Interest in charter schools in South Carolina spikes despite challenges

jself@thestate.comApril 22, 2013 

  • By the numbers

    S.C. Charter School district facts:


    total charter schools


    virtual charter schools


    traditional brick-and-mortar schools


    number of new charter schools set to open in the fall


    number of students in the district


    new students expected

Charter school families in Horry County will rejoice in August when Coastal Leadership Academy opens its doors, providing a charter high school option for students who now attend charter schools that only provide instruction through grade eight.

The school received unanimous approval to open under the S.C. Public Charter School District last spring. School organizers and parents are now raising funds to renovate a building on Palmetto Pointe Boulevard in Myrtle Beach. While the school will be located in Horry County, CLA also will be able to serve students from Georgetown County because it was not chartered under a local school district.

Despite the uncertainty facing fledgling charter schools, several are operating in the area, and statewide interest in opening them is growing quickly.

Four charter schools have opened under Horry County Schools in the last 10 years, including Bridgewater Academy in 2003 and Palmetto Academy of Learning and Success in 2010, both serving students in kindergarten through eighth grade. The Academy of Hope, a year-round school, opened in 2011 and serves students in K-5, but an additional grade will be added each year up to eighth grade.

The most recent addition was Palmetto Academy for Learning Motorsports, which opened last fall for ninth- through 12th-grade students. PALM students receive their basic academic credits through an online program, while learning skills such at motorsports technology, metal fabrication and metals machining.

Coastal Montessori Charter School also opened in the fall in Pawleys Island. The school was chartered under the Georgetown County School District and offers grades one through six.

Interest statewide

Earlier this year, 40 groups around the state asked the S.C. Public Charter School District about opening charter schools – publicly funded schools with local control and freedom in designing innovative curriculum. Now, 26 groups are serious about applying. Eight are in the Midlands.

The spike in interest comes as the state charter school district, one of more than 80 S.C. public school districts, is still fairly young. The district’s first schools opened in 2008, and it now has 17 schools – 11 with physical sites and six virtual schools.

The district has faced its share of challenges. While seven of the schools this year received Palmetto awards for high academic performance or closing the achievement gap, six are on probation for failure to comply with special education requirements or “significantly sub-par academic performance.”

Some are in their second year of probation.

Last month, the district revoked a school’s charter for poor academic performance, financial accounting problems and moving into buildings not approved by the state. The closure prompted lawmakers and education leaders to propose strengthening the law.

“Growth alone has been challenging … though welcomed, and we’re glad to see it,” said Clay Eaton, charter school district spokesman.

Academic performance has been varied at Horry County charter schools. On state report cards, schools and districts receive absolute ratings – excellent, good, average, below average or at-risk – along with growth ratings that measure improvement from one year to the next. PALS was rated excellent on both for all grades for 2012, while Bridgewater’s ratings have hovered at average for all grades, except for a good growth rating for its elementary grades.

On its first report card, the Academy of Hope had a below average absolute rating and an at-risk growth rating, which has been disputed by the school. Principal Paul Hickman said he has contacted the S.C. Department of Education about a correction.

Unique and unusual

One appeal of charter schools is they have more independence than traditional public schools. They have their own governing boards and control their finances and curriculum.

The state created the public charter school district to allow the schools to exist anywhere in the state without being tied to traditional public school districts. The district also allowed for statewide virtual schools to open.

The district provides accountability for charter schools and passes on state and federal money, but the schools are different than traditional public schools because they are independent and see themselves as “unique and highly unusual,” Eaton said.

While they have more creative freedom in teaching, they still must meet state standards for graduation and must participate in standardized testing.

The district receives state and federal money through the S.C. Department of Education just like traditional public school districts, but the district receives less money per student of any district in the state. Charter schools receive 54 percent of the state average of funding per student for its virtual schools and 64 percent of the state average for its traditional brick-and-mortar schools.

That money does not arrive until most of the building and planning has already taken place.

And unlike traditional public schools, charter schools cannot raise local tax money and receive no public money for buildings or transportation.

The schools have to find their own space and raise money to pay for furnishings. They can form as nonprofits and can raise charitable donations.

More independence also means more responsibility for charter schools.

Charter schools, which are like businesses, fail for the same reason businesses fail, said Danny Shaw, a member of the board of trustees for the S.C. Science Academy, a charter school in the process of opening near Columbia: “Not enough planning and groundwork and laying the foundation for success.”

Shaw said the school board’s collective experience brings the academy credibility. Members include education professionals and business people with experience in banking, engineering and starting businesses.

Shaw himself has 43 years of experience as a teacher, principal, and as a state Education Department consultant.

The challenges the school faces are different, not necessarily more difficult, than those all schools face, he said.

“It takes a community and businesses and partnerships with families and social services agencies and churches in order to have the best kind of schooling for a community. And given that [the state is] so diverse, one size is not going to fit all.”

The Sun News’ Vicki Grooms contributed to this story.

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