Elgin group faces tough decisions creating charter school
Elgin Area School District U-46 has school-within-a-school programs to challenge its gifted elementary and middle school students. Its high school academies reach the high-performing older students in such targeted programs as science, engineering and technology, and visual and performing arts. Special education programs serve those students who need extra support outside of the standard curriculum.
But there are few options for students who don't have the scores to get into the gifted or academy programs nor the need for special education. Or at least that's what a group of charter school hopefuls argue.
Members of the Elgin Math and Science Charter School Initiative have been working for more than a year and a half to research charter schools and their options for starting one in Elgin.
Their vision is for a math- and science-focused school for kindergarten through eighth grade. As a charter school it would be a public school, open to anyone in U-46 at no cost without test scores as part of the admissions process.
Elgin attorney Kerry Kelly, vice president of the charter school initiative, said the group wants students to be in the field whenever possible, doing hands-on activities. If they are studying the honey bee, she said they should have their own hive to monitor.
"That's what we need to be creating in this world is problem solvers," Kelly said. "We can't be memorizing facts. Those students aren't going to be able to help us in the future."
The group is in the process of choosing an organization to run its school. Once that decision is made, they can move forward with site selection. They already have their eyes on the 53-acre, wooded campus that used to house the Fox River Country Day School but have not made an offer on the property yet.
Karen Schock, retired U-46 teacher and president of the charter school initiative, said it has been a tremendous amount of work to research and narrow down the list of management organizations. The group originally planned to submit its charter application to the U-46 school board this summer, but Schock said members have taken a step back from their self-imposed deadlines to make a good, measured decision.
"We spent so much time on background information and this is a crucial decision," Schock said. "We're taking our time with it."
In the meantime, the group is pitching its idea to whoever will listen. They have presented at the Gail Borden Public Library, the Elgin Rotary Club, individual community members' homes and they plan to speak at a Kiwanis Club meeting this summer.
Schock said the community has been very supportive of the concept. But, of course, there are charter school critics.
Members of the charter school initiative have tried to ease the fears of those concerned about the privatization of public schooling. They are not interested in a for-profit charter management organization and have worked especially hard in recent months to distinguish themselves from the applicants for a multidistrict virtual charter school denied by 18 school boards in April. The Illinois Virtual Charter School at Fox River Valley was proposed to be run by K12 Inc., an online curriculum and charter school management corporation that has been attacked for its high profits. That proposal is being reviewed at the state level.
When it comes to money, people wonder whether the math and science elementary school will take vital dollars away from the students left in U-46.
But Keith Rauschenberger, an Elgin financial adviser and chairman of the group's finance committee, said the hope is that the charter school is a win for everyone.
By law, charter schools are funded with public money funneled through the districts that allow them to open. Funding follows the student to the new school and districts must pay out between 75 percent and 125 percent of their own per-pupil tuition charge for its students that choose the charter.
Rauschenberger said his group expects between 75 percent and 85 percent of that amount, meaning up to 25 percent of the cost to educate a student would stay with U-46, even when the student doesn't.
"That's a financial benefit for the district," Rauschenberger said.
Further, Rauschenberger said, if the charter school entices any students into the district who had previously chosen private schools or home schooling, it will mean more money from the state, up to a quarter of which would stay in U-46's original schools.
Once it is fully up and running, the group expects U-46 will pass on .5 percent of its operating revenues to the charter school, which the group hopes will become an innovative member of the district.
Schock, who spent her entire career in U-46 and put three daughters through the district's schools, said the charter school will be able to operate with flexibility traditional schools do not have. Charter schools operate outside of most state mandates and are not subject to directives from local school boards.
"When you have a large district with 40 plus elementary schools, lots of decisions are made for all of the schools," Schock said. "A lot of decisions for our school can be unique to our school."
While there is still much to be determined, the charter school initiative hopes to open its doors to students in the fall of 2014. It must seek approval from the U-46 school board and, if denied, has the option of appealing to the state charter school commission.
Patrick Mogge, director of school and community relations for U-46, said the district has been aware of the initiative for some time but has yet to receive a formal proposal.
Once the proposal is submitted, school board members will be able to debate its merits along with the community.