What is a charter school and how do they get started?

In 1991, Minnesota was the first state in the U.S. to pass charter school legislation.
The law’s purpose was to allow for the formation of new small community public
schools in areas where there seemed to be something missing in the traditional
education system.  So, in a sense, charter schools were the first form of
“open enrollment” or choice that parents had about which school to send their
kids too.  So, citizens from the local community such as parents, teachers, business
owners, and other concerned citizens form a group and create a proposal to open
a school with a special mission or purpose.  If approved by the Department of
Education, the group is granted permission, or a charter, to open the new school. 
Since 1991, Minnesota has opened more than 150 charter schools and currently
more than 40,000 children are enrolled in Minnesota charters.  

 

Where do charter schools obtain their funding from?

Like all Minnesota Public Schools, charter schools receive a certain prescribed
amount of funding from the state government relative to the number of students
enrolled at the school.  There is a particular formula established by the legislature
that determines how much funding schools are allocated for each student they
serve.  Additionally, there are times when students transfer from one school to
another mid-year.  When that happens, the funding is prorated; in other words,
the remaining portion of the student’s allocated revenue follows that student to
whichever program he or she enrolls in.  There are some sources of federal revenue
such as special education dollars and Title I funding that are available to charters,
but those dollars are tied to specific programs for the purpose of providing the
additional services required to serve students with disabilities or other similar
circumstances.  Finally, charters indirectly rely on the support of the families they
serve for the remainder of the funding they need by holding fundraisers and other
events that can generate the revenue needed to adequately educate children.

 

I/We learned about your school from someone who once attended your school and it was successful for them.  How do I know it will work for my/our child?

You don’t!  The best thing to do is schedule an appointment by calling the school’s main
number: 651-439-1962.  You will receive some dates to choose from to come to the school
and have a private meeting with the school principal and other relevant team members
depending on circumstances and the needs of your child.  This meeting will help you to
understand what services are available in the school compared to other programs located
within the community.  This is the time to ask all the questions you may have so that you can
make the best informed decision regarding the educational placement of your child.

 

I have heard that New Heights is a smaller school and that smaller schools are better.  Is that true?

 It depends.  Smaller schools are often better for students who get lost or overwhelmed in larger schools where there are lots more kids.  On the other hand, smaller schools generally have fewer options.  This can be troubling to a student who is very social, or one who likes a lot of extra-curricular activities. However, sometimes less can be more.  At New Heights, all students are known by their teachers.  It is much easier to have a meaningful relationship with at least one teacher, if not more, at our school. Once that relationship is in place, students generally relax and become more cooperative and productive in their classes.  They are more likely to be productive for teachers they like and trust than they may otherwise bein classes that seem sterile or arbitrary.  The bottom line is that a smaller school has advantages for a certain type of student, but it still has to be the right fit. You will get a “feel” for our school when you come in for an informational meeting.  These meetings are designed to allow you to “feel” the difference a small school can make.  Some people love it, and some think it is just too small and quiet.
 

 

Why is New Heights referred to as “The Calm School?”
 

If you have ever had occasion to walk the halls of any public school today, you will probably find a lot movement and noise; in some cases, even chaos.  For the past few decades, schools have been built for larger numbers of students.  In some cases, “open style” schools emerged with no walls, doors, or separation from one environment to the next.  These larger, open style schools have their advantages, but being calm is one of them.  Larger, heavily populated schools tend to operate like factories with an assembly line.  When will structured, these schools can work well for most kids, but when the structure breaks down, the schools tend to operate in chaos.

New Heights is small school operating in a small building.  The school was always intended to be small with a focus set on serving fewer students and addressing the individual needs of the students who are enrolled.  By simple virtue of the size of the school and number of students enrolled at any one time, the school has an amazing feeling of “calm.”  The calmness is less a line used for advertisement, and more a descriptor used by families when touring the school during school hours with classes in session.  It is not uncommon for a touring parent to ask…”Where are all of the students?” while touring.  The expression “The Calm School” was generated after hearing that used as a descriptor by guests for the past two decades.  Come experience the calm for yourself by scheduling a tour.  

 

My child is not performing at his or her age appropriate level.  Is this important?

One of the problems with large schools and districts is that they have too many students to individualize the instruction to meet each student’s needs.  I often refer to that structure as “assembly-line education.”  On an assembly line, the conveyor moves parts at a certain speed with no variability.  In that type of school setting, there will likely be students who need that conveyor to vary in its speed, but since it won’t adjust, the student will not be aligned with the school’s expectations.  This is what makes New Heights different.  Because we are a small school, we are able to take into account the individual differences of each student, knowing that he or she is coming to school with a unique set of skills and abilities.  To an extent, we need to move our academic conveyor belt forward, but we will vary the speed for each student so that he or she can be successful and advance academically.  This is especially true for our elementary aged students in grades K-5.  The entire morning for an elementary student is spent in ability-based groups for math and reading.  This allows for all students to advance, whether average, behind or advanced in ability.  There isn’t another program in this area that meets all students where he or she is at academically the way New Heights can.  

