Innovations in Education: Successful Charter Schools
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Oglethorpe Charter School

Location Savannah, Ga.
Year First Chartered and Authorizer 1998
Local district
Grades 6-8
Enrollment 319
English Learners 0%
Subsidized Meals 20%
Special Needs 5%
Per Pupil Spending $6,000

In 1997, when Savannah parent Martha Nesbit first pictured an alternative to the public middle schools available to her children, it was as a member of the district task force charged with researching ways to improve the district's lagging middle schools. But when the district accepted almost none of the task force recommendations, Nesbit approached a group of five friends in her church and asked, "If I think about starting a school, would you be on board with that?"

From the beginning, the parents' vision was for a school that would provide character education as well as challenging academics. They wanted a school that had an active role for parents, and they wanted student diversity. Yet the five friends were all white. To ensure that the school's student population would be representative of the district, where 57 percent of the students are African American, they purposefully invited African American parents to join them in shaping the school.

Because Georgia had no legislation allowing for a charter school that was a start-up (rather than a district conversion of an existing school), parents faced an unusual first step in securing their charter. They became lobbyists, persuading state legislators to pass the needed legislation. In addition to their trips to the capital, "We did a letter writing campaign and we did telephone calls. We probably made hundreds of calls," one parent estimates. The next step, securing the charter, was its own challenge. Knowing that they would be encountering a skeptical district board, parents prepared carefully. The charter was narrowly approved, five to four. Parents began preparations to open the school eight months later.

"We had nothing," one parent explains. "Somebody let us use a back office room in their insurance business where we set up our fax machine and a phone. We advertised for teachers in the newspaper and interviewed them in that office. They had no school to look at, no equipment, facilities, nothing. We still had to hire our principal and we had to have students." The district came up with an abandoned school that was both smaller than parents had planned for and in terrible disrepair. They took it. They found a principal that March, someone who would commute from her home in South Carolina. And the same month, at the district's showcase of all its magnet programs, according to parents there was "a line out the door for people to apply to come to our school."

The building capacity allows Oglethorpe to enroll 330 students, and there is a waiting list for each grade. Next year's sixth-grade class has almost twice as many applicants as can be accommodated. Students are chosen by lottery, and the efforts of the school's founding parents to reflect the diversity of the community in the school population have been effective. About 38 percent of Oglethorpe students are African American, 51 percent are white, 4 percent are Asian American, 3 percent are Hispanic, and 4 percent are multiracial. About 20 percent of students qualify for subsidized meals. Five percent are designated special education and participate in the school's inclusion program.

Program and Operations

Oglethorpe Charter School is an official Core Knowledge school, which means that at least 80 percent of the Core Knowledge curriculum is taught annually. The Core Knowledge curriculum, developed by scholar E.D. Hirsch, is designed to begin in the first grade, so Oglethorpe teachers frequently have to scramble to fill in their middle school students' missing Core Knowledge background. Nonetheless, teachers and parents like the sense that students are learning what it takes to be "a really educated person." As one parent puts it, "They are teaching things that everybody should know in life, to be a participating member of society." And even though Oglethorpe does not focus on test preparation, an eighth-grade student reports, "We have been hearing from students who have graduated that they seem to be a lot more prepared for high school than their friends who came from regular schools. Our school is a lot more challenging, and so by the time test time comes, we are very prepared and ready to take the test. We always do well."

From the beginning, parents' vision was for a school that would provide character education as well as challenging academics. They wanted a school that had an active role for parents, and they wanted student diversity.

All students at Oglethorpe are held to high academic standards, and participation in sports and special interest clubs, instead of attendance in study halls, depends on satisfactory grades. A Personal Education Plan (PEP) is created for each student, with clear learning goals related to a student's progress meeting subject area objectives. The PEP also includes standardized test data, results of a multiple intelligences survey, study skills monitoring, student reflections and self-evaluations, teacher comments, and portfolio work samples from each year.

Teachers at Oglethorpe work hard to meet students' individual needs and all provide regular tutorials for students during lunch and after school. Students who need help get it. One student explains what feels different about Oglethorpe: "I've been in schools where they help you with some things, but teachers here stay after school and stay over their work time to help you. It is really small here, so all the teachers know all the kids. And you feel a lot more, I guess, comfortable with your teachers."

Students entering the sixth grade can test into the Advanced Instruction with Motivation (AIM) class. Students in the AIM class can earn five Carnegie units for high school credit by passing a test at the end of the course. The AIM class is self-contained and student diversity in the class is controlled to be proportional to that in the school. Oglethorpe also has a teacher who works with students identified for academic intervention in a special reading program and after school two or three days a week between 2:30 and 5:30. Every effort is made to help students succeed. Last year, for example, a small group of students who failed their grade-six standards were placed in an accelerated program and given support until December to catch up. Three of the five students were able to move into the seventh grade, while two continued in sixth grade.

