Evaluation of Charter Schools in Nevada
Since Minnesota passed the first charter school law, 80% of the states across the nation have followed suit, and as of the 1999-2000 academic year, there were almost 1,700 charter schools in operation. Nevada is a relative newcomer to this process, but during 2001-2002, there were already 10 charter schools in Nevada, and more are on the way. This report looks at the oldest five of these schools, relying primarily on site visits utilizing document review, interviews, and observations. One of the schools is completing its fourth year of operations; the others are completing their third. Because charter schools vary considerably from each other, each is reported upon individually; however, there also seem to be some general statements that can be made.
States have found a dilemma with funding new charter schools – if they are too generous with start-up costs, they risk encouraging groups to begin schools without any realistic expectation of success; states could, consequently, be making heavy initial investments that will never bear fruit and may burden themselves with facilities and materials which are redundant. On the other hand, states might also significantly under-invest and place such fiscal burdens on new charter schools that the majority of a school's energy is focused on fund-raising rather than on educational services. It is beyond the scope of this report to decide whether Nevada has chosen an appropriate strategy for supporting new charter schools; however, it was clear that each of these five schools has faced enormous fiscal challenges in its first years; at least two of them are still struggling to make ends meet. Although federal assistance for new charter schools has been an important supplemental source of revenues, this is still an area that should be carefully monitored by the state.
As in many other states, charter schools in Nevada are often faced with developing curriculum and instructional strategies within a short time frame. This forces the founders to choose between creating their own programs or buying programs “off the shelf” because they can be implemented quickly. Nevada’s first charter schools have tended to take the second approach, relying heavily on such programs as NovaNet, Accelerated Reader, Core Knowledge, and Child U. It is too soon to tell if these schools will evolve into more creative programming to meet the individual needs of their specific clientele, although there are some hopeful signs.
Another commonality in Nevada’s first charter schools which mirrors trends across the nation is that instruction is characterized by low teacher/student ratios, small class sizes, and personalized learning. Inasmuch as charter school students (or their parents) are generally those who are looking for something different from regular public schools, this is a natural direction for such schools to take.
A third commonality is that these schools are tending to create significant links with surrounding agencies and service providers; part of this might be anticipated because new charter schools struggle to be self-sufficient, but it also reflects the vision of the founders to be more active partners in their communities.
Decision-making structures in most of Nevada’s first charter schools tend to be decentralized, with teachers and parents reporting more involvement than is typical in regular public schools. It also appeared that board members are often heavily involved in operational matters, sometimes because schools opened without a formal decision-making structure in place, and some schools are facing challenges regarding the development of appropriate methods to define the involvement of various stakeholders. In many ways, these charter schools are like many small rural schools that have to confront similar issues, and they seem to be making some progress in this area.
Nevada’s charter schools are expected to follow the state’s testing plan, and these schools are, for the most part, doing a commendable job at meeting that requirement. Two factors are especially salient for these schools: (1) they tend to be quite small, and the variability for year to year can be considerable; this makes it more difficult to assess trends than in regular public schools; (2) state law has favored the creation of charter schools focused on “at-risk” students; consequently, Nevada charter school students might be expected to test lower than the general population. In addition, for some schools, getting the required percentage of students to take the exams is an additional challenge.
For these reasons, charter schools are often advised to develop their own accountability procedures. Some of these schools have begun this process, but none has yet reached the point where a sophisticated internal evaluation system is in place. Given the challenges involved in getting a school started, this is to be expected for relatively new schools, but the state may wish to consider providing additional technical assistance in this area.
Relations with County School Districts
Charter schools are founded to meet the needs of students who are perceived as being under-served by regular schools; as such, they represent at least an implicit criticism of the status quo. Consequently, it should be expected that relationships might be problematic between a charter school and the district in which it operates. It has been noted in other states that this is especially true as the percentage of students served by charter schools rises within a district; large districts are less threatened than smaller ones. That pattern seems to be generally true within Nevada – the school districts in Clark and Washoe counties have developed, for the most part, more supportive relations with their charter schools than has Churchill County. On the other hand, it might serve the larger interests of Clark county if the school district would look seriously at a more creative and in-depth partnership with Keystone Academy.
Nevada’s first charter schools share a common stated mission – to provide educational services for “at-risk” students – and generally work toward this end by providing small teacher/student ratios, flexible structures, and personalized instruction. Each of the schools uses quite similar approaches, ones that have a history of success with the target population. The schools have also exhibited a common developmental pattern, generally taking three years to stabilize administrative procedures, staffing, and instructional procedures. The extent to which they have proven successful in fulfilling their missions has depended upon a variety of factors, including sufficient enrollment, skillful leadership, and consistent external support. Obviously, having all three maximizes the chances for establishing and maintaining a school, while the absence of any one of them places the school itself at risk.
While these schools are generally "up and running," it also should be noted that a common argument in favor of charter schools is that they can showcase innovative approaches that might spark interest within the district as a whole – that is, they can serve as "lighthouses" for regular public schools. Struggles with logistics and finances appear to have limited this potential benefit somewhat. Of these five schools, perhaps Odyssey presents the most innovative approach; utilizing what is essentially home-based instruction supported by teacher visits, the school has sidestepped a major problem for new charter schools – obtaining and supporting adequate facilities. ICDA has done some interesting things with its block schedule, and Sierra Nevada has made some strides with infusing Expeditionary Learning into its curriculum. It remains to be seen, however, if the schools as they stabilize will push for more truly creative approaches and if the state will be willing to allow them the flexibility to do so.
There is some hope that will happen. With the start of the 2002-2003 academic year, Nevada will begin its fifth year of charter schools; state policies and procedures appear to be evolving in ways that clarify expectations and facilitate the process for those founding and running such schools. One beneficial change, for example, is the willingness to provide a longer lead-time between charter approval and start-up; this could go a long way toward easing the difficulties that these first schools have faced. Also, with the passage of time, there now exists within Nevada a pool of people with expertise derived from the experience of being on what one charter school administrator calls "the bleeding edge." This presents a real opportunity for developing a state-wide network of home-grown facilitators who could strengthen existing schools and ease the burdens of new ones. This may require expansion of services within the Department of Education so that it can provide more technical assistance while still maintaining its regulatory duties.
I Can Do Anything Charter School
Washoe County, Nevada
§ Mission and Goals
I Can Do Anything Charter High School (ICDA), the first charter school authorized in Nevada, began operations in September 1998. The mission of the school has been to provide education to students considered “at-risk” of not completing their secondary education. The school employs a number of strategies that have proven successful in alternative education, including small classes, personalization of instruction, and creation of a strong community climate.
§ Governing Body
At the time of the visit, ICDA was being governed by an eight-member Board of Directors, two of whom have been members from the start; there are three teachers and the other representatives are drawn from the business community and parents of enrolled students. At least one new member is expected in June. As with many charter schools, the distinction between board members’ roles and school administration has sometimes been unclear, but it appears that over time a healthy evolution has begun to occur. At the present time, members are assigned specific responsibilities about which they report to the board as a whole.
The initial year for Nevada’s first charter school was, not unexpectedly, rather difficult; the principal had experience with charter schools in Arizona, but did not continue long with ICDA. The next principal was a veteran Washoe County educator who brought stability to school operations; she has since retired and now serves on the Board of Directors. The current principal of ICDA was one of the founders of the school and served as an assistant principal for the first three years; she holds a masters degree in education and administers the school with obvious skill and commitment.
The school employs 17 teachers in its regular program and another four teachers for night classes. The teachers’ experience varies from two years to more than twenty, with few in the middle of the range. Special education and counseling services are provided by qualified staff. Independent reports indicate that the school is in compliance with licensing regulations; only two teachers were reported as non-licensed. The night school staff is mostly separate from the regular faculty; three teachers are from WCSD and on an hourly contract. The teachers with whom we spoke seemed very pleased with their situation, and teacher retention has been very high.
