Chartering the Future

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

Ted Pennington is glad he doesn't have to wake up his 15-year-old son, Anthony, for school anymore.

Much has changed since Anthony began attending The Arts & College Preparatory Academy this school year. Anthony approached his father with the idea after hearing about the school from friends.

"He gets me up now, and I get up at 6 a.m.," said Mr. Pennington, a Reynoldsburg resident. "He wants to be there at 7 a.m."

School doesn't start until 9 a.m., but Anthony and his friends arrive early to practice music for their rock-band class.

Anthony said he loves everything about his new school. His grades have improved, too.

"I felt like ACPA had more to offer for me personally, with the music and arts available," Anthony said. "I was drawn to the smaller student body and more lively atmosphere."

The Arts & College Preparatory Academy is a community high school on the East Side of Columbus, but its students come from all over Central Ohio. The school received an excellent rating from the Ohio Department of Education for the 2009-10 school year and was named a School of Promise.

Community schools, which are also known as charter schools, are tuition-free public schools, explained Ohio Department of Education spokesman Scott Blake. Students attending community schools are required to take the same Ohio Achievement Assessments and Ohio Graduation Test as students enrolled in traditional public school districts.

Community schools serve as an alternative to traditional K-12 public schools, according to the ODE. The first pilot community school was started in Lucas County in 1997. During the 2010-11 school year, about 98,000 students were enrolled in more than 340 community schools, said Bill Sims, president and CEO of the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Sims said community schools tend to be unique learning environments and some specialize in specific disciplines like the arts, special education, technology and international studies.

Community schools have sponsors, according to the ODE, which oversees those sponsors. A governing authority is responsible for operating a community school. A school's curriculum is detailed in a community school contract.

Teachers in both traditional public school districts and community schools must meet state certification and licensing requirements and must be highly qualified, according to the ODE. Teachers in community schools, however, are allowed to teach outside of their areas of certification.

Funding for community schools is handled differently than it is for traditional public school districts. Blake said there's a separate formula for community schools and that funding varies based on the school district each student resides in.

"(Charter schools) get, on average, about two-thirds of what a district gets for its students," Sims said. "More charter schools close down for financial reasons than they do for academic reasons. They really operate on very thin margins."

Common myths about community schools include that they all perform poorly and that they're not public schools.

Neither statement is true, Sims said.

As is the case with traditional public schools, all community schools are not equal in terms of their success.

"It only takes one closed school to paint a really negative portrait," said Marty Griffith, director of development and business partnerships at The Arts & College Preparatory Academy. "ACPA is a great story of what's possible over time with a dedicated group of professionals."

Griffith said that upon leaving the high school, roughly 75 percent to 80 percent of students have applied and been accepted to a two- or four-year college or a career path program.

"Atmosphere is the No. 1 key to our success," Griffith said. "Kids will work if they're engaged and motivated to learn. That's what we've learned at ACPA."

Assistant Principal Richard Albeit, who has prior public school district experience, said he was skeptical of ACPA at first. He now refers to it as an "oasis."

"The rapport between students and staff - it's not friendship, but mutual respect," Albeit said.

"What I tell parents isyour kid will be as excited about coming to school every day as they were in second grade," Griffith said. "Usually, in the middle school years, something happens. School becomes a chore instead of a joy. We try to rediscover the joy of learning."

Choosing a community school

Search. Find community schools near you at the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools website, Click on "Find a School" and type in your zip code.

Do some homework. Check school report cards at the Ohio Department of Education's site, Click on "School Options," "Community Schools" then "Your School's Local Report Card." You can search by school name and pull up a list of all community schools in Ohio.

Visit. Spend some time at the school, so you can experience the atmosphere and interact with the staff and students.