For the first half of his life, three-year-old Luis Gonzales battled chronic ear infections that led to partial hearing loss and speech problems. His handicap caused him to socially withdraw from other children because he had trouble communicating.
“He was really insecure with everybody,” says Jessica Martinez, the boy’s mother. “He couldn’t understand what the kids were saying.”
After a year-and-a-half of therapy, Luis’ ear problems were cured, but his communication skills hadn’t improved. That’s when his mother enrolled him at Lindsley Park Community School, which serves children ages three to nine from low-income families.
At first, Luis was reluctant to attend, but after two weeks, Martinez says she noticed a difference in her son, which she attributes to the caring attention the teachers at the school gave Luis.
“He was more talkative at home, and to teachers and students,” she says.
And after more than three months at the school, Martinez says Luis is a different child.
“His teacher got him to open up. He’s more at ease,” she says. “He’s a normal child now. He plays with everybody.”
Like Luis and his mother, others are developing a blossoming passion for charter schools — institutions that tiptoe around the border of traditional independent school districts. Many believe that charters are a saving grace for kids raised in underprivileged households or unchallenged in a traditional school environment. Although charter initiators know the struggles of starting a school, they’re motivated by the belief that some children simply don’t fit neatly into a traditional school system. And they’ll even mortgage their homes or use personal credit cards to raise the money to prove it. The East Dallas area is home to two such schools: Lindsley Park Community School and Dallas CAN! Academy.
Definition of a School
Charters are public schools started and operated by teachers, entrepreneurs, or parents, who initially use private funds — sometimes their own — to meet the needs of a specific group of students. The schools provide a stronger sense of involvement and community thanks to their smaller classroom size and the larger role parents and administrators play in determining the curriculum.
In the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex alone, there are approximately 60 charter schools, with plans for several more in the next few years.
As is the case nationwide, each charter has its own agenda, focusing on programs for at-risk kids, children with special needs, or students who excel in foreign languages, for example.
"You write your own charter, so it literally can be anything," says Tom Loew, director of Lindsley Park Community School. The school, funded by private donations, is the first charter campus under the Dallas Community Charter.
One of the main factors differentiating a charter from a traditional school is the presence of a mission statement or promise.
"The charter is a legal contract. The people who enter the charter must adhere to it," says Donna Watson, an education policy analyst. "Charters list the school’s goals."
Establishing goals is the most important step for initiators because goals function just like the main points in a student’s term paper — they’re the focus of the project.
"Everything should be centered around them," Watson says. Once the charter has been written and approved, a school must stick to the promises made. Straying from the approved charter could mean school closure.
Another way charters differ from traditional schools is through the implementation of alternative learning programs. For example, Dallas Can! Academy, a charter that caters to inner-city and at-risk youth, uses an individual education plan, IEP, for each student. Each pupil is tested, and then an educational course is mapped out.
"We’ve built a plan that starts where students are at — not where they should be," says Grant East, president of Dallas Can!
Some schools devise specific courses to meet the needs of a group of their students. East says that since 25-50 percent of Dallas Can! students have a child, the school stresses parenting skills, nutrition and baby care.
Dallas Can! also offers accelerated programming. Senior student Jaret Lewis says Dallas Can! gave him the opportunity to fit five classes into a two-month time slot so he could graduate on time to begin his Navy career.
“It gives me a lot more time to do what I need to do,” he says. “Everybody is just here to do their thing and get out.”
Charter schools are public schools of choice, meaning there is no tuition. Students must elect to attend a particular school, and geographic location doesn’t restrict a student from attending a certain school. On the other hand, the inherent advantage of choice can also be a point of stress for school administration. "(Students) can also chose to leave us. That makes them our customers," East says. "Open entry, open exit."
The pick-where-you-go policy isn’t the only freedom offered by the charter philosophy — teachers also enjoy greater independence. Because charters aren’t governed by school districts, teachers can spend more time developing creative programming and less time on paperwork and bureaucracy.
And parents have the opportunity to work more closely with their children.
"There’s more of a sense of belonging," Watson says.
Charter schools may also differ from traditional schools in the way academic programs are scheduled, such as longer school days or after-school programs.
Less is More
Smaller classrooms provide greater student/teacher interaction, and for at-risk children who typically haven’t succeeded in traditional schools, this close contact can be crucial to progress. At Dallas Can!, the average student has spent a couple of years in high school but tests at a fifth- to seventh-grade level, says East.
"Most of our kids are not behavior problems — not trouble makers. They just got behind, and then they got further behind. Suddenly, they were in the ninth grade taking algebra, and they couldn’t do fractions," East says.
"The frustration, humiliation and embarrassment of being behind got to them after awhile."
East says the school has one teacher for every 15 kids and a social worker for every 30 kids.
"They have intensive help with their social issues and problems. Most of them come from very chaotic and dysfunctional backgrounds. They know they need an education but have almost given up. This is the school of a second chance."
Senior Maria Narva is proof that Dallas Can! gives students a second chance. After dropping out of high school as a freshman because she was having trouble getting along with other students, she heard about the school from a friend and decided to give it a try. Now she’s on track to earn her high school diploma.