ICDA reported an enrollment of 335 students on “count day” in September 2001. There were 21 more boys than girls shown, indicating a fairly even gender distribution. The two largest groups by ethnicity were Whites (76%) and Hispanics (15%), figures that correspond with the population of the Washoe County school population as a whole. Administrators reported that the school maintains a waiting list usually of about 30 prospective students, and students may enroll at the beginning of each six-week block; the school attempts to enroll new students in the order in which they applied for admission. The current student transiency rate was reported as 118%.
Most of the students are reported as entering the school as credit-deficient, although a number of students who entered the new performing arts program this year were described as “4.0 students” who need more advanced classes than are typically offered at ICDA. Staff noted that these students might also be considered at-risk for different reasons; 32 students were reported as being currently enrolled in the performing arts program. ICDA also offers classes at Sage Wind, a facility which provides services for students with alcohol and drug problems, many of whom are on adjudicated placements. Over 40 students were reported to be in this program.
The school offers four periods of instruction each day, Monday through Friday. Classes for the 2001-2002 academic year are six weeks long, and each class is offered as a block that meets for 2 hours and 45 minutes. Classes are separated by nutrition breaks.
Students are required to take two classes each term, but many take more than that in an effort to recover credits from previous years. This arrangement also allows students to accrue additional credits in order to graduate early. The last block of classes is generally the least utilized by students, especially as the year wears on. The structure of the curriculum is intended to allow students to focus on a few subject areas at one time and also to receive regular reinforcement by more quickly earning credits toward graduation.
§ Curriculum & Instruction
ICDA offers a fairly traditional high school curriculum utilizing nontraditional instructional methods intended to meet the needs of its specialized clientele. Class periods are arranged in longer “blocks” of time, and courses are completed in shorter terms. Class ratios are maintained at 18:1 to help personalize instruction. Students must meet a competency level of 75% in each course to be awarded credit. No grades are given for performance that does not meet that standard; instead, students are considered “incomplete” until they meet the course requirements.
Because many students come to the school credit-deficient, NovaNet is widely used, either in combination with traditional instruction or by itself. Students may also earn credits through a variety of options, including independent study and dual enrollment with Truckee Meadows Community College. Independent reviews by WCSD have indicated consistent progress toward curriculum improvement.
There is a new lab that provides hands-on experiences in the sciences. There are no dedicated physical education facilities on the main campus, so the school has found creative ways to utilize a nearby health club. No second language instruction or interscholastic sports are currently being offered.
§ Academic Progress
As with most charter schools, some caution must be taken when interpreting results at ICDA on standardized tests. First, the small number of students taking the tests yearly can magnify effects, both positive and negative. Also, those students who enroll here are often those who are experiencing the most difficulty in regular public schools; such students often enter scoring lower than average on most tests.
Student scores on the tenth grade TerraNova tests were generally higher in 2001 than in the past; 39 students were tested in the fall, a percentage slightly lower than 90%, so the test will be administered again later in the year. Composite scores in Reading have ranged from 34.2 to 48.0; in Language the range has been from 37.7 to 45.3; in Math the range has been from 32 to 48.5; and in science the range has been 38.6 to 52.1.
Scores on the high school proficiency examination have shown that the math portion has provided the greatest challenge. In 1999-2000, only 75% of student passed; in the following year, the percentage passing was 77.8. In 2001, 29 students graduated, including four who did not pass math and received certificates of attendance; the 86% rate of students receiving a standard diploma was the third consecutive increase for the school.
ICDA appears to be following its charter as presented. Appropriate services are being provided for at-risk high school students, and many are making consistent progress toward graduation.
ICDA appears to be doing a good job of submitting annual reports pursuant to NRS 386.000 and NRS 386.605. District reports indicate the school is in compliance across a variety of measures.
The team visited ICDA on April 24-25, 2002, and met with a board member, administrators, teachers, and students; follow-up contacts were made with additional board members and with parents. Campus visits were scheduled for the main campus and the performing arts campus; given the clientele and the nature of the offerings at Sage Wind, no on-site visit was conducted. We believe sufficient data were collected to gather an accurate view of the school’s accomplishments and challenges.
The ICDA main campus is a converted industrial building located in a business area on the east side of the city; the performing arts program is housed in a building located about three miles away which Ballet Nevada has converted from a warehouse. (The Sage Wind operation lies between these two.) These buildings have the usual problems associated with facilities not designed for use as schools, but they do have the advantage of being “neutral ground” which is not associated with existing schools or with gang territories.
The principal described the fiscal conditions during the first year as “horrible,” a condition common to many charter schools as they start up. The school’s accounting firm was based in Arizona and was not familiar with Nevada laws; regulations regarding tax status had to be clarified. There was a dispute with Washoe County School District concerning the actual enrollment on “count day”; in spite of believing that its own figures were accurate, WCSD eventually released an additional $50,000 which allowed ICDA to make ends meet. Administrators reported that the school expects to end the current year with $150,000 in reserve. The Sage Wind program has been very profitable for ICDA – Sage Wind purchased NovaNet for curriculum purposes and provides two aides; ICDA provides two teachers to provide instructional services. Sage Wind is also useful for ICDA since the charter school has a zero tolerance policy on drugs; students who are suspected of drug use are tested and, if found to be “dirty,” they can enroll there. After completing treatment, about 30% will re-enroll in ICDA; the others return to their original schools.
Relations between ICDA and district schools were described as generally good. Student records flow smoothly; procedures for programs such as Nutrition Services, Special Education, and School Police are now more formalized. This year, the liaison person with the district has provided useful technical support, although more assistance with attendance procedures would still be useful.
Many of the issues which administrators and staff discussed related to ongoing adjustments within a program that is seen as successful. For example, this year classes are run in six-week blocks as opposed to the five-week blocks in the past; the extra length allows for time to be borrowed for club activities intended to provide extracurricular social interaction for students. It is not certain that the staff has found this successful enough to continue next year. The school has fluctuated between an open- and closed-campus at lunch, and the current modified open-campus policy is also a subject for discussion. The school day has begun at 8:00 and now starts at 7:30; there is a possibility that it will be 8:15 next year. The visiting team noted that changes being considered were typically addressed from the perspective of what was best for the students.
Teachers and administrators said that they were pleased with the progress students were making at ICDA, although it is a difficult population to work with. About one-third of the students were reported as being “constantly” enrolled; the others tended to transfer back and forth between regular public schools. Using the new student accounting procedures, under 3% were shown as dropouts. What seemed to work with these students was providing a sense of “family”; among the problems they brought with them were low self esteem, struggles with drugs, and different sexual orientations. Between eight and ten of the students have children of their own, and others are currently expecting.
The students in the performing arts program have added yet another dimension to the student body. They tend not to “blend in” well with the regular students; they are usually more academically advanced and would like more rigorous classes when they travel to the main campus. Since this program is in its first year, it has experienced some of the usual charter school start-up problems. Facilities are not available on the main campus and are shared with a non-school operation. There are significant climate control issues, and there is no administrator present on a regular basis. For the program to operate at a break-even level, it was estimated that 45 students would be needed, and the current space is suited to about 50. To enroll in the program, students had to audition, but all were initially accepted; the enrollment in April was a little more than half of the 60 who began the year. The teachers reported that most of the students who dropped did so because they were not disciplined enough for the demanding performance courses that are offered.
One of the performing arts teachers admitted that having their program linked with ICDA was a matter of convenience rather than a close philosophical link. The focus at the main campus is very focused on meeting the needs of at-risk students, many of whom were termed “attention-deficit, in the sense that they need lots of attention.” Thus, the limited number of classes per day, the relaxed atmosphere, and the personalized instruction contribute to creating a “home” that many of these students need. Among the things that appealed to the students were the small size of the school and the sense of safety they felt on campus. The students were articulate about their dislike of the large high schools they had come from and about their appreciation for their teachers and the lack of trouble at ICDA. It appeared to the visiting team that the school has made considerable progress at meeting its goal of starting an alternative school for those “kids who fall through the cracks” of regular education.
