Accelify Blog

Charter School Aims to Avoid Fate of Other Programs (VA)

July 12, 2010

When Richmond’s Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts opens Aug. 11, it will be the 10th charter school to open in the state since Virginia began allowing such programs in 1998.<br /&g t;

But if history is any indication, Patrick Henry could have a bumpy road ahead: All but three of the other nine charter schools have closed, mostly for financial reasons.

"Charter school funding is as much a political decision as it is a pure per-pupil funding issue. And given that the government body in the commonwealth that approves a charter application does not have taxing authority, this makes funding a two-step process," said Virginia Secretary of Education Gerard Robinson. "So any funding discussion must keep this in mind."

Patrick Henry is getting the state’s per-pupil dollar funding, which sets it apart from some other charter schools, so the bulk of its overhead is in place as long as it can attract and keep students. But while teacher salaries and other instructional costs are covered, the school is still on the hook for capital improvements to its building, and that bill could exceed $1 million.

The school hasn’t found much help in making a dent in that amount.

The school needs to raise the $1 million to make the building handicap-accessible and for some operational expenses. Patrick Henry has found about half of that in grant funding, which will be dispersed over three years, but actual dollar support from the community has been harder to find.

"What we keep hearing from people is that they’d like to see the program up and running first," said Kristen Larson, who has been on the Patrick Henry board for about a year and a half.

Last November, the school hired professional fundraisers, who spent four months helping the board hone its message. That led to an aggressive fundraising campaign earlier this year with a g oal of bringing in $300,000. But to date, the school has raised only about $100,000 total in three years, and a quarter of that came from Gov. Bob McDonnell, who in late March donated some of his inaugural committee’s surplus funds to the cause.

. . .

Even getting to this point has been a struggle.

Patrick Henry has had to fight for almost three years to gain even the barest of support from the city school system — school officials recommended against the idea in the first place and lobbied against the school before the School Board, and then it took three votes in a five-month period before the board granted approval.

The city’s School Board and the advocates for the charter school have rarely been on the same page, with even the simplest of agreements — such as location — often embroiled in public feuds.

School founders built their plan around the vacant Patrick Henry Elementary School building on Semmes Avenue in South Richmond, hoping to utilize the adjacent Forest Hill Park as a huge, outdoor learning environment. But the school, like almost every other school building in the city, has major issues when it comes to handicap accessibility.

That was one of the reasons — steadily declining enrollment was another — cited by school officials when they decided to close the school after the 2005-06 school year.

The school system is under a court order to make all of its building accessible by January — the district is far behind because of funding issues and won’t meet the deadline — and it is insisting that Patrick Henry meet the terms, too.

Patrick Henry officials have a plan to make the necessary handicap-accessib le improvements within three years. But that work would come at great expense, and School Board members have insisted that the loan be in place before they authorize the lease, leaving charter school officials in a Catch-22 that could keep them from bringing the building up to code.

"No doubt, it’s been a huge challenge," said Larson with the Patrick Henry board. "We’ve stepped back and had serious discussions about finding another location, but really, the whole application, the whole idea, is built around that location. It’d just be too hard to redo the program somewhere else."

Kimberly Bridges, chairwoman of the Richmond School Board, said the issue with the lease "relates to having that building reopened as a fully compliant, fully operational building that can hold the 300 students they want to serve."

When students arrive next month, classes will be held at a temporary site, the nearby Woodland Heights Baptist Church, though some of the outdoor activities will be in place at the Patrick Henry site.

. . .

The school isn’t alone in facing odds when it comes to financing of building projects. Such woes have been a constant in Virginia and across the country.

"It depends on whether or not your state law provides public money to support the bricks and mortar. Some do, some don’t," said Robinson, the state’s education secretary. "There is great debate over where we should make public money available."

The new charter school bill passed this year by the General Assembly doesn’t specifically address this issue.

