By Rae Harkness: It’s National Charter Schools Week (May 4-10), and I can’t help but revisit the last three years that my children have attended a charter public school. When I first signed them up at Ivy Preparatory Academy school three years ago, I had no idea exactly what that journey would involve. Three years ago, I was just looking for a better option than my neighborhood school.
Specifically, I was unhappy with the bureaucracy of a giant school system. Great schools have good discipline policies, empowered teachers and involved parents. I wanted a school that would listen to what my child needed and one that was empowered to make changes when necessary.
While I’ve met many great teachers in my county school system, most weren’t able to do their jobs properly due to problems with administrative bloat, a volatile school board and the dysfunction of a school system that is just too big.
Three years ago, I made the choice to enroll my son and daughter into single gender charter schools. Sure, there have been challenges. Transportation, for example. Our school has no bus service. Our choices are parent drop-off and pick-up, private transportation services or MARTA. I was able to meet some of the parents from the school that live in my area. Another parent with three students at our school lives about one mile away from me. We teamed up, and one of us drops off all five kids and the other picks up. We made it work.
Another challenge has been funding. As a state charter school we receive substantially less funding per student than the typical public school. We also pay over $700K in rent for our building, which is nota line item for district schools. That means our school does not have textbooks or a large library like most schools. It’s also made it harder to pay teachers a competitive salary.
Although we’ve had challenges, our school community has met them head on and the rewards have been great. We’ve solicited and received public and private sector donations of computers, books and even a playground and outdoor classroom. Our charter gives us the flexibility and the initiative to form creative alliances with art centers, local colleges and volunteer groups.
Unlike the parent resource center in our old school, our charter school’s parent resource center is a thriving central hub where parents volunteer their services. Teachers can request help from the parents, and parents receive volunteer credit for almost any activity that brings them through the doors. This keeps them involved and invested in their child’s education.
Our school atmosphere is friendly and the dress code and single gender classes eliminate much of the peer pressure middle school children often deal with. Children feel safe in their school and fights are unheard of. A group of parents, teachers and administrators worked together to formulate a school bullying protocol that is fair to children but also allows them to resolve minor conflicts on their own.
Finally, one of the best things about our school is the amount of local control. The school’s governing board is made up of professionalswho are united in the desire to provide our children with an excellent education that prepares them to enter the college of their choice. Our board meets at school in the evening when parents are able to attend. School administrators have offices in different areas of the school where they can interact with students and offer support to teachers. Teachers are given flexibility to teach “their way” but are held accountable for results.
Yes, my charter school gave me the choice to move from a system where one superintendent and nine board members make decisions for about 100,000 children in 137 schools and centers, to a system where one executive director and nine board members make decisions for about 1,000 children in 3 schools. Our system is one in which the voice of a parent can still be heard.