The school operates on a block schedule with 90-minute classes and a special schedule on Fridays. Students say they like the block schedule. They note, "You get more done in class," and "Because it doesn't meet each day, you have more time to get your homework done, so it doesn't feel overwhelming." Classes average 22 students. The school day begins at 7:30 and ends at 2:30, with tutorials from 2:30 to 3:20. On Fridays, classes are shortened to allow for a one-hour block that rotates among assemblies, clubs, and TLC (Titans Love Character) advisory group.

TLC is the most explicit aspect of Oglethorpe's focus on character development and is organized into cross-grade groups of about 12 students each. Every month a different "virtue"-such as integrity or service-is emphasized and students discuss what it means to them. The school also has a tightly monitored dress code and forbids students to bring personal electronics such as music players or video games to school. Rap music is excluded from the annual talent show. "It's strict here," students agree. Yet the results are positive. Last year only 44 detentions were given out for the entire year. When students are off campus, "People can tell who the Oglethorpe students are," one teacher says, "because of their good behavior."

Continuous Learning

Oglethorpe is accredited through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, and in 2001 as part of the SAC accreditation, the school conducted a self-study focusing on student improvement. The study revealed that teachers needed more training in the Core Knowledge curriculum, which they now get. It also led the school to set goals for improving student learning outcomes. In 2002, Oglethorpe implemented SRA's Direct Instruction Corrective Reading program for their students who were reading below grade level-one- third of the student body. As part of this initiative, some students' parents agreed to become involved in the parent reading partners program, reading stories and completing vocabulary-building exercises together with their children at home.

As a Georgia charter school, Oglethorpe Charter School does not require teachers to be certified, but they must demonstrate competence in their subject areas. One teacher has a doctorate and one teacher came from university teaching. Most have many years of teaching experience. As a faculty they share common practices and have formed teacher research study groups for ongoing professional development. In addition to participating in weekly department meetings and monthly professional development sessions, each teacher compiles a professional portfolio. Self-reflection is part of teachers' annual evaluation process. Teachers describe feeling "respected as educators" and note that communication is very open at the school. Two teachers represent the faculty on the school's board of directors.

Parents and Partners

As stipulated by Georgia charter law, a parent-majority board governs Oglethorpe Charter School and monitors its operations. Parents have the ultimate decision-making responsibility for the school.

While membership on the board rotates and only a few parents serve at a time, all parents sign a contract to provide service to the school. Parents are obligated for 20 hours a year (or 10 hours if a single parent). The weekly school newsletter contains suggestions for ways that parents can earn their service hours and reminds them to do their part. For example, parents can chaperone field trips, prepare food for events, lead clubs, help in the office, and serve on committees. They can do weekend maintenance chores at the school, and they can receive credit for attending school programs such as the Math/Science Night and sporting events. If parents do not fulfill the family contract (or request a hardship exemption), their students are not allowed to re-enroll the following year.

A Personal Education Plan (PEP) is created for each student, with clear learning goals related to a student's progress meeting subject area objectives.

Communication with parents is frequent. Homework assignments are posted on the school Web site. Every Wednesday, folders are sent home with the school newsletter and classroom updates. Every quarter parents receive a mid-quarter report and a quarter-end report card for their children. "The school tends to attract families who want to be involved in their kids' education," one parent observes.

Beyond its relationship with parents, Oglethorpe has developed partnerships within the community. The school uses a local church facility for assemblies, special events, and gym classes; and the music program is operated in conjunction with a local university. The after-school program is in partnership with a nearby YMCA. In addition, Oglethorpe students participate in community outreach, such as an annual beach cleanup, diabetes walk, or food drive for homeless shelters. In March, the whole school became reading partners for students at a local elementary school.

The weekly school newsletter contains suggestions for ways that parents can earn their service hours and reminds them to do their part.

Accountability and Governance

The 11-person board of directors includes a parent majority, community members, two teacher representatives, and, in a non-voting capacity, the school administrators. Board members serve one- or two-year terms. Facility needs are a constant headache. In addition to contending with the building's generally poor condition, the board has needed to add restrooms and a new drainage system. The roof must be replaced. And to accommodate an additional class at each grade, portable classrooms are the only possible solution. One has already been added and another has been ordered.

Resources are tight. The Savannah-Chatham County Public Schools provides the school facility and student transportation. Per pupil funding averages about $6,000. Last year expenses were $2,112,000, which included $80,000 raised through grants to cover the costs of developing the reading program, paying a technology teacher, and buying laptops for the computer lab.

In June 2003, the school charter came up for renewal by the Savannah school board. This time, in contrast to the narrow vote in favor of the school's initial charter, the renewal passed unanimously. To even its toughest audience, Oglethorpe Charter School had proved its mettle.

Parents and the board are proud to have created a school that reflects the diversity of the Savannah community and that addresses student learning needs ranging from special education to advanced academics. For the 94 students reading below grade level, enrollment in the school's Corrective Reading program is beginning to make a difference. Sixty-nine percent of sixth-graders read at grade level; at seventh and eighth grades, this rises to 78 and 79 percent. In writing, 98 percent of students met or exceeded the state standards. Parent involvement, including the 44-hour average that families contribute each year, sets a model for the kind of character development that parents and faculty agree is woven throughout everything that happens at the school.

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Last Modified: 06/23/2009