 

What is meant when New Heights is described as offering a “basic education?”

Some schools, especially charter schools, offer a specialized curriculum or alternative approach to education.  Some schools are internet-based, some offer blended learning, some offer immersion or fine arts as key components to attract students.  New Heights offers a smaller school setting with a more relational feel, but the curriculum is based on state standards.  Students will take general courses such as: Math, Science; Language Arts; Social Studies; and Technology every year.  This is what some might refer to as a core curriculum or basic curriculum.  Some believe that essential, core components all students should gain from school include reading, writing, math, technology, and communication skills.  All of that is commonly taught at New Heights, thus we are said to offer a basic or essential education.

What do the teachers use for curriculum? 

To begin with, each teacher starts by becoming versed in the Minnesota State Content Standards for each class or age group they teach.  Basically, anything and everything taught at New Heights should align with one or more content standards.  Next, each teacher starts the process of lesson planning, both short and long term.  This is where our teachers get creative and search for the materials he or she feels best address the standards for each lesson, taking into consideration things such as: student and class ability levels; time needed to accomplish objectives; relevance and accuracy of material; and even possible conflicts or controversies that may arise from a particular resource.

So, it is fair to say that New Heights uses a cut-and-paste or eclectic and evolving curriculum to most appropriately address the standards that are required to be taught in the state of Minnesota.  In several cases, our teachers use some of the same materials and resources used by larger districts, but since New Heights is a single site school, it does not have to ensure that, as an example, 20 sections of 3rd grade are all on the same lesson at the same time to ensure equity across the many district schools.  New Heights does not make long-term commitments to a particular book or publisher, or math system for example.  We find it best to make frequent updates or changes when we notice trends or issues with our student learning data.  As a small school, we are better able than districts to adjust to the needs of our students as they occur, simply because we have fewer moving parts.  One size does not fit all when it comes to curriculum, despite what you may have been led to believe.

Homework


As you may have already read or heard, New Heights has a minimal homework philosophy; which may also be described as a sensible approach to homework.  We have done our research and there is little out there that supports piling on more work after spending more than 6 hours per day at school.  In fact, the research shows that the main thing homework does do is cause stress and frustration for students and families.  You may have experienced situations where your child comes home with a stack of work to do for each class on one night, and then the next night there may not be anything assigned. Teachers in large schools don’t often take the time to check with other teachers to make sure that the homework for each night is balanced.  Another issue with homework could be that the work is assigned by a teacher who doesn’t really correlate the assignment to class; in other words, the homework should really be called “busywork.”

At New Heights, we have agreed on a teaching method that allows for students to get the vast majority of school work completed while at school.  That way, the student has the support of the teacher who designed the work rather than have to rely on parents to assist in getting it done.  The research shows that parents are generally willing to help their children, but they usually want to do things the way they were taught rather than support the student to do it the way the teacher expects it.  This causes problems and anger toward the system. 

You can expect that about 90% of all work assigned at New Heights is created and expected to be done at school.  There may be some light work that can easily be completed at home, such as reading, reviewing for a test, doing some light research, or completing work that may take additional time, but is work the student should know how to do on his or her own.  Other than that, we do not assign piles of busy work for students to complete outside of school.  This method should create an incentive for students to pay better attention and be more productive while at school, or they may end up having to unnecessarily take school work home to finish; which should rarely be the case.  That would not be homework but simply work that had to be done at home because of wasting class time. 
 

Does New Heights prepare students for college?

Yes, but not exclusively.  It might not be a popular thing to say, but all students are not cut out for college.  A few years ago, the statistics were something like this:  approximately 1/3 of all high school graduates in the nation would enroll in and attempt college.  Of the original 1/3, approximately 1/3 of those who enrolled would go on to graduate from college.  This statistic, however accurate it is, demonstrates that college is not for everyone, and everyone is not for college.  The entire New Heights teaching faculty consists of highly-educated, high-end achievers who would like nothing more than to see their students be successful, but success is not solely defined as having a college degree.  A better way to look at this is to ask…what options will my child have upon graduating from New Heights (?).  We specialize in helping motivated students reach his or her potential; which may or may not include attending college.  College is not a means to an end.  College is a place to gain some insight and expand our ways of thinking and solving problems.  That said, college is not the only path to success.



My Child often states he is bored and isn’t really being challenged at his/her current school.  How could this be different at New Heights?
 