And yet the success of ICDA poses further challenges, the foremost of which is related to facilities. Because funding for Nevada schools is driven by enrollment, most charter schools are striving to grow. But here, administrators and board members believe that ICDA has reached a size that is sustainable – one which, if expanded much more, might negatively impact the climate which contributes to its success. On the other hand, the present building already is being pushed to the limits; many of the instructional spaces are crowded, even given the small class sizes, and others, such as the art room lack the equipment and furniture to sustain an excellent program. In many classes, there are students at a variety of levels, and teachers are challenged to meet their needs effectively.
The school has one more year on its lease of the current space, and everyone we talked with was aware that a number of options are being considered. There is a possibility of expanding within the current building; a number of vacant structures around the city have been investigated. Another possibility involves a move to a new building to be constructed at a different site; because of the proposed location, this option was viewed very negatively by students, many of whom mentioned the presence of gang-related problems in that area. Some said they would probably leave ICDA rather than attend school in that area, and, given the considerable attention they devoted to the subject of safety, that might well be more than the typical adolescent protestations. Some teachers also voiced concerns of this nature, suggesting that such a move might be polarizing.
It also was interesting to note that there were a variety of perspectives among adults as to what the probabilities of each option were. One might say that the new building seemed the most likely choice, even that it was “a done deal,” and the next person would say it had already been decided and had been ruled out. Because there was relative consensus on other issues at the school, this suggests that resolving the problem with facilities will indeed be a major challenge for ICDA; the resolution will impact curriculum in a variety of ways. For example, if the school intends to maintain its performing arts program, the specialized instructional spaces will be required. This will, in turn, lead to costs that might require additional students for the school to remain viable.
§ Although the board and administration of ICDA appear to have considered several options with regard to solving its problem with facilities, it might be helpful to make the situation more widely known. A public awareness effort could lead to a creative solution which has not yet surfaced.
§ The addition of the performing arts program creates more diversity within the student body and strengthens the potential offerings that are available at ICDA. However, the school needs to find a way to ensure that the students and parents who are attracted to these courses are also provided the kinds of academic experiences that would be available in more traditional schools.
§ Like many schools which work with at-risk students, ICDA attempts to find a balance between an inviting atmosphere and a controlled environment; the school does not always appear to be successful with this. Consequently, student movement seems less regulated than is desirable, and this should be addressed.
Sierra Nevada Academy
Washoe County, Nevada
§ Mission and Goals
Sierra Nevada Academy was founded as a “grassroots” community school with an emphasis on individualized instruction for K-8 students; it is the first elementary charter school in Nevada. Among the approaches utilized are small class sizes, emphasis on core skill mastery, personalized learning plans for each student, regular reporting to parents, mandatory parental involvement, and extracurricular activities.
§ Governing Body
Sierra Nevada Academy is governed by an active, involved Board of Trustees. After considerable turmoil in the first year of operation, the membership has become more stable. There are four certified teachers among the eight members on the board, along with a mix of individuals with experience in various business fields and one parent representative.
The principal at the Academy has been an elementary teacher and is certified as a school administrator in Nevada; she is currently completing an Ed.S. program at the University of Nevada, Reno, and plans to enter a doctoral program shortly. Although she lacked administrative experience when she took this position, she has demonstrated considerable growth in her time at Sierra Nevada Academy and appears capable of providing effective leadership. As the school continues to grow, however, additional administrative and support staff would seem helpful.
The school employs nine full-time teachers, one each in grades K – 4, and four more for grades 5-8; one of these is employed on a long-term substitute contract as she works to complete her education, and one teacher is currently working out-of-field. There are also seven instructional aides who assist teachers and take on additional instructional responsibilities in such areas as art and music. As in many elementary schools, Sierra Nevada Academy employees are predominately female, generally young, and lacking in ethnic diversity. The faculty members are also notably enthusiastic and appear quite dedicated to the students and the school.
The Academy is currently serving about 220 students; the enrollment is about 95% Anglo and includes roughly equal numbers of boys and girls. The transiency rate for the 2001-2002 academic year was reported to be 50%, and the growth in attendance was stated as 18.5%, which would be among the largest increases in the state. Because of the desire to maintain low teacher/student ratios, additional potential students are placed on a waiting list; lotteries have been conducted in the spring, with siblings and children of staff members having priority. The wait list for most grades was reported as ranging from two to seven students.
The administration reported 37% of the students qualifying for the Free or Reduced Lunch program and another 1% as ESL students. Although only 18 students were funded as special education eligible, the current number of students on Individual Educational Plans was reported as 33. It was estimated that fewer than 10% of the students had previously been home-schooled.
Sierra Nevada Academy follows the same schedule as used for the schools at Incline Village; classes started on August 20th and end on June 12th, with week-long vacation breaks in October and February. Classes are held from 8:00 – 2:15, five days a week; kindergarten is an hour longer than in most schools, but can be a full-day program if parents pay an extra fee. Before- and after-school “Educare” programs are also available on a fee basis, so the school operates from 6:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
§ Curriculum & Instruction
The academic program at Sierra Nevada Academy, in many respects, appears to be very traditional; instruction is generally teacher-centered and familiar programs such as Reading Renaissance and Accelerated Math are utilized. There are a number of features, however, which the staff advance as contributing to a unique educational environment. All students are tested in reading and math and grouped according to achievement; the Academy also has instituted the Core Knowledge curriculum developed by E. D. Hirsch. All parents who enroll children at the school sign a commitment to provide 10 hours per month in volunteer services, a feature often employed by charter schools. The school also attempts to incorporate features of the Expeditionary Learning approach, and a few overnight camping activities are planned each year. These trips appear to be very well planned, and the science teacher does extensive work to ensure activities, including presentations by experts on site, are related to academic objectives.
§ Academic Progress
As with most charter schools, some caution must be taken when interpreting results on standardized tests. First, the small number of students taking the test yearly in each grade can magnify effects, both positive and negative. Also, those students whose parents choose to enroll them in charter schools are often those who are experiencing difficulty in regular public schools; hence, it might be expected that they are “at-risk” of not profiting from their educational experience. Such students generally enter scoring lowering than average on most tests.
For example, the eighth grade 2001 TerraNova scores for Sierra Nevada Academy were consistently higher than in the previous year. The Reading composite score increased 32.3 to 47.4; the Language composite increased from 30.7 to 50.8; the Math composite rose from 27.0 to 41.7; and the Science score increased from 32.7 to 54.1. There were similar, though smaller, gains in the fourth grade in 2001; it should be noted, however, that the 2000 fourth grade scores were lower across the board than those in 1999, the first year for which there are TerraNova data for Sierra Nevada Academy.
Scores on the 2001 eighth grade writing proficiency test were up over the 2000 scores, but for 2000 only three students were tested. In Ideas, 73.3% passed, and 66.7% passed in each of the other three areas. Fourth grade scores were higher in all three areas in 2001 compared with the previous year; scores ranged from 40% (Conventions) to 65% (Ideas).
Sierra Nevada Academy appears to be following its mission as set forth in its written charter. The first year of the school was tumultuous; fiscal uncertainty and questionable procedures at the board level contributed to rifts among the founders, and the first year ended with the school in considerable debt. Major improvements have been made since then; the board and staff have stabilized, enrollment has increased, and the school expects to end the current year with a cash balance of about $40,000.
Sierra Nevada Academy appears to be doing a good job of submitting annual reports pursuant to NRS 386.000 and NRS 386.605. District reports indicate the school is in compliance on a variety of measures.
The team visited Sierra Nevada Academy on April 18-19, 2002, and met with teaching and administrative staff, with parents and students, and with other personnel working at the school. The team believes sufficient data were gathered to gain an adequate perspective of the activities and accomplishments of the school.
