By Jessica Maher Reporter-Herald Staff Writer
Through a rocky start, continued struggles and even the good, charter schools in Loveland push on with the hope of more student success in the future
Posted: 02/23/2013 05:17:06 PM MST
Eight years after its opening, a banner hangs across New Vision Charter School, advertising a different type of institution. It’s not the kind of effort that traditional schools usually put in to attracting students, but Loveland’s two charter schools –hovering on capacity — are tasked with a need to make a name for themselves in the community and in the school district.
“Charter school parents vote with their feet — if they don’t like it, they’re gone,” New Vision principal Carmella Schroeder said. “Every parent wants a choice for their child. We just try to offer them the choice.”
Eric Martin judges the science fair at Loveland Classical Schools on Tuesday as eighth-grader Rayce Hansen, 14, shows off his science project the Gyroscope. ( Jenny Sparks )
Beginnings and Growing Pains
Three years ago, Loveland resident Trisha Coberly was preparing her son for kindergarten and signed up for six area charter schools. She was willing to drive long distance for an education she felt would best suit her son — she applied to schools in Fort Collins, Windsor and Greeley.
None of the schools had openings. When Coberly found other parents in the same predicament, someone had a bold proposal: create a charter and open their own school.
It started with a meeting at Coberly’s home attended by about 20 parents.
“We continued to garner up a lot of support and realized that a lot of families were looking for this same type of education,” she said.
Loveland Classical Schools opened last fall after a hectic year and a half process that included successfully appealing the Thompson School District Board of Education’s application denial to the state and moving into a former church on Southwest 14th Street.
Modeled on the successful Fort Collins charter Ridgeview Classical Schools, Loveland Classical opened with grades K-9, with the goal of adding one grade per year until the school is K-12. The projections were 60 students per grade in grades K-6 and 50 students per grade in grades 7-9.
The school has not met those projections for the higher grades. The new 10th grade class has 20 students, according to the district’s October enrollment report; the 9th grade class has 24 students. Eighth grade also misses the mark at 39 students.
Before the school opened, Coberly said that more than 1,700 parents were on the intent-to-enroll list. The school opened with 535 students. They projected growing the school by 140 students this year but fell 30 students short, adversely affecting the dollars the district had budgeted to transfer to the school.
“The first year was actually less challenging than the second year,” said David Yu, executive director of education at Loveland Classical.
Yu attributes it to some of the growing pains associated with being a new school — in the higher-level grades students have established themselves at other schools — but Coberly said that an unintended positive consequence is that the higher grade class sizes are smaller, enabling the students to have more direct contact with new curriculum.
At the Core
Loveland’s first charter school went through the same process as its second: create a charter, appeal a denial from the board of education. But in 2004 when the founding committee for New Vision Charter School began to meet, there were a little less than 100 charter schools operating in the state compared to 190 today.
“Our challenges came from being the first one in Loveland,” said Denise Vasquez, a member of the founding board who now works at the school. “There was a lot of resistance. I think it was fear of the unknown.”
New Vision is a K-8 charter that started through fifth grade and added one grade a year. Modeled after the Liberty Common Charter School in Fort Collins, New Vision was built on the back of Core Knowledge curriculum, a sequence that focuses on history, geography, sciences and the arts. It’s the curriculum that Loveland Classical Schools uses as well, and is currently offered at Truscott Elementary School and Bill Reed Middle School.
“The idea behind Core Knowledge was that students were leaving public and private schools not well equipped to deal with global issues,” Schroeder said.
With a background as an educator and administrator within traditional schools, Schroeder said that the more she learned about charter schools and the Core Knowledge curriculum in general, the more she appreciated their focus.
A Core Knowledge curriculum also focuses on hands-on experiences: learn it and live it. Loveland Classical has the Roman Days, the night-long reading of Homer’s “The Odyssey”; New Vision students recreate the perils of traveling the Oregon Trail and represent their cultures during Heritage Day.
“It’s neat to see these concepts come to life for these kids,” Vasquez said.
