BACK STORY: New schools offer choices, rattle the status quo
Five years ago, Amy Rutherford-Close had no idea what a charter school was. Only by accident did she hear about the new school that was opening up not far from her home in North Portland.
It was called Trillium Public Charter School, and it was run by two parents who were unhappy with the way Portland Public Schools was running their children's special focus program, called the Family Cooperative School.
Rutherford-Close said she and her husband were willing to try anything to help their son, Myles, who was having social difficulties at his neighborhood school.
So they enrolled him at Trillium, which offers small class sizes, a democratically run structure and a specialized program that lets students customize their own curriculum and learn through projects rather than textbooks.
Five years later, Myles is in seventh grade at the K-12 school and is thriving, his mother said. As it turns out, the Trillium teachers suspected there was another reason to Myles' problems besides inattention: He was diagnosed with a hearing impairment, which kept him from hearing teachers' voices in a busy classroom.
Now he wears hearing aids. But that's not the whole story. Rutherford-Close said she and her husband, a Marine Corps reservist who's been to Iraq twice, struggled for years to accept what she calls the school's 'relaxed' culture.
'We're a conservative family, the most conservative family at Trillium,' she said. 'For us it was a real struggle accepting a lot of relaxed things, like teachers on a first-name basis.'
Now, Rutherford-Close finds herself as one of the unlikely supporters of charter schools, a hot-button issue in Portland.
Portland currently has six charter schools, including one that just opened this summer and two that just had their charters renewed for five years. Another is purchasing its own building this year, a sign that it intends to stick around for the long haul.
Charter schools are part of the public school system; they receive money from the school district, operate by a district-approved charter contract and by law must be open to all students and free of charge.
They also must secure and fund their own facilities, pay their own insurance and reapply for their charter to continue operating. The draw, for many, are the smaller class sizes - typically fewer than 20 at all grade levels - and the specialized focuses such as technology or arts or leadership.
Many laud them as an important part of the district's array of school choice, along with its focus option programs and alternative schools.
But to others in the community, charter schools are public enemy No. 1. Many local neighborhood school advocates, in particular, say charter schools steal kids away from the neighborhood schools during a critical time when they're trying to boost enrollment. They say charter schools unfairly drain money from the school district's pot of precious state funds.
The 1999 Oregon charter school law mandates that school districts send 80 percent of their allotted state money to each child in grades K-8 who attends a charter school. Districts must send 95 percent of their per-pupil allotment with each high school student.
'I don't think you can have a full system of neighborhood schools alongside charter schools,' said Terry Olson, a Southeast Portland parent and member of the nonprofit Neighborhood Schools Alliance, a district watchdog group. 'Charter schools drain students through self-selection.'
Charter-school supporters say that's not the case. 'I think people leave willingly,' Rutherford-Close said. 'Somebody is already looking for something else.'
Nod comes on second try
Adam Reid and Reese Lord, co-founders of the newest charter school in town, set out to make that point to the school board. After much back-and-forth, they succeeded: The Leadership and Entrepreneurship Public Charter High School opened in Northeast Portland this summer with a three-year charter contract.
When they brought their proposal to the school board in the summer of last year, they were rejected by default in a 3-3 vote.
The board was skeptical of their model, Reid said, and wanted to ensure that the school wouldn't jeopardize the reform efforts happening at nearby Madison and Marshall high schools.
So Reid and Lord set out to talk with the administrators of those schools, as well as numerous community groups in the area about the students who were not succeeding in traditional school settings.
'For us, we were looking at demographics,' said Reid, in his late 20s, who was motivated by his own uninspired high school experience. 'Over half (of students) transfer to other Portland schools. There are huge dropout rates, a lot of issues … showing students aren't connecting to their neighborhood schools. We really wanted to bring back students transferring out, going to home school or private school, or just not feeling successful in their neighborhood school.'
Six months later, they brought 100 families and students out to their board hearing and presented their application again, this time getting a 5-2 vote for a three-year charter, although they had requested one for five years.
Cliff Brush, who became the district's charter school coordinator in July, said the board undertakes a rigorous review of every application.
'It's hard to start a school,' he said. 'We just want to make sure they get off to a good start. … Seeing a school fail is traumatic for everybody.'
Charter schools in Portland have come and gone but overall have kept a low profile.
Of the two Portland charter schools eligible for state report card rankings this year, one - Trillium - received a satisfactory rating, and the other - Northwest Portland's Emerson School - received an exceptional ranking.