The Academy occupies two buildings in a strip mall close to Stead Boulevard. Considerable effort has been invested in making the classrooms and administrative spaces attractive and functional. As with other charter schools, the issue of facilities is closely tied to finances and represents a major challenge for those involved. Here, for example, the location of the facility raises ongoing concerns with vehicle traffic and the proximity of commercial activities to the young children served. The upper grades are in a building across a parking lot from the main building and if the school expands, as is being discussed, a third building would be acquired and a fourth one might be built later.
The classroom themselves, especially for the K-4 program, were clean and well organized. Each classroom had at least four computers for student use; classroom rules were clearly displayed, and there were color-coded charts to assist with monitoring student behavior. Classes were generally small and well behaved. There was evidence of lessons being implemented according to plans which were aligned with standards. For reading, students moved in groups through three activities within an hour, following a circle-center-seat pattern. In math, students followed routines associated with the Accelerated Math program. A number of teachers at this level were working with the same students they had the previous year, having “looped” with them from the lower grade level. Likewise, aides had generally remained with the same teacher, so the instructional teams had remained intact.
Most of the teachers are in their second year with the school. They were quite positive about working at the Academy and believed they were doing a good job meeting students’ needs. They perceived most of their students to be those who wouldn’t do well in a traditional school and that the extra attention students got here made a big difference. “They’ve really grown,” said one; “you can see how their confidence has increased.” They also thought they had the opportunity to provide input regarding decisions about how the school was run and that the entire staff had become quite collaborative. “I think we have a good approach to change,” one noted.
Among their frustrations was the uncertain fiscal environment in which they had been working; at the end of the 2000-2001 year, for example, the aides were laid off for the last month of school in order for the school to end in the black. At the beginning of this year, however, all the aides were rehired, and teachers were more encouraged about the financial situation. The other concern for teachers was the lack of staff for administrative functions. While they felt they had “enough support to keep us here,” procedures and polices have taken some time to evolve. “When I’m in my classroom with my kids, it’s wonderful,” one teacher said, but sometimes it had been hard to know which things were to be handled by teachers and which by support staff.
In order to develop clearer procedures, Sierra Nevada Academy has implemented an interesting arrangement with the University of Nevada, Reno. Under faculty direction, one doctoral level student and five undergraduates collect data for task analyses related the organizational structure of the school. A number of recommendations have been acted upon to improve front office functions, and other suggestions, such as the addition of an assistant principal, are being contemplated for the future. A board member also commented on another “symbiotic” effort the Academy has in place. Through the Neuro-Netics and “Bridges” programs, a local doctor provides training in visual motor integration skills for the youngest students and a few selected others. Preliminary results show significant academic gains for enrolled students.
The other support system that teachers mentioned frequently involved the behavior management program that is provided through the Learning Resource Center. Training is provided so key skills are being implemented in a consistent fashion across the school, and individual interventions with students are also provided. Since a good number of the students have not had a history of success in school and, additionally, since most of the teachers are relatively inexperienced, this appears to be an appropriate decision by the Academy. The team did note, however, the implementation of the procedures was not always consistent and that they appeared more successful at the lower grades than at the upper level.
The parents with whom we spoke were very supportive of the school, especially the low teacher/student ratio. They felt this contributed to a “sense of family” which was evident at Sierra Nevada Academy. The small size of the school allowed teachers to address the special needs of students, both gifted and challenged; students were able to learn at their own pace and “not get lost in the crowd.” The availability of a full-day kindergarten program (in combination with Educare) was also seen as a real strength.
Even the requirement of giving 10 hours per month was seen as positive in that it allowed parents to become a part of the school; “it makes a huge difference in your child’s life when you are welcome in the classroom.” Some parents noted that they brought younger siblings with them when they came to the school, and these children were always welcome and made to feel part of the group. “She considers it her school too,” said one parent. They felt they were listened to when they made suggestions – “My opinions are at least entertained.” – a situation which contrasted sharply with experiences in regular public schools. Some working parents appreciated the option of offering goods or services when physical presence at the school was not possible. From the staff’s point of view the in-kind contributions have been helpful in supplementing what can be spent on supplies; for example, one parent’s connection with a paper company has allowed the school to forgo almost all paper purchases for the past two years.
Parents did express some concerns. For example, school personnel have discussed expansion by adding a second kindergarten class next year, another first grade the following year, and so on; this was a possibility which worried a number of parents, feeling that the unique climate of the school might suffer if it became too large. Parents of younger children believed that more needed to be done to separate the older children from those in the lower grades; the presence of seventh and eighth graders especially was seen as potentially problematic. Parents also had general concerns about the location, noting that the environment was never intended to be used as a school
Nevertheless, parents were very pleased that their children were at Sierra Nevada. One said, “I’m getting such value here compared to a private school.” This was true even if they were not always able to take advantage of some of the special offerings, such as the camping opportunities. These were often noted as a highlight; the extensive planning done by the science teacher integrated the activities into the curriculum effectively and were felt to have contributed to the recent success on the science portion of the TerraNova exams. Parents also said they enjoyed the club activities, though, as with the teachers, the students’ favorite, the Reptile Club, was not universally embraced.
§ A continued heavy reliance on Accelerated Math needs to be carefully considered in light of the fact that it is primarily a high-tech “drill-and-kill” approach that emphasizes computation and lower level thinking. While this might help students improve test scores, it may not adequately prepare them for more advanced mathematics, especially as they move to the upper grades.
§ “Fun Fridays” might be more closely examined to see how they align with the regular curriculum; this is a special concern with the upper level where students already have considerable time devoted to non-core activities in the afternoon schedule.
§ The upper level program might benefit from expanded monitoring focused on curriculum alignment and student behavior. Respect for teaching assistants was not always evident, and the behavior program was not as consistently implemented as at the lower grades. More administrative support might be appropriate for teachers working with this especially challenging age group.
§ Mission and Goals
Odyssey Charter School was founded to offer family-based education supported by the use of technology and on-site visits by professional teachers. The course of study for each student is based upon individual achievement, and progress is tracked through structured on-line curriculum programs.
§ Governing Body
A seven-person Board of Trustees is responsible for overseeing the operations of Odyssey Charter School. There are currently two vacancies on the board, but it has met regularly since the school was proposed, and regular minutes are maintained. Board members are a mix of professional educators, including four teachers, and concerned citizens.
The chief educational officer for the school is an experienced public school administrator, formerly an employee of the Clark County School District. There are two qualified assistants; one serves as principal for daily operations and the other for special education. Adequate support staff appear to be available to ensure the smooth running of the school.
The school employs 29 licensed teachers (20.7 FTE) to offer instruction; their experience ranges from 1-30 years, and 12 hold at least a master’s degree. An additional four persons (0.84 FTE) offer special education services.
There are currently 430 students enrolled in Odyssey Charter School. Of these, 190 (44%) are in grades 7-8. According to school officials, parents enroll children in the school for a variety of reasons – some are enrolled because of dissatisfaction with a particular public school or with individual teachers; other have a general disenchantment with regular public schools. About 25% have previously been home-schooled. Given the clientele, and because of the structured nature of the Odyssey program, which requires considerable reporting by parents, considerable student turnover can be expected. The school reports holding additional lotteries from the waiting list every 2 to 4 weeks to select new students to replace those who leave; the current student transiency rate was reported as 64%.
The school has actively tested students for special education, and currently lists 15% of the student body in seven recognized categories. Of these, the majority are classified as either learning disabled or speech/language impaired.
Teachers are scheduled to travel to each student’s home for a one-hour individual session each week. Students are typically clustered geographically for teacher convenience; sometimes there will be more than one student at a particular home. Parents are present during all home visits, and teachers also work with the parents since these people serve as primary instructors for their children. Students have further interaction with teachers through the Internet.
