Charter schools are a cost-effective alternative

Posted: Monday, April 12, 2004

Charter schools in Alaska offer a bright opportunity for parents who are looking for the best for their children. Alaska's charter school law, enacted in 1995, allows parents, teachers and community members to organize independent schools that provide innovative educational opportunities for Alaska's youth. Charter schools are publicly funded schools that accept applications for all children in the grades offered. A lottery system is used if there are more applicants than spaces. There are currently 17 charter schools in Alaska and the number is growing rapidly, spurred on by concern over school quality limited by shrinking budgets.

Charter schools are part of a school district, but are exempt from the district curriculum and schedule requirements. Charters provide the ability to experiment with new and innovative approaches to education that might be too costly or risky on a district-wide basis. There are charters that specialize in science and the arts and others that concentrate on academics. Some require uniforms and others adopt shorter or longer school schedules.

Parents elect an academic policy committee that supervises the curriculum, selects teachers and other staff, and provides overall management of the school. Charter schools serve as models of parental participation in education. Charter schools are often begun by parents who are concerned about their children's success in their districts main line schools, but do not have the time or experience to home-school and cannot find a private school that works for them or that they can afford. Parental involvement is the key to the success of charter schools. Most charter schools require a minimum amount of work from parents, usually scheduled around what fits their lifestyle best.

Charter schools provide advantages to school districts as well as parents. By providing an alternative program, children who might otherwise be home-schooled remain enrolled in the school district. Charters also provide an opportunity for school districts to offer a greater variety of educational options. There are charter schools in almost every major community in Alaska.

The Juneau Community Charter School (JCCS) serves about 60 children in grades K-6. Since 1997, it has provided an arts-integrated, project-based curriculum. Students work on visual arts projects, produce plays they write themselves and receive instruction in Spanish, vocal music, piano and violin. They also receive a strong academic program. The school provides a creative learning environment where the needs of the whole child are addressed. Students who have not been successful at other schools have found a new connection to learning and success at school through the curriculum at the JCCS.

The JCCS is a real bargain because of parental involvement. The JCCS receives less per student then other elementary schools. Parents do many jobs that in other schools are done by paid staff. This includes custodial, recess and classroom aides, administrative and clerical work, and classroom teaching. Parents also perform fund raising to help support the school financially. The strong connection with parent and community resources gives students access to rich and unique learning opportunities. The small school size combined with strong parent involvement allows the school to meet diverse needs of children and families.

The JCCS is accepting applications for next school year (2004-05). Applications will be accepted for grades K-6 during the month of April. A lottery will be held in early May to fill the classes. JCCS is increasing enrollment for next year so that more students and families will have an opportunity to participate in the unique educational environment. Increased enrollment will also help ensure the financial stability of the school. Openings are available at all grade levels. Class size will be limited to a maximum of 22 students. Enrollment is opened to all students within the Juneau School District and no tuition is charged.

• Jeannie Monk is on the Academic Policy Committee for the Juneau Community Charter School.

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