When Aaryn Li-Jenkins imagines what it will be like to go to school in a defunct Parisian department store in Richland Mall, the Irmo sixth-grader says it will be “different.”
But that’s a good thing, said the ambitious 12-year-old children’s theater actress who plays cello and loves science. “If something is different, it means it’s going to be better.”
Li-Jenkins plans to be among the first students to attend the S.C. Science Academy, one of nine charter schools set to open across the state this fall.
Despite the uncertainty facing fledgling charter schools, statewide interest in opening them is growing quickly, and much of that interest is in the Midlands.
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Earlier this year, 40 groups around the state asked the S.C. Public Charter School District about opening charter schools – publicly funded schools with local control and freedom in designing innovative curriculum. Now, 26 groups are serious about applying. Eight are in the Midlands.
The spike in interest comes as the state charter school district, one of more than 80 S.C. public school districts, is still fairly young. The district’s first schools opened in 2008, and it now has 17 schools – 11 with physical sites and six virtual schools.
The district has faced its share of challenges. While seven of the schools this year received Palmetto awards for high academic performance or closing the achievement gap, six are on probation for failure to comply with special education requirements or “significantly sub-par academic performance.”
Some are in their second year of probation.
Last month, the district revoked a school’s charter for poor academic performance, financial accounting problems and moving into buildings not approved by the state. The closure prompted lawmakers and education leaders to propose strengthening the law.
“Growth alone has been challenging ... though welcomed, and we’re glad to see it,” said Clay Eaton, charter school district spokesman.
Unique and unusual
One appeal of charter schools is they have more independence than traditional public schools. They have their own governing boards and control their finances and curriculum.
The state created the public charter school district to allow the schools to exist anywhere in the state without being tied to traditional public school districts. The district also allowed for statewide virtual schools to open.
The district provides accountability for charter schools and passes on state and federal money, but the schools are different than traditional public schools because they are independent and see themselves as “unique and highly unusual,” Eaton said.
While they have more creative freedom in teaching, they still must meet state standards for graduation and must participate in standardized testing.
The district receives state and federal money through the S.C. Department of Education just like traditional public school districts, but the district receives less money per student of any district in the state. Charter schools receive 54 percent of the state average of funding per student for its virtual schools and 64 percent of the state average for its traditional brick-and-mortar schools.
That money does not arrive until most of the building and planning has already taken place.
And unlike traditional public schools, charter schools cannot raise local tax money and receive no public money for buildings or transportation.
The schools have to find their own space and raise money to pay for furnishings. They can form as nonprofits and can raise charitable donations.
The S.C. Science Academy has received a federal planning and implementation grant. About $181,000 will come in May, and $185,500 more, next year.
“That’s a drop in the bucket,” said Nathan Yon, a former state public-school teacher and the academy’s executive director. Yon said the school’s fundraising goal is $250,000.
The school also is pushing another deadline: Originally approved to open in 2012, the school took a one-year extension. If it does not open in August, the school’s charter – its contract with the district – “dissolves,” Eaton said, and the school would have to reapply for a charter.
More independence also means more responsibility for charter schools.
Charter schools, which are like businesses, fail for the same reason businesses fail, said Danny Shaw, a member of the science academy’s board of trustees: “Not enough planning and groundwork and laying the foundation for success.”
Shaw said the school board’s collective experience brings the academy credibility. Members include education professionals and business people with experience in banking, engineering and starting businesses.
Shaw himself has 43 years of experience as a teacher, principal, and as a state Education Department consultant.
Lemuel Watson, dean of the University of South Carolina College of Education, also serves on the board, which is “sensitive to making sure (the school is) high quality” with “rigorous standards,” he said.
The challenges the school faces are different, not necessarily more difficult, than those all schools face, he said.
“It takes a community and businesses and partnerships with families and social services agencies and churches in order to have the best kind of schooling for a community. And given that (the state is) so diverse, one size is not going to fit all.”
A ‘STEM-centric’ approach
Yon, who has experience launching alternative schools, leaned against a makeup kiosk Thursday, and surveyed the empty Parisian department store that soon will be his new school.
Where clothing racks once stood, Yon pictured clusters of children studying robotics and using math and science to solve “relevant” problems. He described students working in groups on projects or studying independently in a common area beneath a huge picture window overlooking the mall parking lot.
Dressing rooms will serve as offices or spaces for tutoring, studying, group work or visual and audio labs. Moving partitions will isolate classes when necessary, then allow them easily to recombine for collaboration with other classes.
About 100 students entering the sixth- through eighth-grades have enrolled or are in the process of doing so, Yon said. The school plans to add high school grades.
The academy is billed as a “STEM-centric” school, meaning science, technology, engineering and math will be the focus of learning. All subject areas will relate back to some science- or math-based concept students are studying. Blending classroom and online instruction will help students learn at their own pace, Yon said.
Autumn Perkins, a former S.C. public school teacher who is working on a doctorate in curriculum and instruction at USC, learned about the school at a community meeting and decided to get involved.
Perkins is working with a team of educators to build the school’s curriculum, designing lessons that anchor subject areas including language arts and social studies to a science concept.
For example, when students are learning about weather systems and atmospheric change, they might study the development of agriculture in ancient civilizations. In language arts, they might write a research paper exploring a weather catastrophe or a fiction story about what it is like to survive a tsunami, she said.
Perkins hopes to rid the math and sciences of their “elitist” reputation, making the curriculum more appealing to more diverse students.
Yon said recruiting teachers has been relatively easy.
A challenge will be making sure students have access to technology, both Yon and Perkins said. Raising money and acquiring partners who are invested in technology is key, they said.
‘Believe in transformations’
The academy still is working to secure a lease for the mall space, but Yon is confident it’s coming together.
He also is hopeful that corporate sponsors who have pledged support will come through, but if they do not, the school can still open with a scaled-back budget.
Charter schools have opened with less, Yon said.
Aaryn, the 12-year-old who hopes to attend, participates in children’s theater at mall.
Her mother, Belva Nagasaki, says she likes the school’s math and science focus and the smaller class sizes, which means more attention for her daughter.
Describing the family as “pretty adventurous,” Nagasaki said she told her daughter, “Sure, let’s give it a shot.”
Standing not far from where rainwater pattered on a motionless escalator, Yon said the leaky roof will be repaired before school starts – just as he suspects all the other pieces will fall into place.
“I’m not a revolutionary, but I do believe in transformations.”