Board considers new Janesville charter school

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Frank Schultz
Wednesday, December 11, 2013

JANESVILLE—Officials are planning to open a new charter school in Janesville next fall, but one school board member would like to nip it in the bud.

Kevin Murray aired his opposition to the proposed Rock University High School at Tuesday's school board meeting.

“I see this charter school as something we don't need,” Murray said.

Officials who are still developing plans for the school have said it would target academically talented poor and minority students who have not found success in the large high schools.

Officials have noted that poor and minority students are under-represented in Advanced Placement classes and tend to do more poorly on college-placement tests than their peers.

The school would open with 30 to 60 students in 10th through 12th grade, using rooms at UW-Rock County.

The board took no action Tuesday, but it will vote in January to approve the school's charter. If that vote fails, planning for the school would end.

Board member Bill Sodemann agreed with Murray's concerns about a rule that would give entry preference to siblings of the school's students and the children of staff and charter-school board members.

It's standard language for charter school contracts but could be changed before the charter is adopted, officials said.

Murray said he did not believe the school would target the poor and minority students, because it is open to any student.

Superintendent Karen Schulte responded that Rock River Charter School is open to all students, but only at-risk students are sent there.

Murray said he was told the ideal student for the new school might be No. 2 in his class, taking high-level courses, but is bored.

That student has other options now, Murray said, including taking college courses through the Youth Options program or early graduation.

Murray said other things the new high school is supposed to do, such as developing leadership and teaching technology skills, are already done in the high schools.

Murray noted that if academic achievement is the concern, the high schools are working on plans to improve that.

Another charter school, TAGOS Leadership Academy, already provides a program much like what is envisioned at the new school, including project-based learning, Murray noted.

The taxpayers provided top-flight high schools with a $70 million referendum, Murray said, and those schools should be used.

District employees who are planning the new school could be better used working in the schools that already exist, Murray said.

If academic achievement is the concern, then the district should consider cutting $500,000 in administrative costs and hire teachers at the elementary level, where achievement can be addressed at the beginning, not the end of a student's career, Murray said.

Board member Scott Feldt said he agreed that achievement is best addressed in the early years.

Schulte responded that research shows that administrators and high quality teachers affect achievement, but there's no strong research showing that lowering teacher-student ratios helps.

 Schulte also noted the school would be on a college campus, making it different from all other district schools.

Sodemann said Murray had valid concerns, but he believes there is room for a school that addresses needs in a way no other school does. Feldt also said he still supports the idea.

Not all board members weighed in, so it is impossible to tell whether Murray swayed enough votes, but Murray said in a separate interview that he doesn't expect he'll succeed in killing the school.

Murray, by the way, is the only candidate who has taken out papers to run for school board in the spring election. Two other incumbents whose terms run out in April are Feldt and Sodemann. Feldt said Tuesday he will not run again. Sodemann said it is doubtful he will run.

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