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Utah charter schools evaluated by study

Staff reporter

Kasley Donathan and Daniele Oman pick up their lunch while Matt Huff works behind the counter at the Pinnacle Canyon Academy in Carbonville. While there are differences for children that attend the charter school, lunch is one thing that is pretty much the same. A study on the states charter schools shows results are mixed as far as the education students receive.

There have been many challenges facing the charter school movement in Utah since the legislature passed the statutes that allowed these institutions to be created four years ago.

Facilities, funding, staff retention, supplies... the list goes on and on, just as it does for other public schools.

But one of the things many critics have pointed out that the charter schools have not had to do is to prove they are improving students education. In fact many say there has been no education accountability other than the majority of parents who have had their children enrolled returning their kids for another year because they are happy with what they are seeing.

That was until this past year. Last fall the Utah State University's Center for the School of the Future did an evaluation of many aspects of the state's charter schools and looked at some key areas at every one of these institutions.

With the opening of the Salt Lake Arts Academy last fall, Utah has 13 charter schools. The vast majority of these schools were authorized by the Utah State Board of Education. Only one was set up by a school district it exists in itself.

The reports general conclusions concentrated on eight areas. But all these areas were affected by a number of factors including the following points.

•This was the first report that the Utah State Center for the School of the Future has done on charter schools. In the report they pointed out that they "learned about the challenges, success, obstacles and solutions" that charter schools have to deal with. They also pointed out that they learned about charter schools "relationships with local school districts and the sources of stress in those relationships."

•The report also noted that charter schools are as different from one another as regular public schools are different from each other. Charter schools serve a broad range of Utah students from various cultural groups, economic classes and ability ranges.

•The report also points out, because of these differences, some have succeeded in various areas better than others.

The conclusions of the report included the charter school learning curves, the purpose of charter schools, the academic performance of the charter schools, the innovation present in the schools, the parental involvement, the statutory requirements for the charter schools, the qualifications of the teachers in the charter schools and the charter schools impact on the various school districts in which they are located.

•Charter school learning curve. The report pointed out that since Utah is relatively new to the realm of charter schools (compared to somewhere like Minnesota that has had over 10 years experience) legislators, state board personnel, local educators, school board members and parents have had to learn about how these schools function in the last four years. This is a short time to understand how these schools operate and how to manage their operations. The report points out that if the charter schools are to be successful in the long term, "legislation must become clearer, rules and regulations must be written to cover conditions that are not now addressed and technical support must be provide both to new and currently functioning charter schools."

•The purpose of charter schools. While six purposes are set forth for charter schools in state code, not one of them "has achieved distinction in meeting all of the purposes." However some of the institutions have exceeded expectations in some specific purposes."

•Academic performance of charter schools. The report points out that it is hard to use standardized tests to prove the effectiveness of charter schools.

This is because, depending on the charter school, some student populations were selected from high performing groups while others were selected from under performing groups. In addition there is a problem with the "lack of appropriate comparison groups for at-risk populations." However, the report did note that, in general, elementary level charter schools outscore local public school districts on "end-of-level and Stanford Achievement Test (SAT) results." On the other hand, secondary students in charter schools generally score lower.

The report, in it's general conclusions mentioned that Carbon's Pinnacle Canyon Academy, has however, tried to overcome these difficulties of measurement by administering the SAT every year to all students in the school. This allows for what the report termed "student gains" which is more accurate than the "snapshot" testing that other schools have used. In this way the Pinnacle Canyon Academy students performance "slightly improved over time when compared with the normal group."

•Innovation in charter schools. Various innovations were observed in Utah charter schools. Innovations include everything from school-based democracy to addressing individual student groups needs. (For instance Tuacahn High School emphasis is on the arts while Uintah River High School concentrates on Ute culture.)

•Parent involvement. The parental involvement is not the same from school to school. One may allow parents to be involved in everything the school does (including hiring of personnel for the school) while others allow little involvement in the day to day operations.

•Statutory requirements. Most schools were found to be in compliance with state laws in this area.

•Qualifications of teachers. While most teachers in the charter schools are qualified, not all the schools have documented those qualifications adequately. The report noted that 13 of 43 teachers employed at charter schools were ranked as unqualified, based on a database system that contains licensure and databases on educators). Five of the teachers did not have a current state license. That is 12 percent of the total verses 5 percent in the regular public schools.

•Impact on local school districts. While it varies from district to district, all the schools have some impact because they have pulled students away from regular public school (which translates to lost revenue to school districts). Specifically, Carbon School District was mentioned as being the most impacted because the Pinnacle Canyon Academy enrolls "almost 7 percent" of the student population in the district.

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