In addition to the home visit, students also report to the Odyssey campus for group lessons. The school is required to offer one lesson per month for each group, but has been offering two per month. Field trips are also arranged to provide more social interaction among students.
§ Curriculum & Instruction
The basic curriculum for students is the Child U computer courseware package. Individual students are provided with supplemental materials in an attempt to meet specific needs. Group lessons on the Odyssey campus focus on science, and chorus is also offered on site. Independent reviews by Clark County School District note ongoing concern about how well the school’s program matches the district’s Curriculum Essentials Frameworks. School officials, on the other hand, believe that insistence upon adhering too closely to the district’s approach would unduly hamper their efforts to offer a meaningful alternative program.
§ Academic Progress
Odyssey Charter School administers the state-mandated TerraNova tests for fourth and eighth grades. As might be expected because of the small numbers within the school, considerable variation in scores has been found. For example, in Reading, the average percentile rank for fourth graders was 55 in 1999, 29 in 2000, and 59 in 2002. The Math scores were 58 (1999), 33 (2000), and 58 (2001). Eighth grade scores have shown similar fluctuations, ranging from 27 (Math, 1999) to 50 (Reading, 2001).
In the most recent year of testing (2001), fourth grade students showed 17.2% in the bottom quarter and 31.0% in the top quarter in both Reading and Language; 27.6% were in the bottom quarter and 34.5% in the top quarter in Math. Eighth grade students showed 25.6% in the bottom quarter and 28.9% in the top quarter in Reading; 31.1% were in the bottom quarter and 18.9% in the top quarter in Language; 38.9% were in the bottom quarter and 17.8% in the top quarter in Math.
Odyssey Charter School also provided information showing the 2001 TerraNova scores of returning fourth grade students as compared to those who were new to the school, thinking that this might be a truer measure of program impact. Scores for returning students were consistently higher than those for new students. Similar scores for eighth graders were not provided.
Scores on the most recent state writing exams for the last two years are as follows: For the fourth grade, the percentage passing the Ideas section increased from 48.3% in 2000 to 54.5% in 2001; there was a decrease in Organization from 51.7% to 36.4%; there was a decrease in Voice from 55.2% to 36.4%; and a decrease in Conventions from 51.7% to 40.9%. For the eighth grade, the percentage passing the Ideas section (72%) remained the same; for the three other sections there were gains, the most notable being for Conventions where 67% passed in 2001 as compared with 40.9% in 2000.
Because of the nature of its program, Odyssey Charter School also administers the Peabody Individual Achievement Test to each student. The test is useful in developing student programs and provides pre- and post-test data in reading and math. Overall scores provided by school officials show average student growth to be more than one grade level per year; there are, of course, no comparable district or state data.
The school appears to be following its mission as set forth in its written charter. The nature of the charter led to a legal dispute between the school and the Nevada Department of Education during Odyssey’s first academic year (1999-2000); at issue was how attendance was to be monitored in this unique program. A method for recording instructional time was agreed to in May 2000, and operations have been regularly funded since that time.
Odyssey Charter School appears to be doing a good job of submitting annual reports pursuant to NRS 386.000 and NRS 386.605.
The team visited Odyssey Charter School on April 1-2, 2002, and met with teachers and administrators, with parents, and with students. Subsequent telephone interviews were conducted with members of the Board of Trustees. The team believes sufficient data were gathered to gain an adequate perspective of the activities and accomplishments of the school.
The school occupies three portable buildings leased from a private school. One serves as the office, and the others provide classroom space for on-site instruction both for this school and its affiliated high school program. (The high school program is administered under a separate charter and is not part of this report.) Interviews were conducted with the chief educational officer and the assistant principals for programs and for special education. These individuals appeared knowledgeable and capable of directing the operations of the school, which operates on a different model from regular public schools and, indeed, from most other charter schools. Because instruction takes place almost exclusively in students’ homes, much of the responsibility for monitoring is done by individual teachers. As noted above, documentation of student time on task is difficult; tracking can be done for participation with the basic curriculum, but students might also be on the computer at different educational sites. Teachers have to be careful at monitoring progress toward the educational goals set for each student.
Teachers are evaluated through performance in a number of areas, including observation of instructional delivery in homes, record keeping, lesson planning, and participation on school committees. Administrators reported no difficulty in recruiting teachers and stated that they have been generally pleased with the quality of personnel available. They did acknowledge, however, that such an assignment is not for everyone, just as not all students benefit from the school’s instructional model. Special education staff are provided through private contracts; administrators report being pleased with the high quality of personnel and the cost-effectiveness of those services.
Odyssey appears to serve a varied clientele. Approximately 25% of the students were previously home-schooled, but not all parents who have previously home-schooled their children have remained with Odyssey. Administrators speculated that some might have withdrawn their children because of accountability requirements and the structured nature of the program. Most parents reportedly state, when they apply to enroll their children, that they wish to be more involved in their children’s education. Odyssey personnel, however, have found that often the real reason appears to be dissatisfaction with regular public schools or particular teachers. In addition, a few students have been expelled from the Clark County School District and find that Odyssey can be an effective, though usually temporary, placement. Some students are gifted and were bored in regular classes. Other students are the children of professional athletes or casino executives, and some are themselves dancers or competitive athletes who have demanding schedules which do not mesh well with regular schools.
Odyssey Charter School conducts regular surveys of parents to assess satisfaction with the program, and satisfaction is generally high. On a recent survey, 29 of 31 items were rated above 4 on a scale on which 5 equaled “strongly agree”; one of the two items below 4 asked if the student was the one to choose Odyssey. The other item (mean = 3.78) was “I chose...Odyssey because of its reputation as a successful school”; the main reasons parents are choosing Odyssey were discussed above. The parents with whom we spoke, however, were very satisfied with the program. They were quite pleased with the teachers who came to their homes. One parent said her child “did not click” with the first teacher, but another one was easily arranged for and is working out very well. They thought the teachers were skilled at helping them work more effectively with their children, and that having a teacher be responsible for assignments and grading eased tensions between parents and students. One said, “Now I can be a mom again.” Parents who had gifted students appreciated the chance for their children to work at their own pace and not be slowed down by large classes with students of varying abilities. Parents did think the Child U program was “a little dry” and somewhat limited, and they appreciated teachers’ efforts to find additional materials. Some parents expressed a wish for even more interaction with a teacher, perhaps a 90-minute session instead of one hour per week.
Parents were also generally supportive of field trips that Odyssey arranged and thought these helped ease student isolation; some parents have arranged on their own for additional social activities. It was noted, however, that field trips were not always strongly correlated with instructional objectives. Those parents whose children participated in chorus were pleased with that offering, and some expressed a desire for instrumental music if that could be arranged. Parents were generally less enthusiastic about the instructional group meetings on site. They noted that these groups brought together children with very different ability levels, and that it was difficult to provide meaningful activities in these situations.
The students with whom we visited were generally quite positive about their experience at Odyssey. Most of them said they appreciated the flexibility of the program that allowed them to work at their own pace. One student, who described himself as gifted, said he had tried Odyssey because he wanted harder work, but that this was still too easy. All of the students we spoke with were generally pleased with the teachers that had been assigned to them, though most expressed a desire for more social interaction through sports or other activities. Not all of the students we spoke with were sure that each home visit was a full hour in length.
The teachers we visited with were very enthusiastic about the program. They said they enjoyed the opportunity to work closely with parents on instructional issues and that the interactions and teamwork with teachers, students, and parents is energizing. They said students seemed to enjoy the one-on-one attention, and there are no discipline problems or distractions such as fire drills to deal with. They thought many of the parents had been interested in home-schooling, but found it too difficult to accomplish on their own; the structure and support were important for those who wanted to continue with the program. Parents had reported to the teachers that they had concerns with issues such as overcrowding and conflicting values prevalent in regular classrooms. The teachers were in agreement that the main factor in student success in the program was parental involvement. Some parents misstated their availability to work with their children, and others were not committed to seeing that their children completed the work as necessary; this seemed especially true with middle school students. For the most part, however, they were interested and worked well with teachers.
