As area school rooms bulge with more and more students and teachers squeeze into fuller classrooms, some parents are opting out of the norm, choosing a well-researched alternative instead.
Charter schools have grown significantly in the past decade, with more parents turning to this tailored curriculum course study than ever before. A public charter school is typically defined as a publicly funded school governed by a group or organization under a legislative contract or charter with the state or jurisdiction.
It is an idea that is taking root across the country. More than 40 states have charter schools. The number of students enrolled in public charter schools grew from 300,000 to more than 1.6 million from 2000 to 2010, according to the U.S. Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics.
By being a charter, the school is exempted from some state or local regulations. The charter is periodically reviewed by the school district that assists in its state funding, based on the standards in its approved charter.
Education has always been a priority for Susan Avila, a 35-year-old mother of two elementary-aged children.
“I was raised that a strong education is the key to a happy life,” the stay-at-home mom said. “It gives you structure, incorporates values and makes a point of self-worth outside of academics, the report card. I know my kids are getting more than a grade average.”
As a preschool teacher at her Summerlin-area church, she enjoyed being involved with the toddlers’ growth as they took their first steps into their education.
“I knew then that I wanted to help my little kids grow with their school work,” she said.
Although she feels local public schools are doing a fine job considering the overcrowding she experienced when her son was enrolled at a southwest-area elementary, she thought it was right for her to be more involved with her children’s education and therefore their lives.
“These are years you don’t get back,” she said. “I’m in on their growth, what they like, how they are forming their opinions about the world through what they are learning about the world. It is a very rewarding experience for all of us.”
Her 10-year-old son, Connor, agreed.
“I thought I’d miss my friends at (public school), but I made a lot more friends, and I still see my other friends,” Connor said. “I like that I can go to my mom for help, and when I’m with my dad he knows what I’m supposed to be doing, too.”
His grades have significantly improved from a 3.0 GPA to a near 4.0, Avila said.
“It’s because of the focus that a good charter school can give that he is doing so well and at a pace he can blossom in,” she said.
What makes charter schools special, Avila said, isn’t just that they are well-managed with parental involvement, but that the curriculum balances quality academics along with activities that strengthen the values parents encourage at home.
Explore Knowledge Academy
Explore Knowledge Academy has been in the business of education since 2001 when the Nevada State Education Department granted its approval.
Since then, enrollment has grown steadily, from 309 students its first year to 784 for the current year, said Abbe Mattson, executive director.
The school, at 5871 Mountain Vista St., follows the Common Core State Standards as well as the Nevada State Standards, using technology infusion through project-based learning.
“We are a public school, but we educate students in a unique way through project-based learning,” Mattson said. “Students are encouraged to create hands-on projects and, through the use of technology, investigate and research about the world around them. Our seniors are required to complete a 120-hour capstone project that gives back to the school community or the community as a whole. We feel that this truly prepares our students for life outside of school whether it be in the workforce or continuing on their educational journey.”
They also believe in a well-rounded education through extracurricular activities.
“At the elementary level this year we have dance, karate and art club,” Mattson said. “Our students determine the extracurricular activities yearly at the secondary level. A group of students petitions for a club and finds an adult mentor to sponsor them. We have had all types of clubs depending on the students’ interests. Additionally, we have joined with Coast to Coast Sports Academy to offer our students intramural sports.”
The academy has 36 full-time licensed educators for its kindergarten through 12th-grade program, and they strive to maintain a 22-to-1 student/teacher ratio. And the students are excelling.
“For a senior project, one of our students sent a balloon into space. See his website for information about the project,” Mattson said. That video can be seen at www.projectviking.org.
“Another senior created a student store and the lunch program for the school. Most of our students continue on for postsecondary education and we have been told that attending our school has better prepared them for the workload at college or university. Our students know how to research, write essays and speak publicly about the knowledge they have gained, and this training begins in kindergarten.”
Explore Knowledge Academy is sponsored by Clark County School District so its attendance policy is similar to the county’s. Parents are not required to volunteer, but it is encouraged, and most do.
“We have a very active PTSA that supports the school,” Mattson said.
Coral Academy of Science
The future generation is showing great promise at Coral Academy of Science, said Ercan Aydogdu, executive director of the charter school.
Since opening for the 2007 academic year, the K-12 state-sponsored, tuition-free public charter school has grown.
“This is our sixth year in operation,” Aydogdu said. “(Our) first year we had only 120 students, two years ago we had 880 students, last year it increased up to 1,100 and this year we have around 1,200. Last year, we had 800 (students on our) waiting list. We are expecting more than 1,000 (for our) waiting list this year. We have grown 35 percent over the past two years.”
The academy focuses on math, science and technology. Its students have won several awards, including Science Olympiads, statewide Science Bowls and Lego robotics competitions.
“First of all, as a public charter school we teach the Nevada State Standards for all required subjects,” she said. “Additionally we emphasize STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education and college prep curriculum. We also offer opportunities to students to advance themselves through accelerated courses in all grade levels.”
The charter school was designated as a high-achieving school by the Nevada Education Department two years in a row.
It offers a variety of clubs and extracurricular activities such as yearbook club, drama club, debate team, advance science technology engineering and mathematics club, basketball, soccer, volleyball, cross-country and art club.
