January 2011 Newsletter: Military Installations Present Charter School Development Opportunity

31 Jan, 2011

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Military Installations Present Charter School Development Opportunity

U.S. military personnel struggle to mesh highly mobile careers with finding and providing excellence and continuity in the education of their children. The struggle is intensified by base realignments and closures and extensive mobilizations for combat. At the same time, local public schools that educate many military children are undergoing restructuring to address changes in funding and demand. Of the nation's 1.2 million school-age children of military personnel, only about 8 percent attend Department of Defense schools. The rest attend traditional public schools, as well as private, independent, parochial, or charter schools across the nation, or they are home-schooled. In surveys of military families, one of the most widespread complaints about life in the armed forces involves elementary and secondary education. With hopes of increasing and improving educational options, charter schools have started operating or will soon start operating on a limited number of military bases. This month's feature article overviews some of the key issues facing charter schools on military bases, highlights important developments across the country, and provides resources and links that offer helpful information, including examples of charters for military base schools and other documents.

The development of charter schools on military bases appears to be increasing. An informal review by the National Charter School Resource Center shows there are at least six charter schools that either already exist on military bases or have been approved to open on military bases. The first charter school on a military base opened in 2002, when the organizers of Belle Chasse Academy started a K-8 school from scratch on Naval Air Station/Joint Reserve Base New Orleans, Louisiana, noting its mission to "educate our military-dependent children."

Theresa E. Rudacille, a U.S. Military Academy at West Point graduate who served six years as a nuclear missile officer and is the mother of three children, has been an advocate for charter schools for military families since 2004. The Military Charter School Pilot Project is a report Rudacille prepared for the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. Covering work by the institute from 2004 to 2006, it focused on education improvement and a proposal for a school that could serve as a model for a national network of charter schools serving the military. "It was curriculum continuity that was the driving force behind the military using a charter concept," she said in an interview with the Resource Center. "We were seeking governance so we could drive curriculum."

Frequent moves (her husband is an Army Colonel) have challenged the continuity of her own work to support charters. "It takes time to develop the local network for support," she said. "Each time I pick up and move to another duty station, we have to start over."

The 2008 Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation (Volume II: Deferred and Noncash Compensation) (QRMC) from the U.S. Department of Defense, an assessment of the competitiveness of benefits, notes in a section on education for dependents that parents should be allowed to start charter schools at military installations and initiate them in the "same way that civilians can under state law." "Offering a charter school option in areas with less desirable local schools would give parents stationed in those locations another choice in addition to the private school or home schooling options," the report states.

Recently, new charter schools have opened on military bases, applications have been approved for schools set to open soon, and plans are being developed for others.

  • In 2009, Daisy Education Corporation opened Sonoran Science Academy at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona, serving Grades 6-8.
  • In 2010, Sigsbee Charter School opened at Naval Air Station Key West, starting as a K-5 school. When fully developed, it is expected to go through Grade 8.
  • In 2010, the Board of Education of Prince Georges County, Maryland, approved an Imagine Schools application to open Imagine Andrews Public Charter School, which is anticipated to be a K-8 school when fully developed, on Joint Base Andrews, near Washington, D.C. The school is expected to open in 2011.
  • A¬†charter for the New Orleans Military/Maritime Academy, a high school, was approved by the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education for the Federal City military complex in New Orleans, with the school expected to open in 2011.
  • In January 2011, Lighthouse Academies, Inc., was approved by the Arkansas State Board of Education to expand its Jacksonville, Arkansas, charter school to a site on nearby Little Rock Air Force Base, with the plan to serve middle school grades.

Starting a Charter School on a Military Base Poses Complex Challenges

The process of developing a charter school on a military base is much like the process elsewhere. But special challenges exist, and the extent to which these schools serve the dependents of military personnel varies. Take enrollment, for example. The QRMC notes how the focus of a military charter school might be altered by open enrollment requirements, admission lotteries for oversubscribed schools, and outreach to all segments of the population in the area of the school.

The QRMC states that high turnover can be expected at a charter school serving military families. "If civilian children have put their names on a military school's waiting list, they will receive newly open slots before the children of service members who subsequently transfer into the installation," the report states. Over time, a school started for military families could become one primarily serving civilians. "To avoid such an outcome, rules governing the waiting lists at military charter schools should give the highest priority to the children of military personnel."

Belle Chasse Academy Principal Jane Dye, a U.S. Marine Corps Colonel who played a key role in starting the school, said in an interview with the Resource Center that state laws vary around the country and may need to be altered to accommodate a charter school that primarily serves the children of military personnel. "You have to structure your policy so that it complies with the law," Dye said.

At the outset, Belle Chasse Academy established a hierarchy of preferences for admission, starting with dependents of active duty military personnel on the base. Dye said the preference was allowed as an admission standard under an interpretation of the law by the state Attorney General's office. It was determined to be acceptable as long as the mission, academics, and programs of the school were targeted for that group, "just like if we'd decided to be a school for ballet," Dye said.

