Our Views: School district finds a competitive edge
In the eyes of many business leaders, government is incapable of innovating to improve service.
But as Gazette reporter Catherine W. Idzerda showed in her series on Janesville’s charter schools published this week, government can and does innovate, particularly in the realm of education.
The Janesville School District has been aggressive in experimenting with how it delivers education because it faces significant competitive pressure. Parents have a plethora of school choices today largely because of a boom in online schools.
Janesville’s charter schools, not to be confused with those run in some states by private companies, are the district’s response to the competition. The online ARISE Virtual Academy, for instance, attracts parents and students who aren’t satisfied with the traditional classroom setup. ARISE stands out from other online schools because the district has intertwined the best of online and traditional classroom worlds. Students learn online, but they can visit classrooms at a school and work one-on-one with mentors who help them achieve their academic goals.
Many students enter charter schools because they find something lacking in traditional classrooms, but traditional schools have their positive features, too. They serve as a district’s epicenter for school spirit. Traditional high schools such as Craig and Parker are symbols for the community’s identity. It’s important for students to feel a sense of identity and belonging, whether they attend a charter or traditional school.
The district’s different schools should influence each other with all students standing to benefit directly and indirectly. The district is free, of course, to incorporate aspects of charter schools into traditional classrooms and vice versa.
Janesville has four charter schools, but neither students nor educators should treat them or the traditional schools as islands. After all, students enrolled in ARISE aren’t the only students using the internet. In developing ARISE, school district officials might find elements fit well into traditional classrooms. We think of ARISE as a laboratory, whose discoveries could become more widely implemented.
Another laboratory is Rock University High School. One of its students, Thomas Murphy, ran for school board in April in part because he felt many students aren’t aware of their options regarding the district’s charter schools. He found Rock University better suited him and his learning style, and he suspects other students might feel the same way if they knew about it.
Rock University gives ultra-ambitious students the opportunity to pursue their passions. At this school, students must do capstone projects, providing in-depth examination of a particular topic. It’s safe to say not too many students find public policy to be as fascinating as Murphy.
“It’s almost like poetry,” he explained.
Accommodating and helping fuel the passions of someone like Murphy says a lot about the district’s capacity to connect with different types of learners. It also says a lot about the district’s willingness and eagerness to innovate. The district realizes it cannot afford to lose students to other districts or their virtual schools, and it rightly views charter schools as key to staying competitive.