For the past year one woman – Principal Angie Crawford – has run two prominent charter schools in the Madison Metropolitan School District: James C. Wright Middle School and Badger Rock Middle School. In this video Crawford talks about the new charter school, Badger Rock where students are taught to follow their passions.
By Mai Vang
Hawley Environmental School in Milwaukee allows kids with a green thumb to grow their own herbs and vegetables.
James C. Wright Middle School in Madison teaches its students to view the world with a multicultural lens.
In Appleton, students at the Renaissance School for the Arts must choose between taking poetry or hip-hop classes.
These schools are unique in their focus but have one thing in common: All three are public charter schools.
The number of charter schools in Wisconsin has tripled in the last 12 years, according to University of Wisconsin-Madison Public Affairs and political science professor, John Witte. He and others figure that this alternative, innovative way of educating just might represent an ideal way to nurture, engage and excite some harder-to-reach populations of youth.
Forty new schools opened in the fall of 2011 bringing the numbers to a total of 232 operating charter schools in Wisconsin, according to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.
Witte considers the trend an urban phenomenon.
“There’s a limitation [to the growth of charter schools] because some school boards just simply are not interested,” he said. “There’s another limitation in that smaller districts can’t afford to have charter schools because they don’t have enough students.”
One of the arguments against charter schools is the fear of the privatization of education, because local school boards do not authorize independent charters. Another argument is that some charter schools can hire non-union teachers, an area of contention among Wisconsinites since the protests against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s law denying collective bargaining rights to workers in February 2012.
The idea of a charter school first appeared in research papers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s conference on educational choice, according to Witte. From there, the charter school movement grew in the early 1990s as a possible solution to the problems facing the public educational system, according to the book Charter Schools in Action.
Charter schools are popular for the flexibility they provide from state regulations for public schools. They are also specialized, meaning each school may have a niche focus or address a specific issue.
A closer look at the three schools mentioned above will show what advocates see as a solution to the problems faced by Wisconsin’s public education system and how school administrators would change their school to make it even better than before.
Hawley Environmental School
Hawley Environmental School in Milwaukee is not a typical elementary school. It houses its very own green house, a number of school gardens and weekly environmental classes.
Hawley is a conversion charter school, meaning it converted from a regular public school to a charter school (which it did in 2010).
A group of teachers at Hawley came together to brainstorm ideas on how to be more creative with the school’s budget and allocation of resources in 2009, according to LeeAnne Chappelle, kindergarten teacher and Hawley Governance Council’s chairwoman. There, the idea for a charter school was planted, as it would give the school’s administrators more autonomy.
Milwaukee is the largest school district in Wisconsin and has one of the worst dropout rates in the nation with reading scores below proficient, according to a report by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.
That may be why Milwaukee supports school-choice. Milwaukee Public Schools ranks No. 11 nationally in number of students enrolled in charter schools, according to a 2011 report by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
For Milwaukee’s public schools, conversion charters performed better than new charters and regular schools, according to a recent study led by Witte.
Although Hawley was not a part of the independent charter study, the school is the perfect example of the flexibility a charter school provides and advocates.
“One size doesn’t fit all,” Chappelle said. “In a class of 25 students, not every student learns the same way. As a charter school, it’s given us more flexibility to do what we want.”
Hawley is self-run and has a unique governing system. The school has three governing branches that provide checks and balances on each other. The Governance Council makes decisions based on majority vote and is run by staff members. So far it seems to be working for Hawley.
“It’s working very well,” Chappelle said. “The basic idea behind that is to increase the transparency among our staff and community. And to make sure that it’s not a top-down [model] but a shared position [and] model.”
Exempt from some of the regulations of regular public schools, Hawley is able to incorporate more innovative ideas into the curriculum. Courses called “multi-age global classes” bring students of different ages into the same classroom and are offered a couple of times per semester.
Last year, Chappelle’s topic for her multi-age global class was Eagle Pen Pals, an online learning course that allowed her students to communicate with students from across the world. This year, she decided to teach an introductory course for Chinese writing.
In these classes, Chappelle pairs her older students with the younger ones to do interactive activities. However, when she works with younger students, the older students are assigned to do independent work. This allows her to focus on the needs of the student, she said.
“The students are really engaged and they really look forward to these classes,” Chappelle said.
Chappelle said more parental involvement is needed to improve Hawley. As the Governance Council chairwoman, she would like to hear more parents’ input on their child’s education.
James C. Wright Middle School
Walk into James C. Wright Middle School, and you will notice it looks a lot like any other school. Rows of lockers line the hallways and bulletin boards with messages encouraging students to be respectful are sprinkled throughout the building. There are no flashing signs pointing out the school is, in fact, one of the oldest charter schools in Madison.
James C. Wright Middle School opened in 1995 with a technology-focused curriculum. The school now specializes on social justice and social action as a response to community needs, according to the school’s principal, Dr. Angie Crawford.
Crawford created a social action committee made up of staff members when she joined the school this year.
“[The committee’s] focus is to ensure that we are infusing social action and social justice throughout our curriculum and it doesn’t become just one activity and one event,” Crawford said.
The school is unique because of its smaller class sizes.
“[The smaller class sizes] allows teachers to not only know who the students in their class are but also to know everyone in the whole school,” Crawford said. “Effectively, we’re better.”
Wright Middle School capped off their enrollment at 253 this year.
It seems Crawford is right about knowing everyone in the school, as she greets eighth grader Kaandrae Brisco outside her office door by name.
