Charter school growth is staying consistent in Orange County, and proponents say freedom of choice is the reason.
“Having choices is so important,” said Michele Gill, University of Central Florida education professor and founder of incoming charter school The Galileo School for Gifted Learning. “Many students do wonderfully in regular public schools, but there are some kids whose needs are not being met, and charter schools provide a free, public choice for those students.”
Charter schools are nonprofit organizations that have a contract to provide the same level of education as a regular public school. Anyone can open them, although most are founded by concerned parents, educational professionals or management companies, and are funded by the state.
The charters are free from many of the restrictions put on traditional public schools, but do have to adhere to the same set of educational standards and benchmarks. Many focus on special needs or missions, for example an arts and technology focus, at-risk children or children with disabilities.
Apps on rise
In Orange County, the number of applications to open charter schools is up over last year with 23, and there have consistently been 10 to 20 applications submitted to the county for new schools each year. Since 2007, the county has opened 13 charter schools, bringing the total to 28.
The number of applications will likely stay at this rate, said Chris Bernier, principal of school choice services for Orange County Public Schools, the division of the school system that approves applications.
Bernier agreed that the unique services offered by charter schools is what is keeping them popular.
“They serve specific niches for children that parents are looking for, while Orange County Public schools serve all children’s needs,” Bernier said.
Catering to needs
Gill, whose charter school will open in Seminole County next fall, said The Galileo School will address the needs of gifted students, an area she said has been largely ignored in Florida.
“Gifted children are being left behind in the current climate,” she said.
Her school will have the students work at their own pace with a focus on research, and she will be writing the curriculum.
The freedom to choose their own curriculum, and being involved in the process, is what administrators said teachers liked about being a part of charter schools. Ronnie DeNoia, principal of Lake Eola and DaVinci High charter schools in Orlando, said this is a benefit to sending your child to a charter school.
“They have the freedom here to do what they know is needed for children to succeed,” DeNoia said.
Cindy Hamilton, who’s had three children at Lake Eola Charter School, had nearly the same sentiments about teachers at the school. Her son, who was three grades behind in reading and not improving at a regular public school, was up to his grade level after one year at Lake Eola. She attributes this to the teaching style there. Her daughter is excelling in math and is able to learn at a faster pace at Lake Eola.
“They’re building around their personalities,” said Sharron Horton, who also has three children at Lake Eola.
UCP of Central Florida focuses on an even more-particular need — integrating children with and without disabilities together. The organization has eight campuses in Central Florida, with the newest and largest in East Orlando. That campus has a charter that serves kindergarten through second grade, and while right now the majority of the school’s students are special needs, the goal is for the ratio to be 50/50.
The UCP curriculum focuses on art and technology, and each is a part of every aspect of the day’s lesson. The staff hopes that the school’s level of inclusion will help their students be better people in the future.
“There’s a climate of really caring about the kids and parents,” said Ilene Wilkins, president and CEO of the organization and Avalon Park resident.
She wants her students to learn that “differences are just different.”
But it’s not all good. Though many charter schools are successful, some are closed down by the county.
Since 2007, four have closed in Orange County, including Summit Charter School in Maitland. The charter school administrators speculated that it’s most likely due to budgetary issues.
Though it’s a long and complicated process to start a charter school — Gill’s application was more than 150 pages and the county has a rigorous screening process — some who start charter schools still end up having a vision that’s too large, and one they can’t fulfill once they’ve taken on the responsibility.
Many are inexperienced when it comes to managing money, and end up spending more than they’ve been given. Another possible reason for the closings could be low performance, which, Gill said, charter schools aren’t immune to.
“Just because it’s a charter school, doesn’t mean it’s good,” she said. “Just like any school, you have to look at the mission and vision.”