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Charter school enrollment in Whitewater nears capacity

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Kevin Hoffman
March 8, 2011
— Enrollment at Whitewater's first charter school is near capacity, giving administrators hope the institution will flourish when classes begin this fall.

Jo Bernhardt, principal at Lincoln Elementary and future principal at Lincoln Inquiry Charter School, said 360 students were registered by Monday's deadline—slightly below the enrollment cap of 378.


Registration lasted four weeks during February and March, shortly after the Whitewater School Board approved a five-year contract with the charter school in late January.


Whitewater School District is transforming its largest grade school, Lincoln Elementary, into a charter school to provide "21st century learning" to students in kindergarten through fifth grade.


Students of all ages will be mixed in classrooms and matched with the same teachers for at least two years.


"We're rolling along," Bernhardt said. "It's exciting to be a part of something like this in the community."


The enrollment is nearly identical to Lincoln Elementary, which has 359 students this year, Bernhardt said. Finding enough interest in the district's charter plan was one of her main priorities.


"That's always one of the challenges when you do a whole school conversion," she said.


"This is the biggest elementary school in the district, and changing it, there was a risk."


The school now can collect the remainder of its $250,000 federal planning grant, which mostly will be used during the summer for professional development.


It was awarded the funds last year, but only given $30,000 during the first phase. The rest was held until the state Department of Public Instruction could verify planning to this point was successful.


The school's governance committee plans to apply for a second $250,000 federal implementation grant by next month.


Discussion for the school started in 2009. Following a series of listening sessions, parents and other residents created a petition to develop a charter plan.


Lincoln Charter School, like other Wisconsin charter schools, will not charge tuition. It will use inquiry-based teaching techniques to help students develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills, according to the contract.


Gov. Scott Walker's budget proposal seeks to cut about $900 million in funding from public schools. Bernhardt said that could affect the charter school just like it would other institutions in Whitewater, though it's too early to tell how.


A provision in the budget allows charter teachers to have a bachelor's degree, as opposed to the current mandate requiring a Department of Public Instruction license. However, Lincoln Inquiry Charter School's staff is already in place.


The school will employ about 29 teachers, including 19 classroom teachers, Bernhardt said.



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