Brisco has been a student of Wright Middle School since the sixth grade. Like many other students attending Madison’s public schools, he plays football and basketball and dreams of going to college. Brisco enjoys playing sports, but he wants to be a psychiatrist.
“I’ve always liked helping people solve their problems,” he said.
Brisco recalled his frustration after hearing the news about Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old African-American boy who was shot and killed in Florida in February 2012. Teachers at Wright Middle School organized a moment of silence along the school lawn in memory of Martin. That helped Brisco—to some extent—deal with his frustration.
The eighth grader carried a bag of Skittles and wore a hoodie to represent Martin, who was doing the same when he was shot.
“I wanted to do something about it so I used my own money to buy Skittles,” Brisco said.
“[The social justice aspect is] helping them look beyond themselves so they can view themselves in the world and be active participants in that,” Crawford said.
Brisco’s mom, Kelly Swope, said that was one of the reasons she and her son chose Wright Middle School. “I want him to go out in the world and not judge others based on how they look like or [what they] wear,” she said.
For Crawford, the school’s work on social justice is everywhere.
“People would think that we would put social action in [the classes like] social studies,” Crawford said. “In reality, it’s everywhere. It’s a part of all of who we are and how we exist in the world.”
Instead, it is the technology aspect she would focus on to make Wright an even better school.
“If I didn’t have any financial restraints I would make sure that they had access to technology at the highest levels that’s available because [it’s] the 21st century,” Crawford said. “You have to have that.”
Renaissance School for the Arts
The odd one out of the three charter schools is the Renaissance School for the Arts. Located in Appleton, Wis., the school borrows space from Appleton West High School and is only a half-day school.
Even so, student Ruby Sollitto is willing to drive 25 minutes everyday from her home in Neenah, Wis. Sollitto is a junior and transferred to Renaissance because of the musical theater classes the school offers.
“My freshmen year I didn’t have a license so that was a bit tricky,” Sollitto said. “I would have to find a ride either using public transportation or begging other students to come and pick me up.”
Sometimes, she had to carpool with another transfer student to get to school. This continued for a year until she received her driver’s license and used her own savings to buy a car.
Opened in 2000, the school was authorized to provide students with an option to focus specifically on the arts. Classes range from literature and creative writing to orchestra and advanced acting.
As a charter, Renaissance teachers do not have to be certified by the state. This exemption has allowed Renaissance to bring people from nationally-recognized artists to local hip-hop dancer Peter Lee, a student himself at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
“[We] give [students] the experience of working with a true artist,” Renaissance Director Michael Pekarske said. “[The students] like it a lot.”
While the perception is that an art school may be easy, Renaissance’s curriculum is vigorous. Sollitto takes her core classes in the morning through Appleton West High School and her art and literature classes in the afternoon through Renaissance.
Since Renaissance’s schedule is college-styled, Sollitto takes 10 art classes per week through Renaissance in addition to her five classes through West. After school, she is involved in Renaissance’s musical theater and drama productions.
Sollitto admits that it’s hard not to procrastinate on her homework with everything she is involved in.
“Sometimes we let our art become our main goal,” Sollitto said. “[We] need to remember that academics are certainly important.”
Renaissance students must have a 2.0 minimum grade point average to stay enrolled. About 12 students per year are academically better in a different setting, according to Pekarske, with four or five choosing to leave the school.
With enrollment capped at 180 students per year, Sollitto notices when a student leaves.
“We’re like a big family,” she said. “Each student is supportive of the other one’s art.”
More than 3,000 students are enrolled in charter schools in the Appleton and Oshkosh Area School Districts, according to the report by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.
According to Witte, Appleton charter schools are successful because of two main reasons: Appleton’s superintendent strongly supports charter schools, and a wealthy middle-class population resides in the area.
As director, Pekarske has many plans for improvement. But, the one thing Renaissance needs is “more dance studios,” he said.
Currently, the school buses students to local dance studios for some classes. For a school based on the arts, the demand for studio space is constant. He would prefer to use the money they spend on transportation to build the studios instead.
The ingredients for the perfect charter school
This list of common themes among all three schools may provide some insight into what makes a charter school successful:
- Commitment to a singular idea that targets an underserved population
- Innovative learning that emphasizes interactivity among students and unusual ways of implementing the curriculum
- Thinking beyond the classroom in a way that includes not only a family or community focus, but also a global focus
The question is, do they work?
A five-year-long study on independent charter schools in the Milwaukee area found that independent charter students performed higher on test scores compared to students who attended non-charter schools, but not by much, according to the study headed by Witte.
The study’s results could harm proponents’ argument that charter schools are a solution to the achievement gap in Wisconsin.
What is the difference between charter schools and regular public schools? Besides the flexibility in regulations, the largest difference is the commitment to an idea, according to Crawford.
Charter school advocates believe in the school’s promise. They believe that it will focus on multiculturalism, the arts, or environmentalism—as outlined above. According to the students, specialization is the reason they want to attend these charter schools.
Charter schools specialize in niche topics that regular public schools are not addressing, according to Crawford.
Witte said charter schools do have room for improvement, though. He points out two potential problematic areas for some charter schools: Lack of a sustained leadership structure and teacher turnover rates.
“You have to have a governing system that doesn’t rely on one person or two people,” Witte said. “[Charter school] teachers tend to be young and they tend to turn over faster, partly because the school let’s people go that aren’t doing well and, partly because [the teachers] don’t get paid as much as other teachers.”
Even so, Witte said he believes charter schools are needed.
“It’s not the only solution to the achievement gap,” he said. “But it’s about giving people options.”