From experiment to institution

Charter schools work to keep an innovative spirit as they move into a more- mature phase.


Daniel Scoggin, headmaster of five-year-old Tempe Preparatory Academy, holds a PhD in English literature, with a specialty in the works of Charles Dickens.

But ask him about memorable moments in his career at the public charter school in Arizona, and he won't start by ticking off conversations with students about "Oliver Twist." Instead, he'll turn to school plumbing.

Last year, he says, "I spent more time unclogging toilets than doing any other single thing."

This year, the school was able to afford a full-time janitor. To Dr. Scoggin, it's a significant milestone: Not only does it mean fewer hours in the boys' washroom for him, but it signals the end of Act I (The Struggle to Survive) in the life of his fledgling school. Act II (Establishing and Enduring) must now begin.

More than 50,000 of Arizona's students - about 7 percent of the school-age population - now attend 408 Arizona charter schools. The state's liberal charter-school law has been a driving force in the rapid proliferation of the loosely regulated public schools.

That growth also means that some of the scrappy young charters, after only five or six years of operation, are now among the more senior members of the movement. What they face now is the challenge of easing into a more permanent phase without relinquishing too much of the youthful exuberance that gave them life.

"It's like getting tenure," says Jon Schroeder, director of the Charter Friends National Network in St. Paul, Minn., noting that sustaining those initial high levels of enthusiasm and involvement is difficult. But, he adds, "private schools are able to maintain a different kind of environment over a long period because they're freer from regulation and involve parents to a greater degree, so this shouldn't be insurmountable for charters."

Out of the strip mall

The New School for the Arts in Scottsdale is a classic charter start-up tale. Tucked behind an auto-repair shop, with an appliance store lodged between the main lobby and the dean's office, the 220-student charter school is shoehorned into strip-mall spaces that used to house a Cloth World and a laundromat.

Yet the "campus" exudes its own funky charm. Kids spill across the asphalt surfaces between classes. Some perch curbside, refining sketches on their drawing pads or eating lunch from plastic containers. An administrator points to two battered vending machines wedged in a narrow hall and laughs, saying, "That's our cafeteria."

The six-year-old school boasts good scores on standardized tests and a growing reputation as a strong arts educator. Recent graduates have been accepted at top-tier schools like New Jersey's Princeton University and The Julliard School in New York City.

Still, it is time for the school to grow up, says executive dean and founder Ronald Caya. That's why he's currently focused on a fundraising effort to construct a $3.5 million state-of-the-art facility to house 500 middle- and high-school students. Mr. Caya has had to hire grant writers and fundraisers. He now finds himself planning benefit luncheons and courting foundations.

But when he sat down with an architect to discuss plans for the new building, they quickly agreed on a central concern: how to design a formal facility that would preserve the special energy now animating the ramshackle setup in the strip mall.

Settling in for the long haul

It's a question that preoccupies many charter-school directors now on the verge of settling in for the long haul.

"We've proved ourselves. This isn't an experiment anymore," says Mark Francis, principal of the Arizona School of the Arts in central Phoenix. Dr. Francis is eager to move his 310-student charter school, currently occupying an old Congregational Church and a former medical arts building across the street, into a more-formal setting. He'd also like to create a couple of arts-oriented charter middle schools.

But like Caya, Francis worries about protecting the creative energy that energized him and 19 other staffers when they first opened the doors to 195 youngsters in 1995. "How do you keep that spirit," he asks, "and yet create the policies you need and not become institutionalized?"

When charter schools first opened - often to tiny student populations - there were tales of dedicated parents who pitched in to do janitorial work and principals who slept in their offices so as not to waste time on the commute. Obviously, such acts of heroism have their limits, especially as schools expand in size.

"The idea of creating something, the vision, the idea, mobilizes parents and gets them involved," says Satwant Singh Khalsa, director of Khalsa Montessori Elementary School, also in central Phoenix. Mr. Khalsa remembers that in 1996, when he first turned his K-3 private Montessori school into a K-7 charter school and needed more space in a new building, "there were parents here with sledge hammers knocking down the walls for us."

Today, he says, "I still see a very active group of parents, but I see a difference. Once you're established, there isn't quite that same sense of need."

Khalsa's school hasn't yet completed the needed improvements to its building and still, of course, needs to worry about making mortgage payments on an ongoing basis. The small amount of state and federal stimulus funds available to a new charter were long ago exhausted.

"Here's where I think the state could do more for us," says Khalsa of schools at the middle point - not brand-new, but not yet fully established - at which his school finds itself.

Yet Arizona does do more for its charters than some other states do. "[The state] deserves credit for trying to think through some of the finance and facility issues for charters," says Eric Premack, co-director of the Charter Schools Development Center in Sacramento. Among other things, Arizona has created a bond pool for charters to help raise money for things like facility improvements.

But at the same time, the state is among the least generous in the United States when it comes to per-pupil spending. Charter schools receive only $5,340 per student, an amount a number of schools say they must supplement in order to get by, making fundraising a permanent fact of life for many charters.

High scores, but no gym

Tempe Prep asks those parents who are able to contribute $50-100 a month despite the fact that this is a public school. Headmaster Scoggin says that about 40 percent of parents do so. "They're willing," he says, "because they know what their kids are getting."

The school has already established itself as an academic standout. With a 9 to 1 student-to-teacher ratio, Tempe Prep has earned acclaim for a rigorous curriculum that includes Latin, ancient Greek, and serious engagement with some of the more challenging works of the Western canon. Uniformed students sit in small, seminar-style classes and soak up a prep-school atmosphere.

Test scores at the school are the highest of any public school in the county, and a recent ranking rated Tempe Prep No. 1 for parental satisfaction among 180 charter schools surveyed.

Yet despite its advantages, the school suffers in the eyes of some students because, housed in a modest facility leased from a church, it has no gym. "We have a mega-blob public school down the road here," says Scoggin, referring to a large regional high school nearby. "My students go down there and see that and come back saying, 'Wow, did you see the gym and the weight room?'" he says. "I've already lost a couple that way."

As a result, Scoggin is now engaged in trying to raise $1.5 million to build a complex that would offer such assets as a gym and auditorium for Tempe Prep.

One way the school could strengthen its financial standing would be to lower its student-teacher ratio. According to the state formula, he says, the 220-student school should only have 11 teachers. Instead, it has 24. But small class size, he insists, is integral to what is special about Tempe Prep and is not a component that could be changed without altering its character.

Francis of the Phoenix School for the Arts agrees. Allowing his 310-student school to add a couple more hundred students would be a good move financially, he admits. But once it grew large enough, he says, PSA would begin to resemble the mainstream public schools his students left behind.

"I know the names of every student, and I know the names of all of their parents," he says, standing in the back of the room during an afternoon recital. One of his charges, a spiky-haired boy in baggy black jeans, has just played a Bach toccata for a small gathering of fellow students, parents, and little brothers and sisters. "The day that I don't, I don't want to be here anymore."

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(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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