It would be difficult to overstate the high morale shown by teachers we talked with. They noted that the Monday meetings on site were great opportunities to receive training and to interact with other teachers. They spoke of high camaraderie among the staff and how it was motivating to work in a program where everyone was moved by the same mission. “It reminded me of why I chose education,” said one. Another teacher said she “would never go back to a regular classroom; here you can always focus on the student.” They liked the freedom to do unique things with students and to explore the possibilities of technology. They felt they had grown a lot through their association with Odyssey; one noted, “If I went back to a traditional classroom, I’d be a different teacher.”
Part of growth, of course, involves discomfit, and the teachers acknowledged that the program could sometimes be demanding in terms of tracking student progress. Each student had to be monitored through written work, computer reports, e-mail, and telephone calls. Those with middle school students noted that these students often exhibit a great deal of “creativity” at trying to evade responsibility. Overall, though, they were very pleased with the effort students were investing in Odyssey.
The teachers also thought that they had a good deal of input regarding program changes. They had noted, as did the visiting team, that on-site classes posed a special challenge to the school, and that groups constructed by grade levels often had many of the same disadvantages of regular classrooms. For the next school year, on-site groups will be developed from each teacher’s own students and taught by that teacher. These classes will meet both the desire of parents for structured social interaction for their children as well as the requirements of the May 2000 settlement agreement between Odyssey and the Nevada Department of Education.
The board members we talked with were very positive about Odyssey Charter School. They believe the operations are run in a smoothly and in a professional manner; ongoing improvements have been noted in both management and curriculum areas. Board members cited as a positive factor having administrators and other board members who have strong backgrounds in education; this eliminates the negative aspects of an entrepreneurial approach. Where the school has had problems, they have been with the Nevada Department of Education which, according to board members, provides inconsistent advice and often takes an adversarial stance with Odyssey. Relations with Clark County School District have been generally positive and supportive; much of this was attributed to having school personnel who have had long experience with the district and know how to work with people inside the system. One former board member noted that her own kids were now being home-schooled, but not because of dissatisfaction with Odyssey; she felt that, while the structured curriculum was good for most parents, she wanted, as a former teacher, to have more direct involvement in choosing her children’s learning experiences. She was highly complimentary of the school, saying it seemed very well run and was focused on helping kids. The board members in general expressed a belief that, while the Odyssey approach was not for everyone, it did fill a niche within the public education and did a good job with children who might otherwise “fall through the cracks.”
§ Because the school relies so heavily upon the Peabody tests, the results from this instrument could be presented in a more detailed fashion and more clearly linked with program improvement efforts.
§ The structure of the on-site science classes appears to be problematic. While the addition of these classes meets the terms of the May 2000 settlement, they do not appear to be effectively connected with individual student programs. It is hoped that when teachers conduct their own group classes on campus next year that this can be improved, but that may well present problems too, given the usual range of ages, abilities, and interests present in most teachers’ student loads.
Clark County, Nevada
§ Mission and Goals
Keystone Academy opened in the 1999-2000 school year to offer high school classes to students in Sandy Valley. The founders believed that having a local school would help with ongoing difficulties of acquiring a secondary education “in town,” since students have to take a long bus ride to schools in Las Vegas. The ride, reported as between two and three hours each way, has contributed to a high dropout rate, with an estimated 80% of Sandy Valley students failing to graduate. Keystone Academy intends to reduce this rate while offering a meaningful academic program for its rural clientele.
§ Governing Body
Keystone Academy is administered by an 11-member Board of Trustees including local business people, parents, and three teachers. There has been some turnover in board membership, much of it occurring after the charter application was accepted and some founding members took positions at the school. The membership is currently stable and deeply involved with charter school operations, including fundraising and program development.
The charter school has had significant turnover in administration during its three years in existence. The first principal left midway through the initial year; the second principal left a week before the start of the current academic year; one of the teachers now serves as principal in addition to her other duties. The current principal is not certified as a Nevada administrator, but has a strong background in business, which is an asset to this financially-challenged school. The governing board has recently engaged a consultant to place Keystone Academy on a small business model, running the school according to accepted management principles.
Low enrollment at the school has plagued Keystone Academy from the start, and this has, in turn, impacted the number of teachers that can be employed. Current personnel include two full-time teachers and a number of part-time instructors. The school appears to have been diligent in following state requirements regarding licensing, which has been a challenge; currently 2.6 of the 3.0 FTE instructional staff is certified. Independent reports from the Clark County School District indicated substantial compliance with the mandated curriculum, and noted, as did this review team, considerable skill and caring on the part of the instructional staff.
The number of students enrolled at Keystone Academy has fluctuated between 43 and 50 during the 2001-2002 school year. A total of seven students is, in one respect, not a large numerical gain, yet it does equal a growth of 16%, which is considerable in light of the potential impact upon the school’s revenues. The school reported a transiency rate of 66%.
Keystone Academy offers a six-period day, Monday through Thursday; each class is 66 minutes long. The school also offers independent study and alternative education classes after regular school hours. Field trips are scheduled for Fridays.
§ Curriculum & Instruction
The school offers classes in English, science, mathematics, social studies, physical education, journalism/publications, health, careers, drivers’ education, and computer applications. Instruction is characterized by small classes and highly personalized attention to students. Independent reviews by the Clark County School District noted general alignment with district requirements.
§ Academic Progress
As with most charter schools, some caution must be taken when interpreting results on standardized tests. First, the small number of students taking the test yearly in each grade can magnify effects, both positive and negative. Also, those students whose parents choose to enroll them in charter schools are often those who are experiencing difficult in regular public schools; hence, it might be expected that they are “at-risk” of not profiting from their educational experience. Such students generally enter scoring lowering than average on most tests; this certainly appears to be the case at this school.
Students enrolled in Keystone Academy have shown consistent progress on the 10th grade TerraNova examinations. In Reading, scores have increased from an average percentile rank of 35 to 58, with the percentage in the bottom quarter declining from 56% to 22% and those in the top quarter growing from 25% to 33%. In Mathematics the average percentile has grown from 22 to 69, with the percentage in the bottom quarter declining from 69% to 0% and those in the top quarter growing from 13% to 44%. Language percentile scores increased from 34 in 1999 to 54 in 2001, with the percentage in the bottom quarter declining from 44% to 11% and those in the top quarter from 13% to 22%. In Science the average percentile score increased during this time period from 43 to 71, with the bottom quarter percentage decreasing from 31% to 11% and the top quarter growing from 25% to 33%.
During its first year of operation (1999-2000), Keystone Academy offered only grades 9-10, along with alternative study for grades 9-12; there were no graduates.
The first graduating class was in 2001, when two students received standard diplomas and one received a certificate of attendance. According to school officials, all three graduates advanced to post-secondary education.
The stated mission of Keystone Academy is to offer appropriate high school education to students in its remote isolated area. As judged by traditional measures employed by the State of Nevada, the school has been quite successful in meeting its academic goals. Ongoing fiscal problems, however, hamper the functioning of the school and, indeed, threaten its continued existence.
Keystone Academy appears to be doing an adequate job of submitting annual reports pursuant to NRS 386.000 and NRS 386.605; however, a more detailed reporting system could highlight the real academic success of the school.
The team visited Keystone Academy on April 3-4, 2002, and met with teachers and other staff, with parents and board members, and with students. Given the small size of the operation, we felt we had more than enough time to gain a good perspective of the challenges and accomplishments of the school.
The physical challenges of the school were readily apparent. During the visit, for example, the main well was out of service, and Internet connectivity was being provided with a temporary telephone line from the journalism classroom to the office area. However, there were sufficient new computers available for classroom use, and the classrooms themselves are large and adequate.
