September 24 — 11:00 pm, 2003

The charter school option: making an informed choice

Parent activists at charters share their advice

Overseen by boards of trustees, charter schools are independently operated, taxpayer-funded alternatives to the traditional public school system.

By removing regulations normally imposed upon traditional public schools, charter advocates say, these schools provide a more innovative educational environment that allows parents to choose what type of school is best for their children’s needs.

While all students are eligible to attend charters – the admissions process is either by lottery or rolling admissions – school choice advocates note that many Philadelphia charters have far more applicants than slots available, thereby preventing many students from actually enrolling.

Confronted with difficult school choices, many parents are unsure of how to choose and access the best school for their children. The Notebook asked two experienced parent activists at charter schools – Ethan Thornton and Deborah Toney – to comment on the admissions process, what benefits charters can offer, and if charters are more parent-friendly than traditional public schools.

Learning from mistakes

Reverend Ethan Thornton, a volunteer parent liaison with the charter school office of the School District of Philadelphia, sought out charters that would accommodate his son, a high school student with special needs.

Although he wanted to make an informed decision about his son’s future, this process, he said, was not easy.

Not knowing exactly what to look for when making this decision, he admits that he "didn’t do a good job" when he first investigated schools for his son.

The strict discipline and school uniform policies of the charter he eventually chose impressed him at first. After enrolling his son, however, he was surprised to learn that the school’s test scores were worse than those of the traditional public school in his neighborhood.

National analysis of charter school data by the Brookings Institute is consistent with Rev. Thornton’s experience: on the whole, charters are not outperforming traditional public schools.

Many charter schools "don’t have staff for students with special needs," says Thornton, adding that he has had to stay on top of the IEP process and that providing special-needs accommodations for his son has been an issue.

In the broader view of charter schools, Thornton says, "There are good ones and there are bad ones that [parents] have to try to fix," emphasizing that parents need to be actively involved in their children’s education.

Based on his personal experience with charters, Thornton admonishes parents not to be fooled by "window dressing," urging them instead to get the facts about schools:

  • Know who sits on the board of trustees, when this board meets, and who represents parents on the board.
  • Be familiar with the school’s student code of conduct, making sure a system of due process exists that guarantees parents ample notice of the possibility of a child’s expulsion.
  • Find out how accessible teachers and administrators are to parents. Meet with them and spend time in the school regularly.
  • Scrutinize school data. Is teacher turnover high? If so, why? What is the student success rate on national standardized tests? Are students making steady progress? Are scores comparable with those of the traditional public schools?

Identifying options

Deborah Toney did her homework before enrolling her two daughters at Imhotep Institute Charter High School. Like Thornton, Toney says parents must be proactive in getting information about charter school options before deciding where to enroll their children, and they must stay active afterward.

Dissatisfied with her public high school choices and wanting to know if charter schools offered an educational option appropriate for her family’s particular needs, Toney talked to other parents, attended the District-sponsored charter school conference in the spring, and visited the schools that interested her.

After making her selections, she entered her daughters in the schools’ lotteries.

As a parent and board member of Imhotep’s Council of Elders, Toney finds that the school’s African-centered curriculum provides an attractive alternative to the traditional public schools in her neighborhood.

The curriculum, she says, "gets children to believe that they can do it [and that there are] other avenues they can pursue."

Imhotep also offers a variety of other features that Toney found beneficial, including smaller class size, increased safety, extra tutoring before and after school, Saturday school, and college-level syllabi provided for both students and parents outlining the topics of each class.

Toney also pointed out that many of Imhotep’s efforts to involve parents – an active parent council, a phone tree, special events, and posting student grades to its website – were a key part of her daughters’ academic success at the school.

Overall, Toney was very satisfied with both her daughters’ educational experiences at the charter. Although the adjustment process was difficult for her family in the beginning, she adds, both her daughters graduated and neither needed remedial classes in college.

Despite varying experiences, both Thornton and Toney agree: being informed and involved is key to ensuring a positive educational experience at whatever school parents choose for their child.

Parents can find detailed information on charter schools in the new 2003-04 Directory of Philadelphia Charter Schools.  The guide, published by the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition, provides general information on the city’s charter schools, guidance on choosing a school, contact information, and comparative data.  For a copy, contact Gale Davis at 215-851-1707, or gdavis@gpuac.org, or see the guide at www.gpuac.org. 

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