A Tale of two Charters

by Carey P. Clayton
Published in SEDL Letter Volume XIV, Number 1, February 2002, Family and Community Connections with Schools
Yana Bland, director of the Katherine Anne Porter School, saw a need for an educational alternative for some of the high school students in her community.

Yana Bland, director of the Katherine Anne Porter School, saw a need for an educational alternative for some of the high school students in her community.

The educational reform movement of the early 1990s has led to the opening of 170 charter schools in Texas since 1996. Authorized by the State Board of Education, these schools offer alternatives for parents and students. In exchange for clear educational goals and accountability, charter schools are given flexibility for innovation. Through the years since this legislation was passed, many charter schools have struggled and failed, but there are success stories, too, including two central Texas charter schools—the Katherine Anne Porter School in Wimberley and the Audre and Bernard Rapoport Academy in Waco.

This tale of two Texas charter schools is, in many ways, a story of opposites. The first of these, Katherine Anne Porter School, is located in the rural community of Wimberley about 45 miles southwest of Austin. Drawing on students from three counties, it is a high school with a student population that is 90 percent white. The second charter school, the Audre and Bernard Rapoport Academy, is situated in a housing project in Waco, a bustling midsize city. Serving prekindergarten through third grade, the school's student population is 92 percent black.

Surprisingly, the schools have much in common. Both schools opened their doors to children who were falling between the cracks in public school. They were begun by dynamic, highly educated women willing to work for the benefits and opportunities they see as fundamental for children to learn, grow, and eventually give back to their communities.

Katherine Anne Porter School (KAPS)

Alex Mollberg was suspended from a public high school four times in the first two months of school last year for what the school deemed an unacceptable hairstyle. When his father heard about the Katherine Anne Porter School (KAPS) that opened in Wimberley in 1999, Mollberg's parents investigated. They were impressed enough to enroll their son and daughter, even though it is approximately 30 miles from their home. "This school is a godsend!" exclaims Alex's mother Kathleen. "We've raised our children to appreciate diversity," she says. "We want them to get a good education, but we want it to be in line with the way we've raised them." A former secondary school teacher, Mrs. Mollberg is thrilled with the open and accepting environment at KAPS. Even more important, she feels, are the opportunities her children, Alex and Laura, have here to express themselves freely as individuals and participate in decisions concerning their high school education. Alex reports, "When I came home from KAPS the first day, I was amazed. They treat us like adults here. There's really only one rule here and that is to treat everyone with courtesy and respect."

KAPS student Alex Mollberg says the only rule at the high school is  

KAPS student Alex Mollberg says the only rule at the high school is "to treat everyone with courtesy and respect."

 

Director Yana Bland has plenty of experience with students others might label as "different" or "diverse." Born on the small island of Malta and educated in England, Bland has 16 years of teaching experience in four different countries. She holds a degree in economics and a doctorate in philosophy from the Council of National Academic Awards in England. Before becoming director for the school, Bland was the director of the Katherine Anne Porter Museum, a free public museum in the childhood home of the Pulitzer Prize?winning Texas author.

Programs sponsored by the museum to reach out to young writers brought Bland in touch with a need in her community for educational alternatives. "One size does not fit all!" she exclaims. Before applying for a charter with the Texas Education Agency, Bland surveyed administrators in public schools throughout Hays County seeking support. Principals and central-office school administrators in Wimberley invited Bland to share her vision with community leaders. She convinced them that a charter school would benefit everyone in the community, not just students. There was an outpouring of support from local businesses, parents, and large corporations like Motorola, which donated computers and two school buses for the school's opening. With a facility rented on flexible terms and many donated materials and supplies, Katherine Anne Porter School opened its doors in 1998 to students from ninth through twelfth grade.

Approximately 10 percent of the one hundred KAPS students have been home-schooled, while others have attended public schools in Wimberley, Dripping Springs, San Marcos, Blanco, and Austin. Because 40 percent of students are considered at risk, Bland has worked to make school relevant to their goals in life. She does this by offering students the chance to explore career opportunities through internships with local businesses and professionals. She also brings in guest speakers that have included lawyers, health professionals, chefs, and financial advisors.

