Charter schools special report

Before the Charter School bill reaches Governor Riley's desk. a divided Legislature must cross party lines.  Now we cross state lines to Georgia where similar legislation is in action.

Georgia is home of one of the fastest growing, most successful charter school movements in the country.

Its first charter school opened in 2004 - after initial growing pains the concept caught on quickly.

Tony Roberts, CEO of Georgia Charter School says, "Charter schools in Georgia doubled in the last 3 years, increasing demand from parents for more options."

Charter schools often result from parents unhappy with their poor performing public schools. In Georgia, it's an option for any group willing to pay for a location and write the school's charter.

Roberts agrees, "It's a long process to work on a charter.  Most are 300 pages plus; that's comprised of a business plan, everything they will do, its goals and targets."

Once the charter is completed, It's submitted to the school system where the campus would be located.  Once the charter is approved at the local and state levels, the hard work begins.

Lisa McDonald, founder of Brighten Academy agrees, "We are the first charter school in Georgia started by teachers, most others are businesses or parents."

Brighten Academy is a beacon for teachers whose style doesn't quite fit the traditional mold.

Like most charter schools, Brighten's focus is teaching the whole child, academically and emotionally.

McDonald explains, "We have lots of freedom, so the responsibility that comes along with that is tremendous."

In Brighten's inaugural year, it was filled to capacity in kindergarten through 5th grade. Since then, it's expanded to include K-8th grade, serving more than 400 students.

Although the funding follows the student from traditional schools to charters, revenue is difficult for independent charter schools.

McDonald states, "We do pay less, all of our staff members aren't compensated equally as if they worked in the school system."

Like students, no two charter schools are like.  Take for example Kipp Strive Academy.  It's part of a charter school franchise, one of dozens sprinkled across the country.  It's motto - preparing for college.

Ed Chang, Principal of Kipp Strive Academy explains, "You ask any Kipster what year they are going to college, and they should be able to tell you."

Kipp Strive's location is part of the master plan, choosing school systems with the greatest needs.

Chang states, "Most students come to us 1 to 3 grade levels behind."

With the flexibility that comes with a charter school, Kipp's school day begins at 7:30 and ends at 5.  It also includes two Saturdays a month, time needed to bring the students up to speed academically.

Chang reports, "We pay our teachers more, quite honestly because we expect more."

Some charter schools are also tailored to serve high school students.

Tech high school in the Atlanta School System grooms students to attend universities like Georgia Tech, with a strong focus on math, science and technology.

Tech High Principal Elisa Falco, "Across the country we see the traditional model isn't serving the majority of students and we have to change that."

Tech taps into longer school days, and adopts a more difficult curriculum than the traditional schools.  A concept proven to empower students and their teachers.

Falco explains, "I felt this was the first time I was really teaching and not managing.  We are changing the way our students feel about learning and themselves in a positive way."

As for Alabama's Charter School Legislation, it's still being discussed in a Senate Committee, and already voted down in a House Committee, although the sponsor says they will bring it again before the end of the regular session.