Raleigh, N.C. — Just knowing that a school is organized as a public charter school is only the beginning of the research for a parent who is thinking about changing where their child learns, say experts interviewed for a story on the state's growing number of charter schools.
Visiting the school and talking to faculty and staff are critical parts of making that call, said Garry Miron, professor of education at Western Michigan University.
"You notice a difference when you go into schools," Miron said. "You can see how many kids are engaged. Unfortunately, a lot of parents are very dependent on information they get from marketing brochures and other things ... But they're not always representative of the performance of the school."
Miron, an expert on school reform, said that, when he was looking for a school for his own children, he talked to other parents and looked a demographic data. Other experts shared similar experiences, but all say that school visits are essential.
"I wouldn't pay any attention to whether it is a charter school, magnet, public or private," said Bryan Hassel, co-director of Public Impact, which advises governments, nonprofits and schools on how to improve learning. "There's so much variation within all those groups."
Among the questions he asks about any school, Hassel said, is whether it has high goals and expectations for all of its students and how is student progress monitored and adjustments made if a student falls behind?
"You're looking for a great school that's a great fit," Hassel said. He and his wife wrote a book, The Picky Parent, that helps parents sort through the various schooling options available.
Charter school advocates point out that charters were created, in part, to give parents options for how and where their children will learn. For some, the best choice may be traditional K-12 school.
"One thing is you have to know your child and what's best for them," said Winnie Lameck, a math teacher at Southern Wake Academy, a charter middle and high school. "Some students do great in the traditional setting, and they excel and that's fantastic. And then there are students who don't do well in that big setting."
Southern Wake prides itself on small class sizes and a lot of teacher-to-student contact, both in the classroom and in mentor relationships. That smaller school environment doesn't provide as many opportunities for sports or Advanced Placement classes as a traditional high school. There will be similar tradeoffs for any charter school.
Charter schools are public schools, administered by a nonprofit board. So, their students take many of the same assessments as their peers in traditional schools, and some of that data is available online. Information on graduation rates for charter high schools is also available.
But data can only tell you so much.
"The first thing I would look for is the walls. A good school has the children's work on the walls," said Henry Levin, director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Columbia University. "Secondly, I would look at the quality of that work. I would look for things like essays that really show creativity and showed some ideas. I would also make sure the work wasn't just from the best two or three students."
Levin said conversation with staff is important as well.
"I would would ask teachers and the principal what makes the school unique and look for real enthusiasm on their part," he said, adding, "Are the children engaged? You want to see if the kids are really concentrating on their work. It's not difficult to recognize boredom."
Parents considering a new school face more of a challenge because there are no ongoing classes to watch or current parents to rely upon.
Some charters use charter management organizations or affiliate with other national companies. For schools in those situation, the reputation and record of those companies might be a helpful guide.
"The No. 1 thing you should look for is the caliber of the people are who are going to be leading the school, whether that's the board or the principal," Hassel said. "These days, you can download a great plan on the Internet. It may sound good, the question is can you execute it."
On-site school leaders such as principals and directors who have run other charter schools or been leaders in public schools elsewhere are a reassuring sign that the school will be able to get up and running as well as meet state requirements.