Students and parents have a voice in curriculum through the Student Achievement Committee. This group of parents, teachers, and students meets biweekly on Thursdays at lunchtime over pizza to discuss curriculum opportunities and ways to improve student performance. One of the committee's activities was to generate a survey of students' interests that has resulted in the creation of an automotive technology class, a weight-lifting class, and advanced placement English classes.

At KAPS, a core curriculum is offered, as well as electives in journalism, environmental studies, and creative writing. In keeping with their namesake's philosophy and vocation, KAPS cultivates and supports students as writers. Writing is a focal activity throughout the curriculum and the school sponsors an annual literary festival, welcoming participants from area schools and encouraging members of the community to submit writing in categories including poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. There is no entry fee, and prizes are awarded by age groups.

Volleyball at KAPS

Volleyball at KAPS

Featured in the school's scrapbook are student surveys, editorials, reports, and artwork, all available in the school's lobby for perusal by visitors. Past service projects are illustrated with photos showing students participating in community cleanup projects, visiting with the elderly in a local nursing home, and conducting interviews with local residents about perceived needs for service in the community. The school's community service projects tend to focus on environmental concerns, and this year's project will be incorporated into science classes.

The students are working with the Wimberley Watershed Association to offer free water quality analysis for area residents who bring in samples. Other environmental projects have included cleanups at the Blanco River and landscaping at the Emily Anne Theater, an outdoor amphitheater in Wimberley that sponsors a popular summer Shakespeare festival featuring local student talent. The students also have a role in raising money for the school. The local Lions Club allows KAPS students to run a parking concession at its monthly Market Days flea market, netting the school about $400 per month.

When asked about their relationship with local public schools, Bland says, "We're like a little sister to Wimberley ISD. They support us in so many ways." WISD shares its T-1 high-speed digital network line, invites KAPS teachers to share in-service training opportunities, and refers potential students.

There's a definite need for this program. . . . we make a big difference in these kids' lives.

Teachers at KAPS are drawn by the opportunity to serve students in need. Lori Martin, who teaches a popular weight-lifting class and prepares the school's state-required Public Education Information Management System (PEIMS) reports, says, "I started subbing here last year and just got attached to the kiddos!" Science teacher and athletic director Ryan Hogue spent three years teaching in a public school boot-camp program before joining the KAPS faculty this year. Ryan explains that many of the KAPS teachers have made a financial sacrifice to be part of this charter school, but they feel as he does: "There's a definite need for this program. It's fun, and I know we make a big difference in these kids' lives."

Rapoport Academy opened the doors of its brand new facility in 2000, two years after the charter school got its start in the basement of a nearby church.

Rapoport Academy opened the doors of its brand new facility in 2000, two years after the charter school got its start in the basement of a nearby church.

Audre and Bernard Rapoport Academy

It's lunchtime at Rapoport Academy, and Angel Wright's prekindergarten students beam happily as they sit on the floor in the main hallway outside the cafeteria waiting their turn to eat. Nearby, Kristy Donaldson's second graders spot the camera and huddle proudly around their teacher, posing for a picture. At the other end of the building, Mrs. Cotton's prekindergarten kids gather on the rug around her rocking chair, winding down for a nap after their lunch. In the teacher's workroom, director Nancy Grayson joins some of her teachers for their lunch break. Music plays softly in the background, and a jar of Hershey's miniature candy bars sits invitingly in the center of the table. "We always have music and chocolate," explains Grayson. The atmosphere is happy and relaxed as teachers share a few minutes of time with each other. When asked to compare Rapoport to their public school experiences, they have much to say. Third-grade teacher Brandy Battistella spent one year at a public school before joining the Rapoport faculty. Battistella notes that at the school where she taught, there was an intense focus on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) test. Although Rapoport does not concentrate on drilling students for the TAAS, their reading scores for third grade last year were 100 percent. She attributes much of their success to small class size—no more than 15 students per teacher.

In the library, reading specialist Angie Lowe sits at a table helping a student with phonics. Librarian Sandra Swanson explains from behind her desk that she's busy ordering more books—the library has received a $50,000 grant. Swanson spent eight years as a public school librarian before joining Grayson's team. "What I enjoy is the freedom to think and make choices. In public schools," says Swanson, "you are somewhat stifled, with fewer options."