Being financially stable may go a long way toward determining Patrick Henry’s future. Four previous charter schools — in Roanoke and the counties of Franklin, Gloucester and Greene — cited financial reasons for their closures, according to annual reports on charter schools presented to the state Board of Education.

Two other charter schools that are no longer in existence did not renew their charter school status.

The first charter school in the Richmond area — Chesterfield Community High School — gave up its charter school status in 2005, citing a need for more flexibility in selecting students for the program that was not possible within the confines of the charter agreement. That school reverted to its status as part of the county school system.

The most recent charter school to change its status was Hampton Harbour Academy, which did not renew its charter after the 2008-09 school year.

The Hampton program, which helped students who were two or more years behind their age group, saw its enrollment decline steadily as schools implemented their own remediation support for students.

The program remains, but in a different form and at a cheaper cost.

"With the small number of students, it really wasn’t fiscally feasible to operate it in leased space," said Patricia Johnson, deputy superintendent of Hampton’s schools. "We still offer that support, but to fewer numbers of students."

Two of the state’s longest-running charter schools — York River Academy in York County and Murray High School in Albemarle County — were proposed from within the school system itself.

York River Academy opened in 2002 for nintha nd 10th-graders. It has since expanded to include 11thand 12th-graders; school officials in the county are considering another expansion to include an eighth-grade component.

"We took our baby steps along the way. Our focus was the students; there was a need and we wanted to address that need, and we felt the charter school concept for this particular group of students was the way to go," said Mark Medford, chairman of the York County School Board.

York River Academy is geared toward students who struggle in a traditional classroom setting and provides academic, social and career preparatory education in computer and Web-based technology. Students can also work toward information technology industry certification while acquiring skills needed in the work force.

This summer, the school will move into a new building as a joint venture between the School Board and the Boys and Girls Club of York County.

As the school was being created, board members and the community asked many questions about the concept.

"If charter schools were going to be something that we’re going to develop or happen, we wanted to be out in front of it," Medford said. "We wanted to deliver a product that would put us out in front of everyone else."

. . .

The state’s oldest charter school is in Albemarle. Murray High opened in the 1988-89 school year as a nontraditional high school and converted to a charter school in 2001.

Ronnie Price Sr., chairman of the Albemarle School Board, said Murray is more like any other high school in the system, while the county’s second charter school, Community Public Charter School, was established with a mixture of public and private dollars.

He said he hopes the growth and success at Murray High serves as a model for the newer charter school, which currently has an enrollment of 26 students in sixth and seventh grades.

"Murray is very popular; we see a lot of good products coming out, with respect to the seniors and graduation rates, but also these kids are going to college and within the work force," Price said.

Bobbi Snow, who co-founded Community Public Charter School in Albemarle, says state law prevents the charter from having the autonomy it needs to try different methods of reaching the students. She doesn’t blame the Albemarle school system, which is supportive of the charter school, but a state law that prevents school organizers from implementing some initiatives.

"We feel like we’re not able to experiment at the level that we want to, just in terms of developing the kind of model of project-based learning, student-centered work," said Snow. "We’re still in the midst of this high-stakes testing environment."

Community Public Charter School is preparing for its third year in operation. After two years, evidence points to the school being on the right path, Wheeler said.

"The data we are receiving about student performance, the second-year data was better than the first," he said. "I think we’re trending in the right direction."

But Snow realizes the school can be on shaky ground. She said Community Public Charter School receives no per-pupil funding from Albemarle and has raised $320,000 in addition to $450,000 in federal grant mone y.

She knows the school’s small class sizes may be in jeopardy if they struggle to raise funds.

"Not only are we building a school community . . . and doing something outside the box — we’re not doing just a typical school," Snow said. "We’re also raising the money to have the resources to do it."

As for the Patrick Henry group, the school has yet to hit on a formula that turns grass-roots support into cash contributions, but Larson is convinced that will change soon.

"We’ve had some problems convincing people what it is we’ll do," she said. "We just need to open the doors and get kids in the classrooms."