Have school. Need building.
A crisis over housing new charter schools could make or break thecharter experiment.
So you've got a great idea on how to educate kids. You write up a plan, get it approved, line up teachers, students, a governing board, and a strong curriculum, and you're on your way to becoming a successful new charter school. Right?Skip to next paragraph
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Well, not quite. You're going to need a roof and four walls that will pass local fire codes and not break the budget. If you manage to find a place you can afford this year, you'll need one twice as big the next, when the first class moves up and the new kids need a place to sit.
The facilities crisis could make or break America's charter-school experiment, activists say. Many charters - public schools that are allowed to operate relatively independently - can't solve the building problem, and thus never open despite having been approved. For others, the struggle for facilities is a big drain on time and resources that could affect the success of the venture down the line.
Where will I be next year?
"I don't know where I am going to be next year, I don't," says Irasema Salcido, principal of the Cesar Chavez Public Policy Charter High School, which opened in Washington last fall. Her first class of 60 ninth-graders spent their initial weeks of school working around boxes in a basement as they waited for classrooms to be created in abandoned government offices. With a new class on the way next year, she needs to find a bigger space, and there are few prospects in sight.
"Here I am trying to offer them an education, and I don't see why it has to be so difficult. My kids ... are from here, from the District, and they're attending a public school, and they should be provided with a place to learn just like any other public school student," she adds. "I should be focusing on what we'll be teaching them next year and recruiting my new teachers, but in the back of my mind I keep thinking, 'What is going to happen?' "
No funds to build or buy
Despite these problems, Mrs. Salcido has more support on this issue than most other charter schools nationally. While 34 states and the District of Columbia have laws that provide funds for public charter schools, only four states -Arizona, Florida, Massachusetts, and Minnesota - and the District include any funding to cover facility costs. Moreover, the District is required by law to grant priority to charter schools in determining what to do with unused school buildings - a proposition that other states have barely considered.
But the facilities problem is also driving charters to break new ground, which was the original purpose for the charter-school experiment. For example:
*Boston's City on a Hill charter school rents space in the local YMCA and has arranged to have students use library facilities at nearby Northeastern University.
*The George I. Sanchez school in Houston opened with 15 students in an old muffler warehouse and is now building a $3.1 million multipurpose center designed to meet both educational and community needs.
*In the District, charters are meeting in a children's museum, remodeled townhouses, a shopping mall, church basements, and in unused classrooms leased from traditional public schools.
"Charter schools have to get really creative with their facilities to solve this problem. As a result, you see charters redefining what a school is," says Bryan Hassel, co-founder of Public Impact, a North Carolina-based education-policy firm.
"Instead of a facility that has to have a gym, cafeteria, or parking lot, they are saying what we really need is instructional space, and working out relationships with museums, libraries, universities, parks for the rest," he adds.
But he cautions that there is still a need to strike a balance between the creativity at the heart of the charter venture and the public support needed to make it viable.
"While charter-school operators have been creative in finding and paying for space, too many precious resources have been diverted from the classroom, and too little public and community-level investment has been made in meeting the long-term facilities needs of this important aspect of state-based education reform," he writes in a January 1999 report for the Charter Friends National Network, a St. Paul, Minn.-based group.