I don’t know that it can.  All public schools in the state of Minnesota are obligated to teach to the content standards prescribed by law to students in each grade.  American History students are going to have to learn the basic curriculum regardless of which school he or she attends, generally speaking.  Being bored or not challenged is probably more a state of mind than an actual condition.  The best way a student can prevent boredom is to cooperate and do the work assigned by the school.  Most teachers in most schools are intelligent, dedicated, and interested in the growth and betterment of the students they care for.  School is not in place to amuse or entertain students.  Schools have a very specific job to do, and students would do better to cooperate than complain of boredom.  If school work is mundane or doesn’t satisfy your child, perhaps a home course of study would be better, although homeschoolers have rules they are supposed to follow as well.  Public schools follow the laws regarding content, and that is just the way it is.

 

I/we know of a student that has an educational disability and he/she was successful at New Heights.  How do I know my child with a learning disability will be successful at your school in the same way?

 

You don’t. Just like with finger prints or snowflakes, each child with a learning disability presents differently. True, there are similarities, but we only use those similarities as a guide to making various modifications or accommodations to particular students’ schedules, classes, or assignments.  A good way to think about this is to realize that all kids are different despite the fact they may be “labeled” in the same way as other kids.  Saying all kids with autism are alike would be like saying all teenagers are the same.  So, some students respond very well to our system, while other students just don’t seem to make progress even though they have the same disability label.  Therefore, prior to scheduling a meeting, it is very beneficial for you to obtain two very important pieces of documentation to send to us for a review; the most recent Assessment Summary Report; and the most recent IEP.  If you give us a chance to review those two documents prior to our scheduled meeting, we can have the most appropriate personnel on hand to fully discuss your child’s needs, and then we can mutually discover whether or not our program may be of benefit to you and your child.

 

My child suffers from Anxiety. Will he/she be successful at New Heights?

Maybe…maybe not.  Everyone feels nervous or anxious about one thing or another.  In fact, a little bit of stress is actually healthy. Stress is actually necessary in order for people to perform well or a high levels.  But, in some cases, the stress can seem overwhelming and some people have a tendency to want to withdraw from the stressor.  If school is the stressor, it depends on which aspect of school is causing the stress.  New Heights is a smaller, calmer, more relational school than larger schools tend to be. If the size of the school and number of kids is what seems to be causing the anxiety, then New Heights might be the answer.  But, if school itself is the culprit, New Heights probably won’t be the answer.  New Heights still has rules, schedules, arbitrary assignments, deadlines, tests, etc.  While New Heights is a calmer smaller school, it is still a school.  
 

Are therapeutic services available at New Heights?

 

No.  New Heights is an academic organization, not a therapeutic setting.


 

My child is exceptional.  Does New Heights have a mechanism for him/her to test out of a particular class? 

 

No.  Students at New Heights must take and pass all prescribed classes.


 

I have heard that New Heights is a school for troubled kids.  Is there any truth to that?
 

No, no, and no!  Think of how absurd the notion is that a group of school founders would get together and somehow hatch a plan to open a school for troublemakers.  The founders of New Heights made one crucial mistake when they opened the school; they opened it to serve all 13 grades (K-12) in the first year rather than opening a few elementary grades and then adding a grade each year.  Thus, the founders provided a path for students who may not have been very successful in the traditional setting to transfer to the new charter school as a 10th, 11th, or 12th grader, amongst others.  So, it makes sense that an urban legend developed about the school in that first year, largely based on misperceptions and stereotyping conducted by some local citizens and teachers regarding a few of the kids who came to New Heights.  23 years later the topic, rarely but occasionally, pops up again, sadly.  New Heights is and always has been a smaller, safer, and calmer school system that is capable of adjusting to meet the needs of the students who attend.  Sometimes people simply misrepresent what they don’t understand, and New Heights, to some, is simply misunderstood.  Come and see it for yourself.

 

Is it true that New Heights’ students have to wear uniforms?

 

No, But we do have a dress code that some people call a uniform policy. 

Our dress code was put into place several years ago when students were coming to school dressed for anything and everything except school. It seemed like every time we told a student to stop wearing one thing, he or she would come to school dressed in something else, equally inappropriate. That is when we decided it would be better to say what kids can wear rather than always adding to the list of what not to wear. Over the years, our clothing guidelines have evolved into a very practical and friendly, but limited, set of clothing styles that most students don't object to. It is a mix and match system of basic colored, solid clothing generally free of designs, logos, and messages that create unnecessary distractions for students while at school. Parents and students are free to purchase the clothing at the stores they normally would shop in, at the price range most appropriate for the individual, with consideration for the student's general preferences such as name brands, fabric type, and weight of material. I am sure that with a little bit of imagination, any student can find clothing true to his or her personality, while meeting the school's expectations at the same time. 