Rapoport Academy director Nancy Grayson takes time out to read with one of her students.  

Rapoport Academy director Nancy Grayson takes time out to read with one of her students.

 

Rapoport's library is open to students and their families in the summer, offering story time and family reading. Additionally, a reading camp is held in midsummer to boost reading skills and combat loss of verbal skills that students sometimes experience during the summer break.

Grayson's long list of accomplishments before opening Rapoport Academy in 1998 include receiving a master's degree in educational psychology from Baylor University and completing coursework for a doctorate in developmental psychology from Texas A&M. Her extensive connections in the Waco community, evolved from years of dedicated service, have enabled her to acquire the necessary funding to build the school's new facility, which opened in 2000. Her natural inclination to help others rose to a sense of urgency when she found that only 33 percent of third graders in the economically disadvantaged neighborhood of East Waco were passing the TAAS test.

Determined to make a difference in these children's academic success, Grayson has incorporated a mandatory parental involvement program that emphasizes parents' reading to their children for 15 to 30 minutes every night and keeping a reading log, providing a quiet place for their child to do homework, and volunteering at school or a school-related function once per semester. And most of the parents exceed expectations for volunteering—more than 300 hours of parent volunteer work were logged last year. Some of the grant money obtained last year has been used to fund a parenting class which meets twice a month and teaches parents about behavior management and academic tutoring. To encourage parent attendance, Grayson provides supper for the entire family and raffles a donated computer at every class.

Grayson says Rapoport's success is due to a variety of factors, including small class size, a phonics-based program, tremendous one-on-one support to students with teaching assistants and a reading specialist, and "a fabulous certified librarian who can acquire and use materials that excite children." Further credit goes to the Core Knowledge Curriculum, a rigorous content-based program fully integrated with the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS).

It's lunch time at Rapoport Academy.

It's lunch time at Rapoport Academy.

Though she works long hours and takes no salary herself, Grayson's aggressive pursuit of grants and donations allows her to offer her teachers competitive salaries. She reports that 95 percent of the program grants she writes are funded. Though she seems to possess endless energy and enthusiasm, Grayson admits that schools face many challenges: "The pressure is overwhelming. Charter schools have to generate the same reports as public schools, and basically the only requirement we don't have to meet is having certified teachers." She adds that all of Rapoport's teachers are certified, however.

There is also a sense of isolation that derives from being unique and self-contained. Grayson comments that each charter is written specifically to address certain grade levels, curriculum and student populations. "The only common denominator is that we all look different! So when it comes to advice, sharing ideas, etc., it is difficult." Legislation granting a teacher pay raise last year specifically excluded charter schools. Grayson feels this only increases the sense of isolation with which many charter schools struggle.

Helping to combat such isolation is the wholehearted support that comes from the community, including the Waco public schools. Waco ISD provides meal service for Rapoport's students. Because many children don't get regular meals at home, Grayson allows second and third helpings of food at breakfast and lunch. Rapoport's students are visited by eighth graders from nearby Carver Middle School who come to read to kindergarteners. The principal and staff of Doris Miller elementary school confer on a regular basis with Grayson and her staff. A local private school, St. Paul's Elementary, sends sixth graders to spend time reading with younger students, promoting experience with diversity and expanding the horizons of both younger and older students.

Lisa Parks waits with her first-graders for their turn in the cafeteria.  

Lisa Parks waits with her first-graders for their turn in the cafeteria.

 

Parents, public schools, and community businesses have breathed life and vigor into these two successful, growing charter schools. Parents in the low-income subsidized housing neighborhood near Rapoport Academy are volunteering and learning how to play an active role in their children's success. With the guidance of Rapoport's parent involvement policy, they are exceeding expectations and student achievement is high. KAPS has offered choices for parents and students who have responded overwhelmingly. The high school is growing quickly in response to pleas from parents in search of smaller classes, input into the curriculum, and individualized instruction for their children.

From dramatically improving academic performance and parent involvement to rescuing dropouts and nurturing young authors, these two charter schools are at the top of their class.

 

Carey Clayton is a writer and high school English teacher who lives in Central Texas.


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