“We also offer leadership clubs like KEY (Kiwanis Educating Youth) Club, College Mentorship and Leadership Program, student government, National Honor Society, National Junior Honor Society, National Elementary Honor Society, dance club, music club, science Olympiad club and Lego Robotics FLL (First Lego League),” she said.
Coral Academy’s average class sizes are smaller then Clark County district schools.
“We do know all of our students and (therefore are) able to pay individual attention to their needs,” she said. “We offer extracurricular activities free of charge. In fact, all of our teachers have at least one session of an after-school activity a week.”
The academy also offers after-school tutoring for free .
It emphasizes activities aside from the daily school involvement through contests such as Science Bowl, Science Olympiads, MathCounts, Spelling Bee, Geography Bee as well as exhibits and community events, including the Cadillac Through the Years event and the Springs Preserve Art Exhibit.
“We offer an accelerated curriculum that allows students to be challenged at their level,” she said.
The academy has a uniform dress code policy, which she says helps create an orderly environment free of distractions. The school makes a point of taking each student and his or her specific needs into consideration regarding academics as well as personal goals.
“We have (our) Get Ready for Life class offered at the middle school level that focuses on life skills and character education,” she said. “We do have high standards of achievement and high expectations.”
One important tool the school incorporates is a high expectation of conduct and citizenship, which often involves the entire family.
“As an organization, we are free of the bureaucracy that many public schools struggle with,” she said. “We use third-party standardized assessment tools to monitor student growth in the whole school. Our administration is accessible and parents are involved with the school and their children’s education.”
Coral Academy has three campuses. The Sandy Ridge campus has 34 teachers, Tamarus campus has 17 teachers and its Windmill campus has 20 teachers. Each campus concentrates on quality education and small classroom size for maximum student achievement.
“We had many students who came to our school after struggling in other schools. With individual attention and hard work, these students excel in their academics,” she said. “Two of our high school students have won the regional science fair and went to Pittsburgh to attend the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. Our Science Bowl team has won the second place for two years in a row. Three of our students who participated in the AMC 8 (American Mathematics Contest for students eighth grade and younger) put our school on the map as one of the two honor roll schools in the state, and only 189 schools received this recognition all over the nation. Our math team has won the second in the regional MathCounts and third place at the state level.”
Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy
The prestigious Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy has made significant jumps in enrollment since its much anticipated opening in 2001 with grades three through five. The college prep school is a kindergarten through 12th-grade school and had its inaugural graduating class in June 2009. Enrollment has increased in the elementary school by 78 percent from 293 students to 521 students.
“At the same time, the demand to the elementary school has exploded,” said Mike Piscal, executive director of Agassi Prep.
In April , there were 396 applications for kindergarten for 75 spots, which is up from 78 applications for 40 spots in 2010.
“That’s a 407 percent increase in kindergarten alone,” Piscal said. “I believe there was a perception in the community that it was ‘impossible to get into Agassi Prep so don’t even try.’ We opened our doors to more students and the response has been overwhelming. The community really believes that Agassi Prep is the place to be.”
The middle school enrollment more than doubled in the past two years, and the high school enrollment increased 39 percent from 189 students to 263 students. He expects that the high school will grow until it reaches approximately 470 students.
Much of that is to do with the above-board curriculum.
“Our curriculum begins with the end in mind: College graduation for all of our students is the mission of the school,” Piscal said. “To that end, we backward map from college standards to Advanced Placement classes. The majority of juniors and seniors have taken at least one AP class. We believe if you can handle the rigor of Advanced Placement courses, (and) if you can do the work, you are ready for the rigors of college.”
Research has demonstrated that a rigorous academic curriculum in high school, Piscal said, such as a curriculum with advanced placement courses and math beyond the algebra 2 level, is the single most reliable predictor of a student’s graduation from a four-year college or university.
“At Agassi Prep, we are ensuring that our students are getting the most rigorous course of study possible,” he said. “We are expecting great things from our freshmen and sophomores in the classes of 2015 and 2016.”
The students and teachers work toward a shared goal throughout the year, forming bonds and rooting each other forward.
“We believe that in order for our students to succeed in college, they must learn how to write an argumentative essay 1,500 words long free of mechanical error,” he said. “Over 70 percent of their grades in college will be determined by their written work, not multiple choice exams. So learning how to write well is the focus of our curriculum in all subjects: English, history, science and math. We believe that if you have learned to write well, you have also learned to listen, read and think well.”
The writing model that Agassi Prep uses was developed by Stephen Toulmin at Cambridge University in the 1960s and came to be the preferred writing model of several of the top private schools in the nation, including the Harvard-Westlake School, he said.
“The Toulmin Model has been studied (at) the Rand Corp ., and the Gates Foundation featured the writing model at its 2010 National Literacy Conference,” Piscal said.
Agassi Prep offers a kindergarten through 12th-grade reading and writing program that focuses on excellence in and out of the classroom.
“We have all-day kindergarten, and we start teaching our kids to read and write Day One,” he said. “For elementary school, we use Imagine It Reading Program and Saxon Math as our base texts. We have a very simple philosophy: ‘Get ’em ahead of grade level and keep ’em ahead.’ Our goal is to have every student at grade level by third grade and over half above grade level. By the end of fifth grade, we want all of our students above grade level.”
The school works with students to find their true talent through academics as well as classroom socialization.
“Also, it is important to note that we are big believers in more time on task,” Piscal said. “At Agassi Prep, we have a longer school day (eight hours) and a longer school year (190 days).”