best of both worlds. These schools are becoming more common throughout Georgia, and they offer a variety of educational approaches to fit a child’s individual learning needs.
What Is a Charter School, Exactly?
A charter school is a publicly funded school with the freedom to develop its own curriculum and guidelines. Instead of a local board of education, the school is governed by an independent board, which usually includes parents.
Some charter schools operate within a public school district, while others are part of a special charter school district, like City Schools of Decatur or Gainesville City Schools, that operate under a charter between the state board of education and the local school district.
In fact, one common misconception about charter schools is that they aren’t public schools, says Tanya Parker, executive director of the International Charter School of Atlanta (ICSAtlanta). “Charter schools are public schools of choice, governed by an autonomous board of directors,” she says.
Another misconception parents often have is the idea “that there is a cost, or tuition, for students to attend a charter school,” says Lisa Simon, communications director for The Main Street Academy.
Charter schools get their name from the fact that they operate according to an agreement, or “charter”—a contract between the school and an entity such as the state or a local school district.
As a result, charter schools often feature smaller classroom sizes, and in general pro-vide more personalized instruction and at-tention that a child might receive in a larger, more traditional public school setting.
“Charter schools are special in that we have greater flexibility to provide a framework appealing to varying educational needs,” says Parker.
In return for this freedom, the school takes on more accountability with parents and the school board that authorized the charter. Unlike traditional public schools, if a charter school doesn’t meet the goals stated in its charter, it faces the prospect of its charter not being renewed.
Different Ways of Learning
Choice—having more schools and more ways of learning to choose from—is the core of the charter school concept.
A school’s charter gives it more flexibility in how it instructs students. Charter schools can employ different teaching methods and educational formats, including single-gender schooling, project-based learning or Montessori education.
The International Charter School of Atlanta, for example, features a dual-language immersion program.
“By operating as a charter school, ICS-Atlanta is able to provide students with an immersive curriculum in French, German, Mandarin or Spanish, and English, ensuring students graduate bilingual and biliterate,” says Parker. “We utilize both dual-language and cultural immersion to nurture student curiosity into compassion for others and a commitment to improving our world.”
The Main Street Academy in College Park, meanwhile, employs the Renzulli Schoolwide Enrichment Model (SEM), developed by educational psychologist Joseph Renzulli.
“SEM enriches our core curriculum by bringing students in contact with experts and community leaders who explain how education connects to real-life experiences, and by sponsoring student projects that explore how academic research impactsthe outside world,” says Simon. “The Main Street Academy is one of only a few schools in the Fulton County Schools district that incorporates SEM into its curriculum.”
Amana Academy, with a campus in Alpharetta and a new location in Mableton, uses the Harvard-based EL (Expeditionary Learning) Education model, in which students learn by going on “learning expeditions” instead of sitting in a classroom. The school also has a strong focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) instruction.
“Amana Academy’s approach to learning has created an environment where my son can thrive,” says Chad Cunningham, parent of an Amana student. “The Expeditionary Learning model is focused on education equity and expects students to reach their full potential.”
Getting Into a Charter School
Unlike independent schools, charter schools, since they are public schools, cannot charge tuition, and must follow the same open admission and enrollment standards as other public schools.
According to the Georgia Charter Schools Association, a charter school is required to conduct a lottery when there are more applicants than there are seats available in the school. The lottery is conducted through random selection and the results are made public.
Open enrollment at The Main Street Academy is held each February. Prospective families must complete and submit an online application found on the school’s website.
At ICSAtlanta, “our application process opens in late fall with our information session and tour season,” says Parker. “The application is available on our website in early January, with our lottery taking place in early February. We continue admitting and enrolling new students as spaces permit until enrollment closes in late September.”
Different schools may have restrictions based on grade levels and where the student lives. The Main Street Academy is open to all K-8 students who are zoned in the Fulton County Schools district, while ICSAtlanta is a statewide charter school open to any Georgia resident, and accepts new student applications for kindergarten and first grade.
Is Charter the Right Choice?
The decision to place your child ina charter school depends on your goals for your child’s education. If you think your child would benefit from a specific learning style not found in most public schools—or if you think they’re more likely to flourish in an intimate setting with smaller classrooms and more personal interaction between students and teachers—a charter school just may offer the perfect learning experience.
Finding a Charter School
The website of the Georgia Charter Schools Association (gacharters.org) has a school locator to help you find charter schools in your area, along with information on each school to help you decide where to start your search.