When examining the percentage of public school students in charter schools, Arizona has led the nation for years.
This year, it may have taken a leap.
Based on estimates provided to the Arizona Department of Education by Arizona’s charter schools in September, an additional 14,000 students enrolled in their campuses over last year.
Last year’s 100-day average daily membership reported by schools was 119,253. Schools provided an estimate — conservative in most cases, said the department’s Lyle Friesen — of 135,155 around Sept. 15. Though most schools won’t hit their actual 100th day of school until January, they are required to make an estimate to receive payment from the state.
There were 508 charter schools in Arizona last year, comprising more than 23 percent of the state’s public schools. More than 11.5 percent of public school students were attending charter schools in Arizona, according to report released this month by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
The robust growth will continue, said Arizona Charter School Association’s CEO and president Eileen Sigmund, as parents seek out options and additional schools open.
“Are we at our saturation point? No, we’re not,” she said, pointing to a recent enrollment event for Great Hearts Academy in Scottsdale. “They filled it in 98 seconds at 6 a.m. for the 2012-13 school year. Ninety-eight seconds.”
According to the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools, 33 new charter schools opened this year, from Tucson to Flagstaff and from Peoria to San Tan Valley.
Legacy Traditional School opened three new facilities, including its Athlos campus in Chandler. Even though the school opened a week late because of construction, 405 students are there in grades kindergarten through seven, and 60 kindergartners are already enrolled for next year.
“There are more parents who want charter schools than there are spaces available,” said Bill Gregory, director and founder of Legacy Traditional Schools.
There’s also still some confusion about what charter schools are. Some parents still think they’re attached to local school districts (a possibility, but it doesn’t happen often) or are private schools.
For the record, charter schools are public schools that receive state funds. They were created by lawmakers in 1994.
“There are those who are savvy parents and know, but there’s still, ‘This looks good, but how much is it?’ ” Gregory said, referring to questions about tuition.
Charter schools cannot charge tuition. They receive funding based on the number of students attending the school. But unlike districts, they cannot ask taxpayers for additional funds to maintain or build campuses.
Legacy Traditional School Athlos was built with the help of investors and a partnership with Velocity Sports Performance. The new multipurpose building includes an indoor synthetic turf area, alongside a large weight room and basketball court. In the evenings, when school is not in session, Velocity will use the building.
Besides the school’s focus on back-to-basics education, there is a large physical education component. The school’s physical education teachers received instruction from Velocity’s trainers.
“Here, we are offering something the public schools and other charter schools aren’t offering,” Gregory said. “There are the academics and the athletics. With the facilities we have, it’s something parents are really excited about.”
Patty Colehour enrolled her two children, a kindergartner and fourth-grader, this year at Legacy Athlos. Her oldest was already getting a back-to-basics education through a district school, but Colehour was impressed with the commitment from Legacy to provide extra help through tutoring or to move students forward once they master a level.
“It’s not the same vibe,” Colehour said of the Legacy campus. “You want to be here. You want to be a part of it.”
While there are new charter schools opening each year, there’s also a strong group of charter schools with a history of success.
Mesa Arts Academy is one of them. The school serves 230 students near downtown Mesa. Though the school doesn’t advertise, there’s a waiting list at most grades, said principal Sue Douglas.
Alongside budget cuts from the state, it’s prompted Douglas to increase class size the last few years. Most classes have around 24 students with a teacher and an aide.
The school, which received an A from the state earlier this month, often sees 100 percent of its eighth-graders pass the math portion of the AIMS test, Douglas said.
“I have people who drive in from Queen Creek, Maricopa, all over, all because of our results,” she said.
While there are success stories, Sigmund said the state charter school board takes its charge to watch school performance.
“The main authorizer, the State Board for Charter Schools, is saying, ‘If you’re not moving students ahead academically and your students aren’t proficient, then we’re going to take steps to start closing you down,’ ” Sigmund said. “The charter movement is no longer about choice, but good choice for parents and students.”
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Michelle Reese, East Valley Tribune