WHAT IS A CHARTER SCHOOL?
Charter schools are state-funded, public schools operated by independent, nonprofit governing bodies that must include parents. They are free from many regulations that apply to traditional public schools. In Tennessee, public charter school students are measured against the same academic standards as students in other public schools.
Source: Tennessee Department of Education
HOW TO APPLY
The Chattanooga Charter School of Excellence will accept applications for kindergarten through second grade until Aug. 10. An open house for parents will be held July 19. Download application from www.chattanoogacharter.com.
After fighting for the Hamilton County school board's approval for more than a year, officials with Chattanooga's newest charter school are working hard to recruit students.
Almost all the 125 spots in kindergarten through second grade at Chattanooga Charter School of Excellence are filled and the second-grade class has a waiting list, said Marcia Griffin, who moved from Florida to found the city's third charter school.
Griffin said parents are coming from all over Hamilton County. Children are enrolling from Barger Academy and Soddy, Woodmore, Calvin Donaldson, Clifton Hills and Rivermont elementary schools, she said.
"We felt like education in the county is lacking," said Carissa Chacon, who will teach second grade at the school and whose daughter will be enrolled in kindergarten. "There is too much emphasis on too broad of a standard. Here, we are going to master the basics and give them a well-rounded education."
Over the next few months, school officials expect to finish turning the former YMCA at Eastgate Town Center into a school. Since they received a 10-year charter from the county, they have obtained a 10-year lease on the building, Griffin said.
Desks are being put in and playground equipment and computers are being set up. The goal is to be ready for an open house and parent orientation on July 19.
Chattanooga Charter will accept applications until the first day of school Aug. 10. More classrooms could be opened if enrollment grows, Griffin said. If that happens, a lottery drawing will determine who gets the seats, she said.
In coming years, school officials expect to expand until they're serving students in kindergarten through fifth grade.
Hiring began in December, said Griffin, and seven of the nine teachers came from Hamilton County public schools.
"The parents that are coming to us say they want a better alternative to Hamilton County Schools," said Griffin, whose first plan for an elementary charter school was rejected by the school board in 2009. "Our goal is to outperform the county."
The newest charter joins Ivy Academy, an environmentally themed charter, and the Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, a middle-high school. Both opened in 2009.
A recent change in state charter school laws has created greater competition among Tennessee's 22 charters and local public schools.
Formerly, only poor-performing students or those in troubled schools that didn't meet educational goals under the federal No Child Left Behind Act were eligible to enroll in a charter.
Now any student can enroll. The law also removed a cap on the number of charters allowed in the state.
Rose Mary Porter said Griffin invited her to move her granddaughter, Jamaya, from Calvin Donaldson Environmental Science Academy to the Chattanooga Charter School of Excellence.
Porter said Griffin told her boys and girls would be in separate classrooms to encourage learning, and parents or guardians would be required to volunteer at least 20 hours each academic year.
School officials promised that the liberal arts curriculum would be focused on teaching students material, instead of teaching to tests.
Each student would get a backpack full of school supplies and students would be taken on college visits every year, Porter said.
Most charter schools don't offer transportation, but Griffin told Porter that the school would transport students who live more than 2 miles away.
Porter said she and many of her neighbors were frustrated by their experience at Calvin Donaldson. Last year, she was told her daughter wasn't proficient in math and language and would have to repeat kindergarten.
"What I don't like about the public schools is before they contact you, your child has already failed. She [Jamaya's teacher] told me that my granddaughter couldn't formulate a sentence or write a sentence," said Porter. "(She was) not getting the education she could have gotten. I think the teacher just let her slide through the cracks."
Calvin Donaldson Principal Becky Coleman said she hasn't been notified that any parents have moved their children to the new elementary charter.
"I'm not concerned," said Coleman. "We have a great school here doing great things."
In the last four years, Calvin Donaldson - whose student body is more than 90 percent black and mostly poor - significantly improved its writing and reading test scores from 50 percent proficient to 83 percent proficient, state data show.