The first in a series of blog posts that follows Trivium Academy on its mission to open in fall of 2016.
One of Mahatma Gandhi’s most widely quoted phrases is “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Educators and parents around the country are taking those words to heart; they’re starting public charter schools.
What is a Charter School?
First, let’s clear up the definition of a charter school. A charter school is an independently run public school granted greater flexibility in its operations, in return for greater accountability in its performance. These schools are open to all children, do not charge tuition, have no special entrance requirements, and are held accountable for achievement by state education officials or education boards. The “charter” is a performance contract detailing the school’s mission, program, students served, performance goals, and assessment methods.
According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), there are approximately 6,400 such schools in the U.S. serving over 2.5 million students. To put that into context, that means one of every 20 American children now attends a public charter school across the 42 states and District of Columbia all of which have charter school legislation. The NAPCS further reports more than one million children are on waiting lists for these schools.
The reasons for choosing charter school vary. For some parents, the catalyst is often dissatisfaction with aspects of their kids’ traditional public schools; parents want more options. For some educators, it’s the desire for more autonomy – to be innovative in reaching educational goals.
The Journey: Trivium Academy, Texas
Given the demand, it seems like opening a charter school should be quick and easy. It’s not. The NAPCS recommends having at least a year or more, just for planning what is basically akin to a small business. It’s a multi-step, demanding process, but possible for the patient, plan-full and passionate.
Trivium Academy is an example of how local public school educators, parents, and community volunteers have united to launch a proposed K-6 charter school in north Texas. Trivium will appear in a few of our blogs, as we chronicle the group’s journey to obtain a charter from the state of Texas for the 2016-17 school year. (The school will add a grade level each year until becoming a full K-12 school.)
Curriculum wise, the school’s educational experience will focus on the trivium of grammar, logic and rhetoric. Portico describes it as a classical education for the modern world that trains children to be lifelong learners.
Below are excerpts from an interview with one of the founders of The Portico Education Foundation, the non-profit corporation begun to launch Trivium Academy. Portico is entering its second year of planning and submitted its charter application in January 2015. They will know by summer 2015 if they are approved.
Why are charter schools so popular in Texas? Your state is third in the nation for such schools, with enrollment growing an average of 15 percent each year.
I think Texans are embracing the idea of choices in public education and not having to be locked into one school because of a zip code. Charters can offer a specific approach or method, filling a void that traditional public schools have.
What was the impetus to pursue a charter school (Trivium Academy)? Describe how the process started.
Two of us teachers started doing Genius Hour in our classrooms. Genius Hour is inspired by Google’s 20% projects where their employees have the freedom to work on their own creative projects 20% of the time, as long as the projects benefit the company. We wanted to give our students an opportunity to own their learning and research and create their own projects. We would always say, “What if we had our own school? We would do this or do that differently or better.”
One night I was plagued by an idea. I knew there had to be a better option where children, including my own, could love learning and enjoy their education. The idea of a charter school popped into my head, and I stayed up all night researching charters. I called another teacher the next morning and said, “I’ve got a huge Genius Hour project for us.”
How did you decide on the curriculum focus? Is there an existing “trivium” curriculum you’ll follow?
We brainstormed a crazy amount of ideas for the school, all of which focused on best practices and teaching the whole child. The more we read and learned about classical education, we discovered that everything we wanted to do with our students fit into a classical model. The bottom line of classical education is that it teaches students how to learn, problem solve, and communicate … all of which are crucial life skills. We’re all [the founders of Portico Education Foundation] curriculum writers, so we’re developing our own curriculum based on the classical model and TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills).
How did you form a core team? Do you have mentors – such as successful charter schools who are guiding you?
We asked a number of teachers, administrators and counselors whose philosophy is always acting in the best interest of students to join us on this adventure, and everyone on our team jumped at the opportunity to reform education. We’ve interviewed other charter holders about their process and visited some other charter schools. We have a network where we can direct questions as needed, but we’re a grassroots effort supported by our community and interested parents.
Have you used any outside partners for help, such as the Texas Charter School Association’s fee-based services, or other groups with charter school networks and business models?
We’ve attended a meeting with the Texas Charter School Association and will become members, and we’ve hired a school finance consultant with Charter School Success to train us in writing a business plan for the school.
How will you fund the school start-up and overhead costs? Will you receive same per-pupil funding as district public schools?
We’re raising money through donations and pledges to help fund our start-up year. We’re still looking for corporate sponsorship and a location. As soon as the school is up and running, we’ll receive government funding based on our number of students and their ADA (average daily attendance). Charters receive state and federal money, but not local tax dollars.
At what point will you purchase or lease a building, plan/purchase furniture and equipment, hire teachers and staff?
We’re looking for facility options now. We will lease until we’re prepared to buy our own location. However, we won’t be able to move into a location until 2016. As soon as we’re awarded the charter, we’ll begin interviewing and hiring teachers. The number of teachers we can hire will be based on our enrollment.
What do you think are the biggest barriers or challenges to starting a charter school, in general?
There’s a negative stigma that comes with charters, as many of the charters that are on the news are unsuccessful. Overcoming this stigma is a challenge. Also, a lot of people think that charters are in competition with local school districts and we don’t see it that way. We view ourselves as simply offering parents a choice in public education. We’re not saying that public school is bad or wrong, it’s just not the best option for every child. Another challenge is securing a location and money to fund the start-up year. Charters don’t start receiving money from the state until school begins.
Is the process competitive within the state of Texas, due to its cap on the allowable number of charter schools?
We’re not sure what the cap is year to year, but it is a very competitive process.
How will you recruit parents/ students?
We’ve already had three parent interest meetings. We’ve promoted them in the Dallas Morning News and on social media. We’ve hung flyers all over the community and passed out flyers door to door. One of our parent supporters works in a marketing company and she has helped get the word out, as well. Most people are learning about us through word of mouth. Parents want this school to happen.
Check back for future updates on Trivium Academy’s quest to raise funds and secure a charter from the state of Texas. If granted, we’ll shadow their process, from selecting classroom seating to securing staff and students for the 2016-17 school year.
- California Charter Schools Association, www.calcharters.org
- National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, www.publiccharters.org
- Portico Education Foundation, interview and website www.porticoeducationfoundation.com
- Texas Charter Schools Association, www.txcharterschools.org
- “Thinking About Starting a Charter School? Here’s How” by Barbara Mannino, FOX Business, Oct. 16, 2013.
- Uncommon Schools, www.uncommonschools.org