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In Alaska, charter schools straddle the line between public, private education

Suzanna Caldwell
Students attend Academy Charter School in Palmer on Feb. 5, 2014. During an "education session" of the Alaska Legislature, charter school laws in the state are among many education topics lawmakers are expected to explore. Loren Holmes photo

In Palmer, at 10:15 on a Wednesday morning, everyone at Academy Charter School is counting.

Downstairs, 11 first graders are standing in line. When their teacher tells them to go, they jump out of line, one in front of the other, each yelling out a multiple of nine, in order, as quickly as they can, playfully trying to memorize them.

Upstairs, sixth graders are in a heated -- but respectful -- debate about geometry, arguing about how close a decimal can get to one before it actually gets there.

"OK, time to have a math throw-down," teacher Mary Melodie Wright tells them.

Across the hall, 15 eighth graders have their laptops out, taking instructions from their teacher on how to fill in a pie chart. They are instructed to open their computers to work on the problem and to close them to signal they are done.

Numbers are big deal at the school. As Principal Barbara Gerard walks the hallways, she points out some of the school's features and the numbers surrounding them. Staff, 28. Students, 235. There's the old sprinkler system -- $19,000 to install -- and the new gymnasium -- worth $10,000, possible through a generous donation from Matanuska Valley Federal Credit Union. Then there's the $2.5 million legislative appropriation needed to buy a new scoreboard. 

She pays attention to the numbers because like the students who are learning, she's learned a lot along the way, too -- about what exactly it takes and what kind of numbers you need to put a charter school together.

For the last 17 years, Gerard has been working to make the school bigger and better. It's risen from humble beginnings in 1997, first in a rented space in downtown Palmer, to a series of converted buildings at the fire training center, to old Matanuska-Susitna Borough tool sheds converted into classrooms, and finally into the 3.7-acre plot of land nestled between the Palmer airport and the cemetery, less than a mile from the silty and raging Matanuska River. Much has changed since Gerard and a group of fellow teachers came together to make Academy Charter School a reality.

Now it's as much a school as any other, thanks to millions of dollars in appropriations from the Alaska Legislature. Gerard mentions a collection of poems from students, thanking Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, for the upgraded school, now free from mold, peeling paint and grass that grew up through the walls.

But it still needs some work. Parents come in to paint the walls and install the computer systems. Boxes of random school supplies still line a few of the hallways, waiting to be set up. There are no school nurses or daytime janitors, with teachers filling in for those needs. These things represent small cost savings that instead are transferred to students in the form of extra computers and opportunities, like laptops in the classroom or trips to Juneau during the legislative session.

Decisions like that are par for the course for Alaska charter schools, which occupy the sort of gray area between private and public schools, and the middle ground when it comes to the discussion of school choice in Alaska.

Public schools with a different style

Charter schools are officially public schools, receiving public funds that come through local school districts. While the schools have to meet district and state educational standards, the methods they take to get there can be unconventional. At Academy, the emphasis is on small class sizes and holistic learning -- students are required to study tae kwon do, for example, for both the physical and mental demands of the sport.

Anyone can decide to establish a charter school, and in Alaska there is no limit on how many can exist at a given time. Currently there are 27 such schools in every part of the state, with the most in Southcentral Alaska, including eight in the Municipality of Anchorage and six in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, serving a total of 6,123 students during the 2013-14 school year.

Generally, a group of parents or teachers will come together and write the school's charter, which must be approved by the local and state school boards. The schools are then guided by an academic policy committee that has the authority to hire and fire principals, as well as set policies. Local school boards retain the right to close down charter schools if they are not meeting financial or academic progress. Teachers must all be certified and are subject to collective bargaining agreements.

Charter schools are allowed exemptions from the local district's textbook, program, curriculum and scheduling requirements.

Across the state, charter schools have different takes on how to approach education While such schools may not be religious, the options for styles of learning are varied. Some schools, like the Watershed School in Fairbanks, have an emphasis on nature and the outdoors. The popular Rilke Schule in Anchorage focuses on German language immersion. Some teach the Waldorf method of learning, focusing on individual learning and creativity. There are two Alaska Native culture schools, one in Bethel and another in Anchorage.

Alaska behind the curve on charter school law?

Now, with the legislature focusing on education, Gov. Sean Parnell is looking to address a number of education issues, from funding the base student allocation that sets how much money each school district receives per student, to a constitutional amendment that would allow public funds to go to private schools.

Along the way, there's also talk of changing charter school law. Parnell, in his State of the State address, said Alaska has some of the most restrictive charter school laws in the nation, though NEA-Alaska, the largest teachers' union in the state, was quick to say the laws were some of the best.

Parnell may be correct. A look at all state charter school laws by the nonprofit Washington, D.C.-based National Alliance for Public Charter Schools ranked Alaska 40 out of 43 states that have charter school laws.

Each state was scored on roughly 20 different components. The report noted that Alaska should work on expanding charter school authorization options, beefing up quality control, increasing operational autonomy and ensuring equitable funding for both operational and capital needs.

The new law would address some of that. Charter schools denied by the local or state school boards could appeal to the commissioner of the Department of Education and Early Development -- though according to the state, no charter school applications have ever been denied. It would also clarify funding across the state for charter schools, for things like special needs students, technical and vocational education and pupil transportation.

Changes needed

Gerard, former head of the Alaska Charter School Association, praised the proposed laws. She's been with Academy for 17 years. She's seen the changes firsthand.

She said over the last four years, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District has undergone an "enlightenment" period. She largely credited the forward thinking of Superintendent Deena Paramo with recognizing the benefit of charter schools in the district. Gerard said superintendents like Paramo see the place of the schools, and over the last few years, she's felt nothing but support from the district. If the new laws are passed by the legislature, she said she won't have to worry so much about funding.

"I used to be watching my back all the time, fighting for everything," she said. "I don't have to have my fists up all the time."

Gerard said charter schools have helped pave the way for traditional schools to think outside of the box, allowing them to play with traditional sit-and-learn styles. Since the money follows the student, schools want to keep their kids.

"Whatever we can do to improve education is the most important piece," she said.