Recently I served as a panelist at the 2015 Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools Quality Charter School Authorizers Task Force meeting in Fort Lauderdale. District and charter representatives from across the entire state gathered to share ideas. Representative Janet Adkins and Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie co-chaired the annual summit meeting. We met to discuss issues related to the charter school movement in Florida and discover ways for district and charter schools to better collaborate. There are many reasons why working together is so important. The highest performing districts in the state also have the best district charter relationships. For example, out of the state’s 67 school districts, Sarasota County was ranked 2nd in the state in student performance in 2014. Sarasota public schools have one of the best relationships with charter schools. According to charter operators in the district, they are not treated as competition, but rather as part of the district. This cooperative relationship greatly benefits the students. Collaboration between traditional district schools and charter schools is imperative for the future of Florida’s students.
There are currently more than 260,000 students enrolled in 623 charter schools in our state. The state needs to recognize the value of charter schools and support them. This issue isn’t whether traditional public schools are better than charter schools or not. The issue is whether we are providing all students with the best opportunities to achieve success. Our job is to put all differences aside to make sure we serve the students’ needs. There is no “one size fits all” model that works for every child. Parents need a variety of options to determine where their child will thrive.
Marco Island Academy is a charter public high school located in Collier County that offers a small school atmosphere. With only 232 students this year, teachers and administrators know every student on a first name basis. They develop close relationships with the students. In addition, we encourage parents to play a role in the educational process. We ask parents to volunteer a minimum of 40 hours per year. If you visit our school any day of the week, parents can be found on campus helping with lunch duties or volunteering at sporting events. In many ways, our school becomes an extension of the student’s family. In some cases, we are the student’s family. Our teachers and administrators serve an important role as mentors to the students.
There are many people who do not understand the difference between traditional public schools and charter schools. Charter schools are public schools, but they have a separate governing board that makes decisions that directly affect the school. In addition, they have more flexibility than the traditional schools. This flexibility allows the schools to adapt to meet the needs of individual students. For example, Marco Island Academy offers a block schedule, which allows students to attend four 90-minute classes a semester. Teachers have more time for in depth discussion with each lesson. Students engage in hands-on project-based learning during class. During math, students can begin their homework while the teacher is present to answer questions. Over the past few years, we have found that our system is working. According to the ACT exam results from 2014-2015, the percentage of Marco Island Academy students meeting college readiness standards exceeded the performance percentage for the average Florida high school by nearly 30%.
Charter schools are raising the bar for what is possible and what should be expected in public education. Our charter school is not alone in its success. Many charter schools across the state are making a difference for students. We need legislators to recognize the positive impact of the charter school movement. In order to get the legislators’ attention, we need parents and community members to get involved. Your voice can make a difference, and today, I am asking for your help!
Unlike traditional public schools, charter schools do not have access to capital millage funding for facilities costs. During the past eight years, capital outlay funding has plummeted for Florida’s charter schools. In fact, last year the capital outlay funding was cut in half. Marco Island Academy is located on a property it recently purchased, thanks to a loan of two million dollars from a private donor. The campus consists of leased modulars connected by a wooden deck. Students eat lunch outside under a canopy on gently used furniture that was donated by the Marco Island Marriott. The school does not have a gymnasium or any athletic fields. Last year, Marco Island Academy received $85,000 in capital outlay funds, which did not cover the lease on the land and the modulars. This year, the capital outlay funds for the school dropped to $45,000, due to a major funding cut from the state. This lack of funding requires our school to do extensive fundraising to support the facility needs at the school. But it doesn’t have to be this way. The only way it will change is with your help.
Jane Watt is a mother of three children in the public school system. She is also the Founder and Chairperson for Marco Island Academy, a public charter high school. Recently she wrote the book, “Fighting For Kids: Battles To Create a Charter School.” Her mission is to help improve educational opportunities for children.