As far as Reid and Lord's venture, which they call LEP High, the first quarter of its year-round schedule began in August and the second starts this week. They have 100 ninth-graders enrolled this year, with room for eight more. The plan is to add a grade level each year to build the high school.
A quarter of the school's population is students who came from home or private schools, with the rest from other public schools including alternative schools.
Northeast Portland parent Sharon Richer supports the public schools and wants to keep her options open; she has concerns about her son's special education needs being met at Grant High School.
'I don't think the issue is charter schools versus (other) public schools,' she said. 'I think the issue is, How can individual student's needs be met so they can be successful and productive adults.'
Fewer teacher rules imposed
The other major point of contention that many express over charter schools -aside from their impact on neighborhood schools - is that charter schools have different regulations for teachers.
They have the ability to hire and fire their own teachers, and are required by law only to have a minimum of 50 percent of their faculty holding state teaching certificates. Those who don't may be bringing their real-life work experience to the classroom, such as an artist teaching art.
Teachers unions locally and statewide vehemently reject charter schools.
'The law is flawed,' said Jeff Miller, president of the Portland Association of Teachers. 'There's a reason why we have a licensure requirement. It's the way of guaranteeing a certain level of quality. The same thing applies in just about any profession.'
The law also doesn't require charter school teachers to be part of a collective bargaining union, so most are not. Salaries for newer teachers are on track with union teachers, charter school officials say, but experienced teachers don't earn at the same scale. 'It's a way of weakening the union,' Miller said.
Beyond the issue of teachers, Miller said he hasn't seen any studies or evidence to suggest that the freer status of charter schools translates to better student performance.
In fact, a study by the U.S. Department of Education, released in August, found that fourth-graders in traditional public schools were doing better in reading and math than students in charter schools.
Charter school supporters said the study was flawed because it didn't measure academic progress over time, since some of the charter schools had been around only a short time.
Other studies have shown that there is no visible difference in performance between charter schools and other schools.
Activist: Pressure's needed
Miller isn't the only one who thinks charter schools are wrapped in politics. They are frequently part of the Republican education agenda, with Republicans favoring more school choice.
Republican Ron Saxton, also a big backer of charter schools, was the lone supporter on the Portland school board in 2000 for a proposed charter school to be called the Portland Arts and Science Academy, which never came to fruition.
The previous year in the Oregon Legislature, charter schools were a partisan issue, with Democrats fighting them until charter school backers made concessions and Gov. John Kitzhaber signed it into law.
On Wednesday, the Portland-based Libertarian think tank Cascade Policy Institute sponsored a guest lecture at North Portland's Emmanuel Temple Church, featuring Kevin Chavous, a Washington, D.C.-based leader in the charter school movement.
While Chavous is a Democrat, according to his literature, the event drew a diverse crowd of about 50 blacks, whites, Democrats and Republicans. He decried the state of public education in America and stressed that change to the system must come from outside pressure, such as charter schools.
'Public education is not working for most American schoolchildren,' he told the Portland Tribune.
'We need to break out of the bureaucratic one-size-fits-all nonsense - all children taught in the same way, at the same time and same place. We need more innovation and creativity. What charters do is provide a tool for real change. I'm convinced that public education will never reform itself internally. Only through external pressure will public education change in a positive way.'
Miller, who is endorsing Gov. Ted Kulongoski, argues that charter schools are one step toward vouchers and privatization of education, both Republican-backed concepts.
'Charter schools could become a way of privatizing public education by draining more and more resources away from public schools,' he said. 'As the schools lose resources, the schools could be weakened. … The next step might be, let's give parents a certain amount of money to send their kids wherever they want, and you're talking about vouchers.'
Further, Miller points to the fact that charter schools often partner with private organizations for funding, since the school district does not help them with facility needs. 'That increased reliance on private sources of funding is another way they can promote privatization of public education,' he said.
Olson said he and others in the Portland community share those concerns. 'I think charter schools are a backdoor way of undermining public education and privatizing education,' he said. 'All parents should strive to do what's best for their kids, but I think they should put their effort in the public infrastructure.'
The conservative association doesn't faze many parents, however, who are as far left-leaning as can be.
'I'm a very liberal Democrat troublemaker,' says Richer, the Grant High School mother. 'In the education arena, that's where a lot of times politically I'm not on track.'
New building gives a boost
Charter school organizers decry political labels, saying the schools serve a diverse range of kids.
