TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — It’s one of the biggest decisions that parents can make: where to send their children to school?
In Arizona, parents often choose between traditional public schools and charter schools. Both are public schools, funded by taxpayers. They cannot use admissions tests or charge tuition.
But charter schools are run by private groups — not school districts.
Since Arizona law began allowing charter schools in 1994, they have formed a large footprint in the state. The Arizona Department of Education says nearly one in five Arizona public school students (18.6%) attend a charter, which is the highest rate in the country.
Charter school advocates say they can cut through bureaucracy and create a more streamlined learning environment. But critics argue that charter operators can focus too much on profits and that the schools need more oversight.
Charters have standards set by a governing board and checked by a sponsor, while district schools have an elected school board.
Lizette Roundtree’s son goes to Tucson High School, a traditional public school. But her two daughters transferred to Compass High School, one of 35 charter high schools in Pima County.
“This school has been a blessing,” Roundtree said of Compass. “Charter, for me, if I could do it all over again, all my kids would start off here right out of eighth grade.
“Everything traditional that you have in traditional schools on a smaller scale, a safer scale, to me.”
Roundtree says her oldest daughter, who is high-functioning autistic, was feeling lost at Tucson High’s large campus, but more direct attention at Compass helped her thrive and find a mentor in the school’s culinary program.
Roundtree describes the Compass’s curriculum and programs as “self-paced.”
“All our kids are different,” she said. “They all learn different. And this was the best place for them… In traditional [schools], they can’t embrace ‘em all. In charters, they have a little bit more leeway to embrace their kids and really guide them.”
Charters are exempt from some traditional school regulations. For example, traditional schools must hire certified teachers, while charters don’t need to do so.
Roundtree says that hasn’t been a problem for her.
“If I didn’t feel my daughters were getting a quality education, I’d yank 'em out in a minute,” she said. “But I have been in classrooms, I have spoken with teachers, I know about their backgrounds. They’re all open books. They tell you what they study, where they study. They’re qualified.”
But other parents say that being a certified teacher—one with an education degree—is crucial.
Britte Stumm was a full-time teacher in the Marana Unified School District. Now she is a parent and substitute teacher there.
“Knowing how to deal with a group of 25 kids, that’s not something that anybody can just walk in and do,” she said. “And so I think having an education degree is a huge deal and having that experience, it can make or break a school.”
Roundtree found in her experience as a Tucson High parent, teachers seemed “overworked and underpaid” and that larger schools can end up having no choice but to treat students as a “number” or “statistic.”
But Stumm says in her experience, the Marana Unified School District has been able to address students’ unique challenges.
“We serve all kids,” Stumm said. “We educate everybody in our community. We know that education is not a one-size-fits-all scenario. We have different programs for the different types of things that kids need. And that makes everybody successful.”
Stumm says traditional schools better prepare students for the mix of people they will meet when they become adults.
“Someday my kids are gonna go out and work in the workforce,” she said. “And it’s not gonna be with a certain group of kids. It’s gonna be with the community that we live in.”
The Catalina Foothills Unified School District became a perfect home for Cessna Kleinmoedig, a parent who is now president of Canyon View Elementary School’s Family-Faculty Organization.
“When we moved here from Amsterdam, The Netherlands and we came to the school, it was a new adventure for us,” she said. “But the school was small enough that it made me feel like it was still at home in the Netherlands, where schools are smaller. But it was also big and huge of events and things going on.”
She and Stumm both say they have been amazed by how generous teachers in their districts have been volunteering time and money to improve their schools beyond what budgets have allowed.
“I see how much the faculty and staff give back,” Kleinmoedig said. “And if they’re willing to give so much back, I’m willing to give so much back, too.”
Kleinmoedig says she is talking with the school’s staff about establishing more celebrations of diversity. Those conversations led to a recognition of Black History Month earlier this year.
In assessing the overall environment at Canyon View, Kleinmoedig says “Here, I feel like we not only focus on the academics, but on the child as a whole.”
What the three parents have in common is all say they love their school choice because they get a strong feeling of community there.
“All kids aren’t gonna thrive the same in different environments,” Roundtree said. “Here? They find what fits your kids.”
“Having supportive people in your building is what you need, regardless of where the school is,” Stumm said.
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