But a seat is not guaranteed for students connected to the military. For military personnel heading to the area, the Belle Chasse Academy website urges them to register their children as soon as they receive their orders. "We are an open-enrollment school, so unless we have reserved a spot for your student, we must admit students who apply if there is a vacancy," the website notes. Dye said about 5 percent of the school's students are from civilian families with no military connection.

At Sigsbee Charter School, Principal Eli Jannes said in an interview with the Resource Center that the elementary school that the charter school replaced had a military enrollment of about 80 percent, which is about 5 percent higher than the charter school now. The rest of the students are from the community and are not connected to the military.

"We're becoming an attractive option for the community," Jannes said. "Our waiting list is starting to become heavily community kids." She said the school has been working on how to preserve the military percentage, but it has been difficult to determine how a preferential system might be arranged.

In 2010, Maryland passed a law allowing the State Department of Education to waive open-enrollment requirements for a charter school on a federal military base. But students with parents who are not assigned to the base must make up at least 35 percent of the enrollment, and the school must admit all students on a lottery basis, according to a Maryland Department of Legislative Services analysis of the bill and its impact. The change became effective in July 2010, and the Maryland State Board of Education granted a waiver for Imagine Andrews in August 2010.

The meaning of open enrollment has an added complication on a military base, with access being more tightly controlled than a school on a public street.

The issue is addressed in the Imagine Andrews waiver opinion from the Maryland State Department of Education, which specifically notes the base's policy of "mandatory criminal background checks and badging for all non-official visitors." The waiver opinion states that the school believes that the 35 percent off-base enrollment ratio "will allow the school to serve the community without overtaxing the base's security forces or compromising base security."

At Sigsbee Charter School, Jannes said the school developed a memorandum of understanding with base officials for security procedures. "With every policy there are always issues," she said, noting, for example, that access for civilian students does not come with escort privileges. "If you have your grandma in the car, technically, you're not supposed to bring her to the school, which creates an inconvenience."

In some areas, charter schools must accommodate historic desegregation orders that impose certain requirements for racial diversity in enrollment. The military community has a built-in advantage over certain civilian areas because of its role as a front-runner on integration. But enrollment challenges involve other issues as well. For example, when Belle Chasse Academy was pursuing its charter, Louisiana law required that the percentage of the school's students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch match the percentage of the general school population in the parish, or county. The percentage for the parish was far higher than the percentage for the school, Dye said, adding, "We obviously had to get the law changed." State lawmakers were convinced to provide an exemption for schools focused on military dependents.

Maintaining the continuity of curriculum and school culture also poses a challenge.

  • At Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, the Tucson Unified School District operates Borman Elementary School on the base, a school rated as high performing that sends students to the Sonoran Science Academy at Davis-Monthan.
  • A similar circumstance exists at Little Rock Air Force Base, where the Pulaski County Special School District operates Arnold Elementary School, a 2010 National Blue Ribbon winner, and where Lighthouse Academies is planning middle school grades.
  • Belle Chasse Academy's initial plan noted that students would attend Belle Chasse High School, a district school. But the New Orleans Military/Maritime Academy, where participation in Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps is required, offers a new option. Belle Chasse Academy is expected to be a feeder.
  • At Sigsbee Charter School, the curriculum is based on national "common core" standards, with the goal of providing a "more coherent and consistent" education for students from transient military families, according to the school's contract. But the school still must meet certain standardized testing requirements set by the local school district with which it has its contract.

Just as with charter schools focused on civilian populations, developing charter school facilities on military bases can be a nettlesome process.

  • Belle Chasse Academy, with the help of a U.S. Department of Agriculture loan guarantee, built its own 92,000-square-foot facility, at a price tag of $13 million, that now serves about 900 students. A $5 million expansion is being planned.
  • At Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, the Sonoran Science Academy is leasing a former school building.
  • Sigsbee Charter School is housed in a former Monroe County School District, SeaBee-built elementary school building on the Florida base, a facility the school acquired for $10. The school is responsible¬†for renovations and upkeep.
  • The New Orleans Military/Maritime Academy is expected to open in temporary facilities off the base, with plans to renovate Navy buildings at the Federal City military site as a permanent home, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
  • Lighthouse has been offered a building at Little Rock Air Force Base, but the facility requires renovation.
  • At Imagine Andrews, the plan calls for initially housing the school in modules on base and then building a separate facility.

Despite the challenges of starting a charter school, there are successes. Belle Chasse Academy has been operating for nine years. The Sonoran Science Academy at Davis-Monthan was named the Arizona Charter School of the Year after its first year, and the school has gained approval to add ninth grade and serve Grades 6-9.



Upcoming Event

June 20-23, 2011: The National Charter School Conference 2011, themed "Because Every Child Can Succeed," will be held at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, Georgia. Registration is open, and information about the program, accommodations, and discounts is available.

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Key developments impacting charter schools