Putting it to the Test
As with all public school students, those in charter schools are required to take annual TCAP assessments, and they matter just as much as they do in traditional public schools. Sara Vanderheyden, literacy coordinator at New Vision, said that while the Core Knowledge curriculum is content-specific, it’s also integrative, enveloping multiple subject areas.
“It provides the background knowledge,” Vanderheyden said.
New Vision students have made steady gains in statewide assessments and last year, they outpaced the district as a whole for most grade levels in reading, writing and science.
In their first year of testing, Loveland Classical students varied in performance. On the reading assessment, higher grades in Loveland Classical under performed compared to the district average and the same was true for all grades on the math assessment.
Yu admitted that the grades were not what he would have wanted from the first year of results, but while he said the TCAPs are important, he believes not every attribute of a Loveland Classical student is measured on the state assessments.
“We believe in the potential of all children and we raise that bar and demand the best for our students,” he said. “One of the things we do really well is teach kids how to think and how to learn for themselves.”
Core Knowledge curriculum runs through the eighth grade. After that, Loveland Classical bills itself as a classical liberal arts high school that focuses on … well, the classics, with students studying Socrates, Plato, Milton, St. Thomas Aquinas and more.
When students finish eighth grade at New Vision, they usually enter one of the district’s high schools. Vanderheyden has three high-school aged children who came out of New Vision and a daughter in fourth grade. There’s always a transition that comes from being one of 30 to one of 400, she said.
“It was shocking in so many ways,” she said. “They had been a little bit sheltered.”
Academically, however, Vanderheyden believes her children excelled based on their background at New Vision, particularly in history, science and Spanish, which New Vision students take from kindergarten.
Though district officials had expected to see a decline in enrollment this year because of the addition of 10th grade to Loveland Classical, that was not the case. When Loveland Classical opened, according to Coberly, 94 percent of the students who enrolled lived within the Thompson School District but just more than 50 percent had been attending district schools. So with so many other options regionally, Loveland’s charter schools may be helping to keep students within the district.
“There are a wide variety of curriculums offered around here and I think having that ability of choice makes all the difference,” Coberly said.
Public school districts and their charter counterparts across the country have had a historically rocky relationship. It’s true that in the Thompson School District, each application for a charter school has initially been denied by the board of education. Most recently, it was the Red Rock Academy that was proposed in Berthoud and drew widespread opposition from the community.
“There’s some reasons why charter schools are appropriate for some families, some kids, and I’m not opposed to charter schools in total,” Thompson School District Board of Education member Leonard Sherman said. “It’s just ‘does the school make sense’ and that particular proposal didn’t make sense.”
Sherman, along with more than 900 people who signed a petition in opposition to the proposed school, took issue with the effect Red Rock Academy may have on other Berthoud schools and expressed concerns about the academic program that the school proposed.
Red Rock, which would have opened last fall, declined to appeal the board of education’s rejection to the state.
Superintendent Stan Scheer, who started in the district last fall, brings with him experience of working with charter schools both in Colorado and later in California.
“I’m a strong believer in choice,” Scheer said. “We have a very important responsibility to the parents in this community to give them what they want.”
Scheer calls his a philosophical viewpoint, as well as one that takes the law into consideration. To him, the students in the district — whether they go to charter schools or traditional schools — are all part of the Thompson School District.
“I’ve always tried to embrace them and work with them and, quite frankly, compete with them,” he said.
Charter schools market themselves loudly — handing out information about their schools at community events, hosting regular information nights, advertising their specialties — and the Thompson School District has recently begun to discuss their own need to be competitive not only in the community but throughout the region. Scheer has said it should be a priority of the board in the coming months to examine the district’s policy of choice and boundaries.The discussion of competition has come up recently among the board and school officials when discussing the district’s possible newest edition: a proposed High Plains Academy with a focus on STEM, sustainability and the environment. As Sherman said in a board meeting last week, it would be a traditional public school that looks a lot like a charter school.