Lately at Inhabitots, we've been exploring various educational options for kids and their families. We've seen democratic schools, inspiring green education programs and more. Now it's time to take a closer look at charter schools, some of which offer eco-friendly and tuition-free school options for some families, such as the West Hawaii Explorations Academy charter school shown above which has a no child left inside motto and a focus on hands-on, real world education.
What Are Charter Schools
Charter schools help fill a niche for kids who need an option between public and private school. Charter schools are funded with public money, and therefore must, in almost all known cases, follow state and national education rules and policies. Any group of people can get together and submit and be approved to run a charter school. Once approved, charter schools receive waivers from the public school districts and in turn the school is almost always held accountable for specific student academic performances. If academic performance of students begins to lag behind public schools in the district then the charter will eventually be closed down. Charter schools are tuition-free, not gaining funding from parents but from federal, state and local taxes.
What Makes Charter Schools Different from Public Schools?
While most public schools follow a general curriculum, charter schools often have a special focus. For example, there are science charters, performing and visual arts charters, Spanish language charters and so on, . Charter schools also tend to be smaller with fewer students per class. While charters are open to any student, schools do limit their numbers, so you can’t simply enroll your child in any charter you like. Once a charter is full, kids who have applied are moved to a lottery system or wait list. That said, there are no other requirements to get into a charter – the school simply must have space available. Like public schools, charter schools do have teachers but they don’t require the same sort of certification. In a charter school 75% of elementary school teachers must be teacher certified while 50% in middle and high school must be certified. Teachers and administrators often have more authority to make decisions at charter schools, but they do still have to follow government mandated rules.
Are Charters an Alternative School?
I’ve run into many parents who aren’t happy with public school, so they start looking at charters. That’s fine, but something very important to realize is that some charters are not substantially different than regular public schools. It’s true that some offer special education programs and some lean toward “democratic education” methods, but when you get right down to it, charters require standardized testing, homework, tests and often have the same peer social issues (like too much bullying) as public schools. Be aware that just like other school types, charters vary wildly from school to school, so it’s important to check the charter out. Also, if you’re interested in a real public school alternative, one with a less schoolish environment, a charter school will probably not fit your needs. In order to understand what a charter school is and is not, consider that the main goal of charter schools is to improve upon the public school system, not change it entirely. Some charters accomplish this goal and some don’t.
Do Charter Schools Offer an Eco-friendly Curriculum?
By definition, charter schools were not specifically created to provide environmental themes. However, as I noted above, most charters have a theme in place, such as a more in-depth focus on art or language, and luckily, many charters out there do choose to have a green focus. For example, The Environmental Charter School, located in Pittsburgh focuses on educating student to high academic learning standards while using an eco-themed curriculum, “To foster knowledge, love of and respect for the environment and the will to preserve it for future generations.” The Environment Community Opportunity (ECO) Charter School in Camden seeks to help kids become environmental stewards, while creating a learning community that focuses on academic excellence, wellness, empowerment and service. In Albuquerque, Mountain Mahogany Community School offers students a chance to experience a learning community rich in racial, cultural, ethnic and learning diversity plus plenty of green activities such as natural crafts, rain barrel use, organic gardening and more. Barack Obama Green Charter High School in Plainfield notes that they’re creating, “Leaders for the 21st century low carbon green economy” while offering a deep focus on environmental themes and eco-community service.
There’s a decent handful of green charter schools across the country and their numbers are growing. Many of these eco-charters can be found at Green Charter Schools, but not all green charters are listed, so be sure to look in your own community to see if a green charter exists.
Are Charter School Buildings Eco-friendly?
As noted above, charters are not necessarily designed to be green or to provide a safer and less toxic school environment than public schools. Still, as green schools becomes a hotter topic, many schools are improving their buildings or rebuilding so that they can provide a safer, less toxic environment for students and charters are no different. Some charter schools, even when not focused on a green theme do have perks like eco-friendly structures. For example, High Tech High Chula Vista charter school scores big, as one of the top ten green projects of 2011. This charter is housed in a healthy and sustainable building with a focus on excellent indoor air quality, room acoustics, and daylighting. Additionally, this charter is one of the most energy efficient in the nation, featuring rooftop solar panels. Of course, many charter schools have the same icky toxic issues as public schools. Luckily, if you fall in love with a charter, but their building isn’t up to snuff, you can do something about it – read how parents can improve toxic schools for more info.
Charter School Resources
If you’re a parent and you’re interested in learning more about charter schools check out pros and cons of charter schools. If you’re a parent already looking for a good charter, start your search by reading U.S.News & World Report on how to choose a charter school. Then move on to the National Charter School Directory to locate a school plus take a look at charter school report cards. If you’re interested in starting a new charter school it’s not easy, but it is possible. Parents, community leaders, businesses, teachers, school districts, educational entrepreneurs, and pretty much anyone else can submit a charter school proposal to the state’s charter authorizing entity. Visit National Charter School Resource Center to learn more about starting a new charter and to get updated charter school news.
Lead image by Flickr User chuck b.