 

What is a sponsor/authorizer?

Charter schools have only been in existence for more 20 years.  New Heights is one of the first ever opened.  At the time of their inception, charter schools were experimental and required a partner referred to as a sponsor.  Sponsors were most commonly non profit business or school districts that would work with the charter schools to establish good business practices, and they would also ensure that the charter school was staying true to their intended purpose; to provide students and teachers with new opportunities to learn, teach, and to grow.  To an extent, a sponsor was an organization that held the charter schools to a standard and ensured that they were making progress and were compliant in the law.

 

Why has the law changed and why are sponsors now called authorizers?

When charter schools were first created, each one was required to have what was then called a sponsor; which is what I like to call an accountability partner.  These sponsors were supposed to assist the charter school by helping to ensure that it was doing all of the things it is required to do and remain in compliance with the law.  However, over the years, some charter schools have not met the expectations of the original intended purpose of charter school legislation; which is to advance learning and teaching opportunities for students and teachers in new and innovative ways.  One of the reasons this has happened for some charter schools is that many sponsors were not as involved as they were supposed to be.  They took a “hands-off” approach, leaving their schools to struggle and in some cases close.  The legislature (lawmakers) decided that it was time to make the sponsors more accountable.  If they claim to be working with charter schools, they should have to prove it.  So, the law changed the name of the accountability partners to “authorizers,” and created a more defined system which requires them to work more closely with their schools to actually verify that the charter schools are in compliance with all aspects of the law.  Of course the main thing authorizers are to be looking for is evidence that students are making academic progress while enrolled in the charter school.

 

Can a sponsor or authorizer close a charter school?

 

Yes and no.  An authorizer’s role is not to rule over a charter school, so in theory, the authorizer has no real “authority” over the school.  However, the authorizer is charged with the task of monitoring and assisting the charter school in demonstrating that it is making progress both as a business and as an educational organization.  Therefore, an authorizer cannot just declare that it is time to close a charter school, but if it cannot verify that learning is taking place and there is no effort on the part of the charter to improve. The authorizer would be compelled to report its concerns and findings to the department of education for further action.

 

How do schools prepare annual budgets?

Schools receive funding from both state and federal sources.  Those funds are based most commonly on the number or students expected during the year, and also on the type of students they enroll.  For example, the two most common sources of funding are for general education students, and for special education students.  The formula for each is very complicated, but for this question, the understanding of the type of student I have provided should suffice. 

Stillwater Area Schools typically has between 8,000 and 9,000 students enrolled in various district schools at any given time.  They are able to determine their budgets based on census information, as well as other sources of demographic information they collect in order to predict how many students will most likely be enrolled from time-to-time.  New Heights, as well as other One-school-districts, does not access census information to budget because there are no students from any geographical area assigned to charter schools.  Charters must use other sources of data, primarily historical information, to predict the number of students the school will have in any given year.  In other words, we look at the last 10 years of trends to establish our “best guess” to how many students we should expect from year-to-year.  We also ask for parents to notify us about plans for the upcoming year so that we can plan appropriately.

 

School boards and directors also look at things like the cost of salaries, benefits, utilities as well as the other typical costs associated with operating a building.  Most budget items in schools and districts are recurring, and in many cases, we simply have to predict whether those costs typically rise, or if they remain consistent over time.  One example of cost fluctuation is the cost of energy needed for heating and for electricity.  We are able to look at costs over time and estimate the costs associated with operating our school building over the course of full school year.

 

How should I interpret Standardized Test Scores?

More often than I would like, people reference the standardized test performance reports they have found, heard about, or read in a local newspaper.  One thing I can say is that a little bit of information can be a terrible thing.  Standardized test scores are one of the things that is really wrong with public education.  The reason for that statement is simple; we aren’t really comparing apples to apples when we see the reports.  For example, all students are different and each comes to test day with a different set of skills and motivation.  If we give all kids the same test with only one way to interpret the scores we are failing at recognizing each student for his or her accomplishments.  Here is an example.  New Heights has recently been compared to the schools in the area and labeled as an underperforming school by many who looked at the results.  This is an erroneous conclusion for the following reasons.  The demographics of New Heights are significantly different from all of the other schools in the area; especially when considering the number of students who come from impoverished households or the percentage of students in the school who have diagnosed learning disabilities; both subgroups who statistically do not perform well on standardized tests. 

Currently, more than 60% of students attending New Heights are eligible for a free or reduced price lunch compared to 12% on average at the local district schools and only 8% at the other local charter school.  However, New Heights is the only school system locally that has not seen a dip in test scores over the past 2 years.  In fact. New Heights, despite its demographics, has defied the odds and has seen a steady increase in MCA performance; outperforming the district in improvement as well as outperforming the state average as well.