Chesterton Tribune

Charter school backers plan tax funded environment themed curriculum

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By VICKI URBANIK

Probably like many others, Duneland Superintendent Dirk Baer said he has a number of questions about the proposed new Discovery Charter School, foremost of which is: Why here?

Baer noted that when charter schools began in 2002 in Indiana, the intent was to open schools in areas where traditional public schools were failing. He cited other charter schools -- such as those in Gary and East Chicago -- that offer families an alternative to their struggling schools.

“This would seem to be a contrast to that,” he said, noting the Duneland Schools’ reputation as a top performing school system. “It seems to be contrary to the original intent.”

Lauire Metz, one of the organizers of the Discovery Charter School, said many people have a misperception about charter schools -- that they’re either for the underprivileged or the elite. At least in Discovery’s case, neither is accurate.

“We’re trying to be different,” Metz said of the proposed school, which would begin in 2010 as a K-6 school, then expand over the next two years to include seventh and eighth grades.

Metz said many charter schools in this part of the country tend to be in urban areas. But in the more Western states, charter schools are more common, often built around certain themes, such as the arts or sciences.

The Discovery Charter School intends to focus on environmental education and “placed-based” learning, using the outdoors as a classroom as much as possible, forging partnerships with environmental groups and agencies, and melding the Dunes and the local ecosystem into the curriculum. As summed up in its brochure: “Learn green. Live green.”

Like other charter schools, Discovery would receive taxpayer support, would not charge tuition and would have an open enrollment, with any Indiana student eligible to attend, including those with special needs and those from outside Duneland. If the enrollment applications exceed the school’s limits, a lottery would be held to determine who attends.

“We don’t want to be seen as a competitor to the public schools,” Metz said. Instead, she said the intent is to give families an educational choice with a different approach toward learning. “It’s really for people looking for something different,” she said.

The final decision over the charter school appears to rest entirely with Ball State University, which would be Discovery’s official sponsor. Ball State’s charter school website says it decides whether to sponsor charter schools based in part on public feedback received. A public meeting is set for May 28 at the Library Service Center.

Baer said the Duneland Schools will be represented at that meeting in order to learn more about the proposal and the impact on the school corporation. “It’s hard to tell what the impact would be,” he said.

Financial Details

Charter schools in Indiana are considered public schools and they receive state tuition support per pupil. Up until this year, those funds came from both the state and local property taxes. But beginning in 2009, the state has assumed all general fund school expenses, funded in part through state sales tax.

Discovery’s proposed budget projects that it will receive $788,670 in state tuition support for its 276 students in the 2010-11 school year, then $1.86 million in the following school year when it grows to 316 students. Those funds would otherwise stay in the home school district for each student enrolled.

Unlike the traditional public schools, charter schools don’t levy property taxes for other funds, such as transportation or capital projects. Metz said the end result is that charter schools operate on less funding.

Discovery’s budget proposal identifies a total annual income of nearly $1.8 million the first year and $2 million the second year. The bulk of that money in the first year would come from the taxpayer support and from a $750,000 loan from the Charter School Development Corp., a not-for-profit organization that helps with start-up costs for charter schools.

Other sources of funding identified in the first year are grants ($165,000), state grants ($45,000), fundraising ($9,660), investment earnings ($2,466), and non-tuition student fees ($20,700).

Baer said he’s not sure how, financially, Discovery Charter School would impact Duneland. If most of the charter students come from outside of the Duneland Schools, the impact should be minimal, he said, since Duneland wouldn’t see a drop in its state support. But if a significant number of the new students are currently enrolled in Duneland, the school system could see an overall drop in enrollment, and thus, its operating funds.

“It could affect programming,” Baer said.

Metz said the Discovery Charter School has a fairly long e-mail list of supporters and prospective families, and that some of the interest is from border communities, such as Beverly Shores. However, she also said that most of the interest is from within Duneland.

Why would Duneland families be interested in switching schools? Metz said one recurring concern she has heard about the Duneland Schools deals with the transition between elementary, intermediate and middle school. By providing a K-8 setting in a smaller and one comprehensive setting, the transition from grade to grade would be smoother and not as broken up as in Duneland, she said. “It’s more of a community feeling,” she said.

