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Charting new ground: Janesville's charter schools provide options for students

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Sunday, May 7, 2017

JANESVILLE—It's a problem of definition.

In many people's minds, “alternative” high school translates to “school for teen moms, dropouts and drug users.”

The words “charter school” could mean anything from “alternative high school”—same problem—to a plan to take money from public schools and give it to private institutions.

Neither definition describes Janesville School District's four charter schools or the students who attend them.

For students, charter schools offer a place to excel, to learn in a place with less drama, to catch up after an illness or planned trip, to dig deeper into a favorite subject or to display knowledge in a different way.

For many, it's about learning in a smaller setting, one in which teachers and students strive to create a community that becomes a second family—or in some cases, the primary family.

How do you define all that?

CHARTER SCHOOLS DEFINED

In Wisconsin, charter schools cannot be run by private, for-profit businesses. By law, charter schools can be run by school districts and selected UW campuses, technical colleges, and American Indian educational institutions and municipalities.

Charters schools run by school districts are considered “instrumentalities” of the district's school board, explained Lisa Peterson, Rock River Charter School principal and coordinator of charter school development for the district.

Each charter school also has a board separate from the district's school board. The board can raise money, acquire property for its own use and enter into contracts with technical colleges, UW institutions or private colleges or universities for academic support, curriculum review or other services.

More important, charter schools are exempt from many of the state Department of Public Instruction's regulations.

Some regulations, such as “all schools must erect and maintain fences around their property,” don't matter. But exemptions from rules governing the number of instructional hours and requirements for physical education and the length of the school day ensure that charter schools can be nimble and responsive to students' needs, Peterson said.

In exchange for freedom from rules, the DPI asks for “greater accountability for results.”

“Charter schools are, in essence, living laboratories that influence the larger public school system and introduce an element of entrepreneurship within that system,” according to the 2016-17 DPI charter school yearbook.

LOCAL SCHOOLS

The Janesville School District's four charter schools include:

ARISE Virtual Academy: Opened in 2007, ARISE is a virtual school with a physical presence. ARISE uses space in Franklin Middle School, and students have the option of working at home or at school.

Rock University High School: Opened in 2014, this charter school grew out of the Janesville Academy for International Studies, a half-day program for students interested foreign languages and global studies.

The school now features integrated subjects, personalized learning and a more college-like atmosphere and schedule.

TAGOS Leadership Academy: Started in 2007, TAGOS focuses on project-based learning.

Rock River Charter School: Rock River, which opened in 1998, serves a variety of students who are at risk for not graduating.

CHARTER SCHOOL STUDENTS

Who are the students who attend charter schools? What do they have in common that makes attending Craig or Parker unpalatable?

Most students attend Rock River for a specific reason, such as credit deficiencies or because they're parenting children—although it's important to note that school-age students can attend traditional high schools.

Not all students who lag behind in credits are unintelligent. Some students pick the GED Option 2 program because they just want to get the degree and be done with it.

Some charter school students The Gazette met had lives complicated by jobs, family struggles or unstable housing.

But those factors aren't universal.

The only commonality among students was the desire for something different, the chance to do school in a different way.

“It's about finding the right fit for students,” Peterson said. “A lot of what students are looking for—even if they don't really realize it at the time—is smaller.”

When students talk about why they like their school, they talk about “more one-on-one time” or “school is like a family.”

Charter schools offer a chance to escape from the dynamics of a traditional high school--the drama, the bullying and the anxiety that comes from learning with 1,500 other students.

Maturity and the ability to work independently are needed to succeed in charter schools.

Whether they attend Rock University High School or the school-age parenting program, students are required to take more responsibility for learning.

Teachers say, “Students have a choice and a voice in their learning.”

That means students learn how to change habits that aren't helping them. Teachers establish relationships with students and work to inspire those changes.

For example, if a TAGOS student doesn't show up at school for a day or so, he'll probably get a home visit from his adviser asking what's going on.

Teachers do their best to teach independence and responsibility, but ultimately students have to value the work enough to do it.

One of the persistent myths is students are “sent” to a charter school after not making it in traditional high school.

TAGOS and ARISE accept students who have been expelled, but only in certain circumstances.

In all cases, students must apply to get in.

At TAGOS, the application process involves a small project so students understand what project-based learning is like, said Stephanie Davis, dean of students and a teacher at the school.

At Rock River, an incomplete or sloppily prepared application is sent back with a note to “try again when you are ready.”

ARISE has a two-week trial period. Students who fail to make progress are dismissed from the program.

Students and their parents also meet with charter school staff before starting school to make sure they've found the right educational match.



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