“Everybody wants to be here,” Narva says. “The teachers are really nice, and they work with you. They have more time to spend with you.”
Many of the charter schools in the Dallas community are already filled to capacity. Dallas Can! keeps a steady number on a waiting list, while Lindsley Park has a waiting pool, which allows a new student in when a student of the same the same age leaves.
Teachers and non-profit corporations start charters with the best of intentions, but like most businesses, charters face money issues. Lack of funding often squelches a school before it even begins.
"Ninety-five percent of charters have a hard time getting money for the facility," Loew says. "They don’t get (federal) money until kids are enrolled."
Before the first student steps inside a charter, the initiators must raise the money to build or rent a facility; buy textbooks, supplies and computer equipment; and hire teachers, administrators, counselors and support staff.
In some situations, charters are started with funds from non-profit organizations that have unique ideas or initiatives, Watson says. But most charter schools don’t begin with a big fund base. Some initiators have gone so far as to turn to their personal bank accounts to get a school started.
Initiators say the government doesn’t financially pitch in until the school is up and running, and even then, the government gives less per-pupil than it does to traditional public schools. That imbalance means fundraising really never stops.
Since charter schools often are started by teachers and individuals unhappy with the politics of a school district, the business skills necessary to run a school may be overlooked. Fiscal mismanagement could lead to a mandatory closing of the school.
In addition, because initiators are going out on their own, some also battle the stress of dealing with school boards, teachers and unions that oppose their projects.
It’s a myth to think that charters are allowed to dodge or ignore academic standards or regulations of traditional schools.
"We’re not exempt from any mandates," Loew says.
In fact, a charter school can be shut down if the academic progression of students isn’t in line with its mission. Charters also must be able to meet the needs of students with disabilities, and the expense of hiring specially trained teachers proves more difficult for smaller schools than it does for schools covered by the larger budget of a school district.
"(Charters) have what is called a shared services arrangement. Schools pull resources to hire a special education coordinator who will find the specialists you need when you need them," Loew says.
Another myth charter schools initially had to fight was the perception that the "best" students would be taken from the school districts and placed into charters. Although there are a number of charter schools that work with students who show a great aptitude or talent in certain areas, one need only look at the focus and demographics for an overwhelming majority of Texas charters to see that notion is wrong.
"So many (charter schools) go after at-risk and hard-to serve-populations," Loew says.
A large portion of the Texas charter schools also work with dropouts and those who have failed a grade, as well as students with discipline problems or drug and alcohol addictions.
And taking students with academic problems out of a school district and placing them in a charter school is beneficial to both institutions. Low-scoring students impact the test scores of a school district and drive the overall figure down. And for at-risk students who are struggling, the large classroom environments don’t allow for personalized attention — attention the struggling student needs.
Charter school advocacy is spreading throughout the state. To date, Texas has 114 charter schools with an additional 66 approved to open, according to the Center for Education Reform. And as of September, 1,684 charter schools are operating in 32 states and Washington, D.C., Combined, these schools serve approximately 350,000 students.
Whether a charter is converted from an existing traditional school, such is the case with Dallas Can!, or started from the ground up, such as Lindsley Park, the popularity of these innovative institutions has skyrocketed since the first Texas charters were approved in 1996. It’s apparent that many communities feel that charters are an option worth having.
SUPPORTING CHARTERS IN OUR NEIGHBORHOOD
Having the charter school option in the Lakewood/East Dallas area is healthy for our community and for all those who live here. Even with the many excellent public and private schools we’ve nurtured here, there are still children who need the special options that charter schools provide. A good education is the foundation of a healthy, productive life; if all the children in Lakewood and East Dallas have that chance, we’ll be rewarded with a neighborhood that just gets better and better in future years. If you’d like to get involved with either Lindsley or Dallas CAN, here’s how:
Lindsley Park Community School
As a new school that serves very young children, Lindsley is especially interested in volunteers in the neighborhood who have experience working with children in second and third grades. They are in the process of establishing a volunteer reading program and a tutoring program. If you’d like to help, contact either Tom Loew or Carol Wolfe for information.
If you’d like to tour the facilities and learn more about supporting Lindsley, the school will be included in the Hollywood/Santa Monica Tour of Homes to be held in April 2000. (Tour details will be published in the Advocate.)
DALLAS CAN! ACADEMY
Cars For Kids
You may have heard their slogan — “Throw Away the Car, Not the Kid.” Here’s how it works. The Academy accepts donations of cars, trucks and boats, working or not. Their only requirement is an original title — and functional tires so that the vehicle can be towed (at no cost to the owner). Auctions are held periodically at 9426 Lakefield (Northwest Highway at Bachman Lake) and all proceeds are used for Dallas CAN! Scholarships. To donate, call 214-357-6800.
If you are willing to tutor high school age students in a variety of subjects, contact the school at the main number for details. Teens and young adults at this stage of life are in particular need of mentors. They are near — or at — the point of needing to be able to support themselves and often even a young family. You can help.