At Trillium, students' families run from 'the conservative, religious, to way out on the edge liberal, with body art,' said Arianne Newton, the school's community development coordinator and a teacher in the school's garden program.
On a recent afternoon she darted through the school checking in on things, since the school is in the process of moving to a larger building on North Interstate Avenue.
The grand opening is scheduled for Friday at the newly remodeled two-story, 22,000-square-foot former warehouse the school bought with a bank loan, help from the Portland Development Commission and in-kind donations from the community.
With walls to be painted and floors finished this week, the site - just off the Interstate MAX line - features high ceilings, plenty of room for partitions between rooms to allow flexibility in teaching, and a dedicated library, lunchroom, and art and multipurpose rooms.
The old building, a former television studio near the Rose Quarter, was crammed and overflowing, with students sitting in makeshift classrooms in tents on the playground. The move to the new building is being expedited to get those students out of the cold. The school has capped enrollment at 300 for now; students are arranged in mixed-grade classes such as K-2, 3-5, 6-8 and 9-12.
Just over a third of the students come from private schools or home-school settings, and the school receives federal Title 1 funds for having more than 50 percent of its students on free and reduced lunch.
In its fifth year of operation, the school will seek a charter renewal next summer.
'After four years, this is a huge accomplishment to own our own building,' Newton said, 'to make sure our program is going to survive.'
Foundation takes closer look
As kids attended to their lessons this week at Trillium and other charter schools, they may have been oblivious to the political debate over whether their form of schooling is good or bad for the public school system.
It's a question that soon may be answered.
'We haven't looked at data of where students come from yet,' said Brush, the school district's charter school coordinator. 'It's a personal goal of mine. Then we'll be able to describe the facts about what's happening.'
Miller, the teachers union president, thinks the data will fall convincingly against charter schools and taxpayers will realize they should support resources in the traditional public school system.
'It's sort of hip, cool and trendy because it's innovative,' Miller said of charter schools. 'Most new ideas are bad ideas. … They definitely have the potential to be worse (than other public schools), useless and harmful, mainly because of the resource issue.'
But charter school advocates feel that growth is inevitable. Nonpartisan groups like the Portland Schools Foundation, of which Saxton is the founding president, is looking into the trend of charter schools and other unique startup schools across the country.
Specifically, they're looking at ways to address problems in urban high schools, according to Executive Director Cynthia Guyer.
Beginning in January, the foundation will hold six months of community forums to invite school leaders to tell their stories, explain their concepts, show videos of their programs and talk about the results.
'We're starting to look at the leaders, the data,' said Guyer, who met with Chavous last week during his brief stopover. 'At some places, they can redo schools, but sometimes it's easier to start from scratch.'
Besides the search for innovations, charter school advocate John Liljegren says the trend will grow because of society's increasing emphasis on choice.
'We will want and demand better things for their kids,' said Liljegren, chief operating officer of the Arthur Academy, the charter school that most recently opened in Portland after setting off a good buzz from Arthur Academy sites in the Reynolds, David Douglas, St. Helens and Woodburn school districts.
'Given that, it seems the charter school movement gives parents a choice,' he said. 'It's going to be very hard for the establishment educational system to refuse giving parents those choices.'
City offers six charter-school options
• Opal Charter School of the Portland Children's Museum, pre-K-5, 4015 S.W. Canyon Road. Five-year charter approved in 2001, renewed for five years, until 2011. Web site: www.opalschool.org
• Trillium Public Charter School, K-12, soon to reopen at 5420 N. Interstate Ave. Five-year charter approved in 2001, up for renewal this year. Web site: www.trillium
• The Emerson Public Charter School, K-5, 105 N.W. Park Ave. Three-year charter approved in 2003, renewed for five years, until 2011. Web site: www.emersonschool.org
• Self Enhancement Inc. Academy Public Charter School, grades 6-8 (eighth grade to be added next year), 3920 N. Kerby Ave. Three-year charter approved in 2004. Web site: www.selfenhancement.org
• Portland Arthur Academy, K-5 (K-2 in 2005-06, one grade to be added per year), 7507 S.E. Yamhill St. Three-year charter approved in 2005. Web site: www.arthuracademy.org
• Leadership and Entrepreneurship Public Charter High School, 9-12 (ninth grade this year; one grade to be added per year), 8111 N.E. Holman St. Three-year charter approved in 2006. Web site: www.lephigh.org