Even more noticeable, though, were factors that define Keystone Academy. First, the interactions between the staff and students were highly personalized and caring. The small size of the school and the work it has taken to keep it going has led to strong sense of community. One student said, “You can open up and be yourself.” Students were enthusiastic about the small classes that allow for lots of one-to-one attention which had helped them progress academically. The teachers “are here to make a difference in our lives,” said one student. Others talked about the way in which their lessons were tied into practical knowledge. In journalism, for example, the students have taken over writing and publishing the community newspaper. Repairs to community vehicles in auto class helped provide funding for supplies. Students collected food for Christmas dinners for needy people in the valley. Many student activities are run through a student council which has been quite active during the past year.
The students we spoke with were pleased that teachers would work with them in flexible ways. They noted how after-school independent study classes had allowed them to make up lost credits and, in the case of the community college level computer class, had given them a taste of higher education and a desire to pursue it. Students talked about going into computer-related or law-related professions; others talked about entering military service as a career or as a steppingstone to further studies. Students were also appreciative of the number of field trips which the staff had arranged for Fridays when classes were not held. They had been to such places as a working mine and to the criminal forensics unit in Las Vegas. A number of students mentioned that, not only had the teachers arranged for and then supervised these trips, but also that the staff had “reached into their own pockets to feed us.”
Students also felt accepted in way that was strongly contrasted to how it was “in town” at the city schools. Here, one student said, “teachers try to encourage students to learn, while in town it seems like it’s just a job.” This extended to discipline: “They see us as people and don’t just punish us, but try to help students understand why we need to follow rules.” There was a strong undercurrent of resentment among the students for what they perceived as a lack of acceptance in the large schools they had been bused to. One board member was very direct on this point: “Our kids are treated like trailer trash.” This, coupled with transportation difficulties, was seen a driving the creation of a school in Sandy Valley.
In general, the adults we spoke with were very critical of the Clark County School District, not only because of the failure to provide secondary education in the valley, but also for hampering operations of the charter school. One staff member noted that it took direct intervention by the state superintendent for Keystone to finally get its school bus. School personnel feel that the district is slow in getting funds for the California students who attend Keystone and slow in passing these funds on. A parent noted that students are funded at the same rate as throughout the largely urban county, but that a rural allocation would be more realistic. Another said that the school has had difficulty getting records from the district in a timely manner, and that even now the school is being funded for six special education students when it is serving eight.
The lack of funding is the note which permeates everyone’s thoughts about the school. Students saw teachers let go in the middle of the 2001-2002 year due to financial problems, and they commented that their instructional equipment is somewhat limited. They miss the opportunities for extracurricular activities, including sports, which Keystone is currently unable to offer. Although students were proud of their teachers for continuing to work even when their paychecks were late, they worry about whether the school will be able to keep going. Parents were very aware of when “count day” was, and they knew that often students would drop out of the “town” schools after that, then begin at Keystone. “I mean, we’re glad to have them, we really are, because otherwise they’d just be dropouts, and maybe never go back. Still, it’d be nice to get some funding for them.”
In February 2002, following the layoff of instructional staff, the governing board engaged a consultant to help them with fiscal planning. They have adopted a model which places considerable responsibility upon the board, with roles and responsibilities now clearly delineated. The same model is being applied to all aspects of the school, and all student progress will be graphed and regularly assessed.
The lack of continuity in administration has hampered grant-writing activities, and the school is considerably in arrears. A plan is being developed for consistent fund-raising within the community. The school is actively investigating the possibility of offering interscholastic sports beginning in fall 2002, not only to increase offerings for current students, but as a way of drawing more students to enroll. There are plans underway for installing a wireless connection to the Internet, provided by a community organization; this would enhance connections with educational services beyond the valley, and it is anticipated that foreign language instruction could then be offered.
When asked what accomplishments they were most proud of, one staff member said “that we’re still here!” It was also noted that the three graduates from last year went on to further education and that at least 50% of the projected graduates for this year should also do so. One board member said that “these kids would have been dropouts, and now they’re getting a sense [of what] they can do.” A teacher said, “Most of these kids are not independent learners,” and it’s gratifying to see them succeed. A board member said, “These are kids the district has thrown away – most of them are from dysfunctional families – and yet they’ve taken ownership of the school.”
Another board member, who works in law enforcement, said that having the school in the community has reduced juvenile problems at least 50% because it had given students a sense of pride and of belonging. Some of them, he observed, “are really the adult in their family,” and it helps to have them focused on something positive. He thought it also helped give the community something to focus on; there had been a considerable number of donations, but much of it was “sweat equity.” In some senses, he said, “this is as close to a communistic effort as you can get.”
During our visit we were often struck, first, by the dedication and caring of the adults involved in this community-based school. But perhaps more than that, we were impressed with the students themselves; we found them to be well-informed about the challenges and short-comings of their school and genuinely appreciative of the efforts being made on their behalf. They were forthright about their dislike for the education made available to them through the regular district program, and praised Keystone for allowing them the chance to go to school in the valley and to look ahead with a sense of hard-won optimism. If our visit reminded us of anything, it might have been the old story about the bumblebee, which, according to engineers, is not supposed to be capable of flight, but somehow manages to fly.
§ The primary challenge for Keystone Academy is to stabilize its fiscal operations. The recent move toward a small business model is promising in that it helps shift major responsibilities from the teaching principal to the board itself, yet the school still is burdened with a considerable debt that must be satisfied.
§ If fiscal stability can be achieved, the school will need to find a way to spread out administrative responsibilities. It does not seem realistic to expect the two full-time teachers to continue to carry as much of the burden as they currently do.
§ Relationships with the Clark County School District seemed strained. Given the success of Keystone in providing secondary education for students who well might have contributed to the valley’s high dropout rate, the district might consider a more proactive role in supporting the efforts to serve those who are, after all, students within their service area.
Gateways to Success Public Charter School
Churchill County, Nevada
§ Mission and Goals
Gateways to Success Public Charter School began operations in the 1999-2000 school year to offer secondary education to at-risk students. The school has chosen to use such strategies as small size, block scheduling, low teacher/student ratios, and a combination of teacher-directed and computer-based instruction to meet student needs.
§ Governing Body
Gateways is governed by a seven-member Board of Trustees consisting of two teachers, parents, and people from the business and professional community. Only two of the original members are still serving, and the members admit there has been lack of clarity about the board’s role; however, it appears to be stable and functioning well at the present time.
One of founders of the school served as principal for the first two years before being replaced; one of the board members expressed surprise at reading the Nevada charter school law and finding “the principal worked for us rather than we worked for her.” The 2001-2002 academic year began with one of the teachers serving as interim principal until a new person could be hired. The current principal assumed her duties at the end of February 2002. She was recruited from Arizona with a background in business, a master’s degree in education, and experience in private schools. She has inherited a school with considerable fiscal and legal challenges, but says “every day I can go home and feel I have done some good for kids.”
Because of a limited budget and the inability to attract certified teachers in all fields, Gateways has relied heavily upon NovaNet and has supplemented its staff with instructional aides. A certified special education teacher has been on the staff since November 2001, replacing an individual who is no longer with the school and who faces legal action for allegations of improper behavior. English classes are directed by a teacher certified in that area; the math teacher is also certified. Science classes are taught by a long-term substitute; social studies classes are on NovaNet and monitored by an aide under the supervision of a certified teacher. During the current year, there has been a certified auto body specialist teaching courses in automotive repair; the school reported 6.0 teachers of whom 3.0 were certified. No certified counselor is available, and the school employs one office worker who tracks grades, attendance, transcripts, enrollment, etc. There is a grant-funded position that is intended to foster school-to-work partnerships, although it was reported that this person functions, out of necessity, more as a social worker.