Governance

Ball State University would be the Discovery Charter School’s sponsor; while it would not run the school, it would oversee the school’s performance. Ball State would receive an administrative fee, projected at $23,660 in its first year and $55,803 in the second year.

Ball State is one of four entities in Indiana authorized to sponsor charter schools. The others are the Indianapolis Mayor’s Office and the school corporations in Evansville-Vanderburgh and Lafayette.

Currently, Ball State sponsors 29 of the state’s 49 charter schools.

Discovery Charter School would contract with American Quality Schools, a non-profit educational management organization based in Chicago, to run the school. All employees of the school would be AQS employees. The proposed budget projects a payment to AQS of $47,320 the first year and $111,607 the second year.

The school would not have a teacher’s union, although a provision in the agreement between Discovery and AQS would allow teachers to organize if they wanted. Metz said the American Quality Schools have a phenomenal teacher professional development program, which helps ensure that teachers are doing as they should.

Charter school teachers must be Indiana certified, students must take ISTEPs, school data is posted on the Department of Education webpage, and the schools are ranked under the state’s P.L. 221.

However, charter schools are exempt from Indiana Department of Education rules and polices that apply to the traditional public schools, with some exceptions, such as rules that deal with teacher licensing and health and safety laws.

The Discovery Charter School would be governed by the board for the Discovery Charter School, Inc., a not-for-profit corporation. Those board members are identified in the school’s proposal as: Metz, a co-founder of the Field Station Cooperative; Patrick Mayers, Dean of Faculty and Instruction and senior faculty teacher at DeVry University/Keller Graduate School of Management; Gretchen Voskuhl of Chesterton, the outdoor program manager for the Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana; Denise Samocki of Chesterton, a former assistant controller for a Chicago law firm; and Linda Simon of Gary, an attorney in the area of employee benefits and taxation for a Chicago law firm.

A school board that would oversee the charter school would also be formed. This board is proposed to be made up of the following: A member from the Dunes Learning Center, a member from the Duneland Chamber of Commerce, a parent of an enrolled child, a member from the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, and three members from the Duneland Charter School Inc.

All of those -- with the exception of the parent representative -- would be appointed by the Duneland Charter School Inc. The parent rep would be appointed by a separate parent advisory committee.

“Both the corporation board and the school board will develop policies and make decisions about the school,” reads the proposal. “The school board, as a subsidiary of the foundation, operates on behalf of the foundation; however, final authority will rest with the foundation board for all school decisions as the holder of the charter from BSU.”

The school board would have to hold public meetings and abide by the Indiana Open Records Law; however, the board for the corporation that oversees it would not.

Location

Discovery would not provide bus transportation, so families would have to get their students to and from the school themselves.

Metz said she has heard a concern that charter school could result in Gary students coming here for school. Noting that any Indiana student is eligible to enroll in a charter school, she said if a Gary student’s family can get them to and from each day, they would be just as eligible as anyone else in attending.

As for lunch, the proposal states that the Discovery Charter School is optimistic about being able to provide a purchased lunch option and that the lunch program would emphasize healthful organic whole foods, grown and produced locally when possible. Children who bring in sack lunches would be urged to bring reusable containers, cloth napkins and non-disposable silverware. The school also intends to create a school garden for lunch ingredients.

As in Duneland and other public schools, the Discovery school intends to administer ISTEP each spring, the NWEA assessments in grades 3-8, and the DIBELS assessments (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills) in grades K-2.

The location of the school has not yet been identified, but Discovery’s proposal says it would ideally be located near a variety of natural areas or adjacent to or within walking distance to a national or state park. “Having wooded and open areas will allow for exploration, active play, composting, gardening and many other learning activities that will tie into the place-based curriculum,” the proposal says.

It has not been determined if the building will be purchased or leased. The proposal states that Discovery is currently working with a local developer and a LEED accredited professional with Charter Schools Development Corporation. Several sites are under consideration. If Ball State approves the charter school in June, Discovery expects to have a final decision by August as to the location of the new school.

 

 

Posted 5/15/2009