Nov 18, 2013 6:57 PM by Alex Labat

Charter Schools in Lafayette (Part One): What Are They?

Although the deal is done, charter schools remain a controversial topic. Last month, the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approved the applications of both the National Heritage Academies and Charter Schools U.S.A. to break ground. The two for-profit organizations plan to open a total of five charter schools by 2017. Those five schools will eventually have a combined capacity of 5,000 students, but those schools don't come without controversy.

Some say they come at a high cost, taking funds and students away from public schools. In fact, the Lafayette Parish School Board initially denied applications, which were then appealed. We wanted to investigate those concerns head on. Our Alex Labat traveled the state to get a first-hand lesson on charter schools.

When you arrive at the Inspire Charter Academy in Baton Rouge, you won't see any buses parked outside. "When I first explored Inspire Charter Academy I thought, 'Wow, everybody either walks or rides in a car to get here'. But we exceeded our enrollment this year. We have 660 kids which is far above the enrollment goal that was set", explains Principal Jill Saia. Inspire, which is the only Louisiana school currently managed by the National Heritage Academies, does not provide a busing option to students.

Charter schools can choose not to provide transportation to those enrolled, one of the many differences from a traditional public school. Saia says one of the biggest differences between public and charter schools is accountability. She explains, "Sometimes accountability is used to blame people, to blame teachers, to blame students, to blame parents. Here we use accountability to say, 'Okay. What do we need to do to get better.'" And it's not just a need to get better, they had to. Rated just like schools here in Lafayette, Inspire received an "F" their first year. And the next year? They received an "F-".

"And it was all hands on deck. And the scores started to climb, and started to climb, and then last year was a very big year they went from an F to a very high D", says Saia.

Part of bringing up that score, is with a rigorous focus on teaching and testing. Students are constantly being taught, even while lining up for a restroom break. Just like public schools, Type 2 charters will have to teach curriculum in line with Common Core, as well as administering the LEAP, iLEAP, and eventually the PARCC test. But Saia says it's the focus on individual students that's proving successful.  "This is our fall testing results for the NWEA test, which is the test that we use to really determine skill and ability level", explained Saia as she pointed out the test scores lining the hallways.

Those individual students come at a hefty price. A public school student moving to a charter school would bring upwards of $9,000 in annual local and state funding with them. That means if all of the students in Lafayette would decide to move to charter schools, they'd carry with them a whopping $45 million.

"The way our charter is written it is open enrollment. We don't screen our children, we don't charge tuition, they don't have to have a certain test score. Many of our children come to us with special needs and we cannot pick and choose", says Principal Pam Quebodeaux of the Lake Charles Charter Academy, which lies 130 miles away from Inspire. This is one of three Louisiana schools currently run by Charter Schools U.S.A., and is operating out of a recently built $15 million dollar facility. A facility you can reach by bus. They reached an agreement with a Texas company to provide the buses after losing some students because of transportation issues. "We do know we have some working parents or home situations where it helps the parents out by providing the bus", says Quebodeaux.

The charter school, which recently received a "C" rating, also uses the NWEA test, provided by the Northwest Evaluation Association, to test it's students. Quebodeaux says that additional testing, as well as holding students to a high standard, has been working at the charter academy. Students are required to read 50 books in a school year, addressing the fear that some students would not be reading enough fictional material due to Common Core. "Common Core standards require that we teach children how to read and respond to non-fiction texts, which is a very technical type skill. We also are teaching them to love reading and to really engage in the type of book and poetry and stories that they enjoy", says Quebodeaux.

But what makes these schools different lies within their very name. The charter that each school has is a contract. While striving for the same goals and successes as other schools, failure just simply isn't an option. Unlike a public school, if charter schools don't live up to their expectations, the charter can be revoked, and the schools can be shut down. "It's like we have a level of accountability that is different than in the district. We have to do what we say we're going to do or we don't exist", says Quebodeaux.




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