Enrollment at Gateways on “count day” was over 170 students, although, according to the principal, there are only about 130 currently enrolled, of which 115 actually attend regularly. That estimate would point toward an attendance rate under 90%, which would correspond with last year’s reported rate of 89.8%; school officials were unsure of the current transiency rate, but the rate reported in June 2002 was 85%. Analysis of enrollment data showed that 54% of the students are female and 46% are male; 79% of the students are White, 10% are American Indians, and 5% are African American. Because the school operates as an alternative school, and includes an active credit-recovery program, the ninth grade at Gateways has been the smallest class. The student body is described as severely at-risk for a variety of factors including low family income, scrapes with the law, and attendance problems; a number of students help support their families. It was estimated that there are about eight girls who are pregnant or already parents, and that was a smaller number of boys who were parents as well.
Gateways operates with five 90 minute block classes Monday through Thursday with a modified special program on Fridays; that day begins with adjunct staff offering anger management classes, advisory periods, and “catch up” for those students behind in their work. The principal noted this is a required day for students, because “If we haven’t given you a diploma yet, you still have something to do.” There are 15-minute breaks between classes and a 45-minute lunch break, but the Gateways does not currently operate a school lunch program. Credit-recovery classes are offered 4:30 – 7:30, but these have not drawn many students.
§ Curriculum & Instruction
Gateways provides instruction for credit-deficient students at risk of not graduating from high school, and also for students seeking to accelerate and graduate early. English and social studies instruction is based on the NovaNet program, although there is a certified teacher to supplement the English classes. Math and science classes use a more traditional teacher-centered approach; there are no laboratory experiences within the science curriculum. There is a paint shop next to the auto classroom, but it has never been used because it lacks the proper extinguisher system. An adjunct staff member is offering American Sign Language, although, according to the principal, this program will probably be discontinued due to cost. In addition, the school works with the community college to offer students credit options; ten students are currently enrolled in a First Responder course as an elective credit. The school does not operate a functioning library, but state remediation funds are providing the Read Right program which focuses on increasing reading fluency. Physical education is arranged through local programs; there are no facilities on campus.
§ Academic Progress
As with most charter schools, some caution must be taken when interpreting results on standardized tests. First, the small number of students taking the tests yearly can magnify effects, both positive and negative. Also, those students who enroll at Gateways are often those who are experiencing the most difficulty in regular public schools; such students often enter scoring lower than average on most tests.
The average percentile scores for tenth grade students at Gateways range from 13 (Math, 2000) to 44 (Science, 2001). Students in the bottom quarter have ranged from 79% (Math, 2001) to 27% (Science, 1999); students in the top quarter have ranged from 22% (Science, 2001) to 0% (Reading, Language, and Science, all in 2000). Fewer than 80% of eligible tenth graders took the TerraNova test in fall 2001. Students reported as passing the High School Proficiency examinations have ranged from 44.7% (Math, 2000) to 86.5% (Writing, 2001); about 80% of graduates earn a standard diploma. No students were reported as taking either the SAT or ACT in 2001.
Gateways was begun in 1999 to provide educational services for at-risk students; the charter was amended in fall 2000 to allow the offering of independent study courses and to permit its designation as a vocational charter school. The school is currently conducting only a few vocational classes and apparently does not anticipate greatly increasing such offerings, although some electives may be added. It appears the Gateways is making a good faith effort to fulfill its charter as approved.
Gateways to Success Public Charter School appears to be doing an adequate job of submitting annual reports pursuant to NRS 386.000 and NRS 386.605.
The team visited Gateways on April 29-30, 2002, and met with the administrator and board members, with parents, and with teachers and students. Subsequent telephone interviews were conducted with other parents and members of the Board of Trustees. The team believes sufficient data were gathered to gain an adequate perspective of the activities and accomplishments of the school.
Gateways is housed in two buildings located behind a shopping center on the west side of Fallon; three of the classroom areas are large and two serve as the NovaNet rooms; there also are a number of smaller spaces available within the facility. In spite of being near the end of its third year of operations, Gateways appears to be very much a program in transition. As with most charter schools, there have been fiscal challenges that are only now coming under control; it is expected that the school will end the current year with a reserve of about $40,000. The math teacher has been here since the start, but there has been ongoing turnover with the instructional staff, and this is expected to be the case at the end of this year too. The principal is quite new and sees the need for several changes to improve the instructional program as well as operating procedures. Board members seem supportive of the general direction that is being discussed and are hopeful that the legal problems related to sexual harassment and wrongful termination suits can be successfully resolved.
There were some noticeable positive aspects at the school that might be sustained. The teachers and other adults seemed genuinely caring of the students, and a number of students have been able to complete their secondary education at Gateways. Classroom interactions were positive and generally focused on instruction. The students seemed supportive of each other, and they indicated that this school was a much better place for them than where they had been. They appreciated the flexibility of the program and the teachers’ willingness to work with them. They also felt there was much less violence and exposure to drugs than in regular schools. Staff members noted that the school is perceived as a “safe place to be” and that students often hang around in the summer even when classes are not being offered.
That said, there were a number of areas where improvements could be made. There was considerable variance in how well classrooms were organized. Some spaces and files were neat and readily accessible; in others, students and teachers had difficulty finding what they were looking for. It appeared students of widely varying levels were in the same classes, which might be suitable for NovaNet lessons, but posed problems for teachers who were leading instruction themselves. Although the students were not wandering the buildings during class time, a rule about not wearing hats in classrooms was widely ignored. Board members admitted that having most of the year without a principal in charge had led to some “looseness”; they had seen “some tightening up” in the last few weeks and felt that students and teachers were now being held to a higher standard.
All students are required to complete the Read Right program, and those we spoke with thought it had helped them with their reading and their self-confidence. Although a trainer for Read Right was present during the site visit, his explanation of the program was not especially convincing, and the principal is not sure whether or not to continue with it. To some extent, this seemed to parallel teacher and student unease about NovaNet – students appear to be making progress, but how much are they actually learning? There may be better procedures in place for tracking credit accrual than academic development. For example, it was reported that students could earn credit for the regular English class from which they were pulled to participate in Read Right which is essentially a remedial class.
During our visit, we heard a good deal about the difficult situations with which most of the Gateways students struggle; the principal noted that she has already become familiar with most of the local police and probation officers. And we noted how staff members were constantly dealing with students who came to school without having been fed and who were “always hungry.” Yet the school does not participate in the national Free and Reduced Lunch program, relying instead on what can be purchased from the vending machines. Likewise, it appeared to the visiting team that the instructional offerings for these students were lacking the kind of carefully planned program that would foster the full intellectual growth that these students need.
§ Because there has been so much turnover since Gateways opened, the board and staff should arrange an intensive planning session to decide upon the future of the school. It might be useful to first visit with more established charter schools serving similar populations and to engage a facilitator to guide this meeting.
§ When the academic focus is clearly delineated, an effective evaluation plan should be established. As a start, the independent study program and the Read Right need to be more closely monitored and assessed.
§ Participation in the national breakfast and lunch programs should be pursued as soon as possible.
§ A staff development program needs to be established so teachers can learn from others who are experienced and skillful at providing educational opportunities for at-risk adolescents. Teachers would also benefit from a preparation period each day as is provided at most schools.
§ When looking for new faculty, Gateways should strongly consider at least one teacher who is a licensed counselor; the school serves a population for which such services are not only desirable but necessary.
§ Closer ties with the local community college are recommended. While a low percentage of graduates may pursue post-secondary education upon leaving Gateways, development and support of such ambitions should be actively encouraged.
§ Gateways should investigate closer links with the local business community and to identify possible sponsors for a variety of programs; for example, the school needs to focus on becoming a more text-rich environment, and a partnership with the Amazon.com facility in Fernley should be pursued.
§ It is unrealistic to continue running the school without an office assistant to be responsible for such duties as receptionist, secretary, and attendance officer. Student help could be available as part of a monitored work-study program.