IM this article to a friend!

May 16, 2004

Charter schools seeking funding get final review

From: The Union Leader, NH - May 16, 2004

Union Leader Staff

Four charter school proposals come before the state board of education this week, with hopes of obtaining up to $2.3 million in state and federal money to operate next year.

They range from a school for the deaf and hard of hearing in Concord to a school in Epping that emphasizes math, science and the culture and history of India.

Charter schools are considered part of the public school system. With predicted student populations of about 325 total, the four schools up for approval this week would qualify for a total of up to $1.2 million in direct state education, in the form of per-pupil grants of $3,600 each.

The state Education Department has awarded this year's $1.2 million already. Another $2.1 million in state-administered federal grants will be available next year, the second of a three-year $7.2 million federal award.

Educators are unanimous in saying that no school can educate a student for $3,600 a year. That means schools will have to compete for the state's scarce grant money and tap private donations and non-profit foundations to make their books balance. They can also negotiate tuitions for children who come from outside their home school district.

The state board held off charter approvals last month to set up a more careful review process. Education Commissioner Nicholas Donohue said the board is walking a fine line.

"They're deliberating how fastidious they should be on these applications, on things like budgets, ability and credibility of leadership. The intent of the law is to give people charters and let the customers decide," he said. It also needs to be careful how it spends precious state dollars, Donohue said.

"It really is a balancing act. We'll get creamed if we're too particular and at the same time we have a responsibility not to just say 'Go ahead.'"

Susan Hollins, a former public school superintendent who acts as a charter school consultant to the Education department, said that while much of the onus is on parents to choose a school wisely, there is a role for the state, too.

"People are turning their children over to the people who operate these schools. Parents have to have reason to believe that the operators are known and sound and that their kids are safe," she said.

The schools will be an alternative to public schools, operating free of many state regulations. Organizing efforts have moved quickly in the last year, since the Legislature allowed applicants to bypass local voters and go directly to the state Board. The state board has approved four charters so far, for schools in Franklin, Exeter, the Seacoast and the North Country.

The four applications on tap this week show the variety of programs the schools can offer.

The Institute of Holistic Health at Green Pastures Estate in Epping wants to operate the Three Governors Charter School, which will offer an accelerated academic program to students in kindergarten through grade 12 so that graduates have the equivalent of a bachelor's degree.

The system was developed by headmaster and director Pandit R. Ramsamooj, who has piloted the program in a Massachusetts charter school. Along with math, science and arts, it offers yoga and languages that include Sanskrit and Hindi. Students, who will have to wear uniforms, will be allowed only pure vegetarian meals and snacks.

The school hopes to have 150 students starting in the fall, and wants to grow to 360 in four years. It expects to spend nearly $1 million in its first year on classroom costs, teachers, benefits and other costs. Efforts to reach organizers were unsuccessful.

Bell Center Music and Arts in Dover wants a charter for its Cocheco Arts and Technology Academy Center. The school hopes to draw about 40 ninth-grade students to a traditional academics and an arts program that includes theater, music, graphic and web design. It expects to spend $258,500 in its first year, and $663,000 in five years, when its projected enrollment hits 160 students.

Organizer Alexis Dascoulias, a former Dover teacher with seven years experience, said she will apply for federal funds through the state once the charter is granted. But she'll have to find ways to make ends meet in the meantime because they won't be awarded until fall. Even the state funding takes two years to arrive because of the delayed schedule the Legislature has set up for all school aid.

"Eventually when the school is full it will be a little easier. But in the first years we'll have to have promissory notes, and find banks willing to float money based on those," she said. Dascoulis said she will not work as director of the school when it opens.

Northeast Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services wants to establish the Laurent Clerk Academy school, with initial enrollment of 10 to 15 students.

Eventually, the school hopes to become a center that trains teachers, interpreters, aides, parents and others who deal with the deaf. No director has been hired.

NDHHS executive director Susan Wolf-Downes said the school would increase the value of state money now spent on hard-of-hearing students.

"The students will be getting their education straight from the educators, instead of through an interpreter . . . Mainstreamed programs are quite isolating for deaf and hard of hearing children; often there is only one deaf or hard-of-hearing student per school, or per grade," she said by e-mail.

The Concord Academy hopes to open this fall with 120 students, headed by Ed Kruger of Bryan Charter Schools, a Wyoming non-profit. The school plans to offer what it describes as a classical curriculum, centered around the Core Knowledge program.

Kruger tried twice to organize charter schools in Bedford. Both proposals lost at the polls in town elections. He tried a school in New Boston, but the idea never took off.

More recently, Kruger worked for less than a year at a charter school in Utah and for two months at a school in Wyoming. Officials at the two schools said they would not discuss the terms under which Kruger left. Efforts to contact Kruger were unsuccessful.

Published reports in local media say Kruger left the Snowy Range School in Laramie, Wyo., in 2002 after a couple of months work, when he did not comply with an agreement to become certified as a principal. Before Snowy Range, he worked at the Sundance Mountain School in Provo, Utah for most of one school year. After a turnover among the board of directors, Kruger left.

Concord Academy's application says it expects to see 120 students in 2004-05 in grades K through 7, and up to 310 by 2006-07 in grades K-12.

The school plans to pay its director a first-year salary of $60,000, highest among the four charter applicants. The application does not name a director.

© 2004 The Union Leader Corporation