Janet Nace, principal of Pikes Peak Prep in Colorado Springs, starts her day at 6:30 a.m. But she isn’t just rolling out of bed at that time — the school is already bustling with students.
At PPP, a K-12 public charter school with 319 students enrolled for the 2016-17 school year, students play educational games, work on homework and eat breakfast in the early morning hours before starting their school day in a two-atrium schoolhouse and several modulars that house their high school students.
Efficiency, longer class days and school years, and a focus on maximizing student learning resources are part of the environment teachers tailor to meet their students’ needs.
“One of our cornerstones is individualized learning,” Nace says. “We focus on teaching the whole child in a holistic way.”
Alternative, innovative learning and teaching methods are a common theme of charters, which are public schools that don’t have to meet all the same standards as traditional schools. That’s because 17 states — including Colorado — grant waivers for charters. For example, Colorado charters aren’t required to hire licensed teachers.
Charters are either licensed through school districts or through the state-run Charter School Institute. According to the Colorado Department of Education, there are 114,694 students attending charter schools in Colorado. Those licensed by Colorado school districts teach more than 98,000 students. Charter School Institute-licensed charters teach nearly 16,500 students, according to the CDE’s 2016-17 Pupil Membership spreadsheet.
Since 2012, enrollment has grown at an annual pace of 6,243 students per year, says Stacy Rader, director of communications for the Colorado League of Charter Schools (CLCS).
Although Colorado is already a state in which parents have the option to enroll their children in public schools outside of their neighborhood, charters add an additional, attractive option for parents. Less regulation allows for innovation, although some say it can also lead to abuses.
Public charter schools are funded by state taxpayer money through per-pupil operating revenue, but they don’t typically receive the same level of local tax funding that traditional schools do, and thus are funded with a mix of government and private funds. (Walmart’s Walton Family Foundation, for instance, is a large funder of charters.) Charters may also be operated by a management company or be part of a group of charters. PPP, for instance, is operated by the GEO Foundation.
The outside influence leads critics to accuse some charters of having religious or political agendas. Others say that charters are drawing money away from the already-tight budgets of traditional public schools, in an effort to privatize the education system. And indeed, many of charter schools’ most ardent supporters are also fans of vouchers, in which families are given tax funds to pay for private schools.
Still Rader, says, “Parents are now demanding the ability to be able to choose the public school (including public charter schools) that they feel is the best fit for their child and family versus being assigned to a school based on their ZIP code.”
But in Colorado Springs School District 11, the cost of chartering a new charter school might sometimes outweigh the benefits for the students involved, D-11 Chief Financial Officer Glenn Gustafson says.
“The playing field is never level on either side; we can get bonds for new schools, but charters have to pay rent,” says Gustafson. “It’s an issue of resources. What is most important to benefit all students?”
Charter applications at D11 may be denied if the school seems too similar to an existing charter, though budgetary concerns are the main reason for a denial. Gustafson calls D-11 “charter-friendly,” noting that the district is home to 16 charters.
There are a total of 238 charter schools statewide, according to the CLCS. Some schools implement longer school days and develop curriculum for low-income, at-risk students, like Pikes Peak Prep, which caters to low-income students and families. According to Nace, 80 percent of students, who come mostly from the Hillside neighborhood, receive free or reduced-price lunch at PPP.
In Colorado Springs, there are 31 public charter schools. During the 2015-16 school year, more than 10,000 students attended charter schools in Districts 2, 3, 11, 12, 20 and 38.
According to its mission statement, PPP seeks to “provide comprehensive educational experience to students in Colorado Springs, utilizing innovative methods of instruction to produce excellence in educational achievement.” Nace says 13 students are set to graduate this spring.
She says that kids who attend PPP are taught to think about their post-secondary education as soon as they reach ninth grade: “Everyone’s road is going to lead to college.”
However, CDE records show PPP’s graduation rate is just 61.1 percent, according to a 2015-16 cohort report. This is below the state average graduation rate, which is 78.9 percent. It is, however, higher than the graduation rate for all Charter School Institute schools, which stands at just 49.8 percent.
Those who do graduate from PPP, are given an opportunity to concurrently earn an associate degree, Nace says, which comes with better job prospects.
The Classical Academy, an Academy District 20 charter with a total of 3,800 students across three campuses, takes a similar approach, says Tisha Harris, director of communications.
TCA’s mission is to give students the ability to think analytically and love learning beyond their schooling years. TCA faculty do this through Socratic-style, roundtable discussions instead of lectures and by encouraging extracurricular activities.
While TCA prides itself on encouraging a student’s love for education, the school has faced criticism by those who say it teaches Christian principles. TCA, which is also known for strong academics, has denied that claim.
TCA’s retention rate is high — 65 percent of this year’s seniors have been there since kindergarten, and last year’s graduating class held 148 students.
Harris says she hopes the school leaves a lasting impression on its graduates, “instill[ing] a lifelong passion for learning.”