Charter schools arrived on the scene in 1995. The first legislation in Texas defined charter schools as labs for innovation and an opportunity to create new forms of accountability in education. Also, charter schools gave teachers a chance at their dreams to reach students in ways they may not have been able to do in traditional settings. Early charter school founders looked at the movement for a way to partner with local independent school districts. Instead, with tight State dollars, charter schools and ISDs’ have become tight competition for student enrollment.
But how does a parent or student know what the right choice is for their education? Navigating the Texas Education Agency’s website or the Texas Charter School Association’s website can be a challenge. Even more challenging is being able to separate facts from misinformation. In Tarrant County alone there are 18 charter schools listed on the Texas Charter School Association's website. Each school on the listing is noted as being a College Prep, Dropout Recovery, Specialized Mission, Juvenile Detention Center or a PreK-Elementary School. What does all that mean to a parent? If a student attends a “Dropout Recovery School” is the student NOT prepared for college? And what on earth is a “Specialized Mission” school? Do College Prep schools have PreK-Elementary students or do you have to go to a “PreK-Elementary” charter school? Will the student receive a regular high school diploma, take the State required exams or be accepted to any college? School choice has created a plethora of choices while also leaving parents with some very uncertain waters to navigate. While the movie, “Waiting for Superman”, created more awareness for charter schools, at the same time it created yet another misconception that all charter schools had long waiting lists and lottery drawings just to get in.
Parents could do a Google or Bing search, or turn to sources like GreatSchools.org for information about local schools. That in and of itself creates even more misleading information for parents to wade through. For instance, GreatSchools.org, and programs like it, rate schools on the State’s accountability system assuming they are comparing apples to apples. There is the BIG RED FLAG! Charters aren’t even similar to each other, much less similar enough to traditional schools to be compared to a traditional school. Charter schools that only serve the Juvenile Detention Center or primarily serve older, dropout recovery students, will obviously not have as a high a rating as a College Preparatory school or an ISD with a wide range of students to create the data set these websites and rating systems use to decide if a school is “Great”.
Take one specific charter school in the Dropout Recovery designation from the Texas Charter School’s Association website: Winfree Academy Charter School. Winfree Academy Charter Schools has six campuses, with two located in Tarrant County. The North Richland Hills campus is rated at GreatSchools.org as a 2 while the community on GreatSchools.org rates Winfree Academy Charter Schools as a 4-Star school. One of the many disparities comes from measuring a school’s completion rate. Schools must graduate a student in 4 years. Yet Winfree Academy Charter School's data shows that the average age student is 18 and has enrolled after not finding success at their former school. It is then that schools like Winfree Academy Charter Schools that takes the accountability hit for the former school failing the child.
Parents and students have to do their own homework. Call the school you are considering and schedule a visit. See if you know someone that either goes to the school or went there, and follow the school on Facebook or Twitter to get a good feel for the school’s culture.