State, Parents Play The Lottery With Charter Schools

Leaders on both sides of the aisle appear in favor of charter school expansion, but there’s disagreement about the rules for establishing a such an institution.

Project School

Photo: Stan Jastrzebski/WFIU

Bloomington's Project School, a charter school in the city's downtown.

The lottery at Bloomington’s Project School isn’t what you’d expect.

The image made popular by documentaries such as “Waiting for Superman,” of a rolling cage where students are pulled like Powerball numbers and jubilant parents scream their thanks to the heavens, isn’t what you’ll see here.

Each child in the lottery is given a notecard, which are mixed up and randomly drawn from an opaque white plastic tub. It’s not scientific, but the drawing is randomized and those doing the pulling proceed carefully. There’s only one parent present. In fact, they’re encouraged not to come, because the intricate system can be misleading. If a family has two children who are prospective Project School students, it’s not guaranteed that if one wins the lottery, the other will too.  Instead, if one child’s name is drawn, his or her sibling gets priority on a waiting list for their grade.

The Project School is the second of its kind in the state, and accepted its first class of students in 2010. Next year, it will expand to include ninth grade classes. And the waitlist is long. School leader Daniel Baron said only 40 new students got in this year.

“We had 240 kids on the waitlist, and of the 240 about 20 were [siblings] who got in, and then there’s probably about 20 new kids who got into the school,” Baron said.

Erin Lemroe was the only parent present at the 2011 lottery. And she’s one of the lucky ones. Two of her children made it in by lottery. Another is now at the top of the waitlist.

“I am feeling overwhelmed, amazed, grateful really, this is quite exciting for us,” she said. “Yeah we have a large family, we have five kids, and this school really could change our lives quite literally, so I’m excited.”

Students seeking entrance through the lottery would otherwise be funneled into the Monroe County Community School Corporation. Indiana House Bill 1002, recently passed by the Indiana General Assembly, establishes a Charter School Board as a statewide charter sponsor. The bill will also allow some private and public universities to charter schools. Ellettsville State Senator Vi Simpson voted against the Bill, saying she supports charter school expansion, but only under what she describes as the right circumstances.

“I think it’s very important that there’s local control, local oversight, that performance based oversight is important, and that teachers be accredited or licensed…and perhaps the most important part is that we figure out a way to fund these charter schools without stealing money from the other public schools,” Simpson said.

The bill requires that 90% of full-time charter school teachers be accredited. It also provides for the closure of charter schools if they remain in the lowest performance category for five years. The Project School’s I-STEP scores have been low since its opening, but Daniel Baron attributes this to the school’s short lifespan and its diversity of students.

“The ISTEP data, at both schools, we don’t believe it’s an accurate reflection of the work we’re doing yet because we’re so new,” he said. “This is just our second year, so when our kids took ISTEP last year, which is the data that’s coming out right now, we’ve only had our kids for seven months, and many of them have spent five to seven years in other schools. And many of them came here because they were not being successful in other schools.”

Simpson called the Project School “impressive” and said it is a good example of a charter school working with the local school corporation, rather than against it. Still, she cautioned against what she calls “willy-nilly expansion” of these schools.

“They don’t all work in the same way, and they don’t all succeed, so we want to make sure we’re taking the success stories from around the state, both in public schools and in public charter schools, and replicating those as best we can,” she said.

For parents, getting their children into a charter school is still a game of chance.  And there’s still a chance that charter schools will take time to proce themselves academically.  One thing seems clear: the chances that more charter schools are established in the coming years have increased.

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