National News
November 22, 2012

Different schools of thought: Charter school enrollment rising in region

by Lindsey Anderson

LAS CRUCES — Enrollment in charter schools is rising across the nation, and educators say southern New Mexico is no exception as parents seek options and smaller class sizes.

An additional 200,000 students nationwide enrolled in charter schools for the 2011-12 school year, pushing the total number of charter students to 2 million, according to a Nov. 14 report by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

"I think that there will always be some demand for parents to have education options for their students," said Bruce Hegwer, executive director of the Albuquerque-based New Mexico Coalition for Charter Schools. "And I think charter schools are definitely a viable option."

Charter schools are publicly funded, tuition-free schools authorized by local school districts or the state.

State-chartered institutions, for example, apply for and receive five-year, renewable charters from the Public Education Commission. The school then has significant freedom to organize its curriculum, control its budget and run its operations.

Though the majority of New Mexico charter schools are concentrated up north — Albuquerque alone has more than 50 — 11 charter schools are located in the southern half of the state, from Silver City to Deming to Carlsbad.

In fall 2011, about 1,500 students were enrolled in the schools, or about 1.5 percent of K-12 students in the region, according to Public Education Department data.

Those numbers are up from about 1,300 students in the 2010-11 school year.

Much of the increase comes from J. Paul Taylor Academy opening with 157 students in Las Cruces in fall 2011.

In the southeast, where most of the southern charter schools are concentrated, the percentage of students choosing such schools is higher — 2.4 percent.

Though this year's charter school enrollment numbers are lower than last year's, at 1,477 as of Sept. 13, they don't include students enrolled in the newly opened New America School-Las Cruces.

"Unique clientele'

Many charter schools serve "unique clientele," Hegwer said, like recent immigrants or students interested in the arts.

"Most of the charter schools have populations that aren't being served at traditional schools," said Irene Oliver-Lewis, founder of Alma d'arte Charter School in Las Cruces.

The art-focused school began with 124 freshmen and sophomores in 2004 and has grown to 190 students spanning all four grades.

Other charter schools focus on English language learners or bilingual education, like La Academia Dolores Huerta and the New America School.

Those emphases and specific missions are a key draw for families, parents say.

Kathleen Albers' daughter graduated from Alma d'arte in 2008, but her son attended Las Cruces High School.

Her daughter enjoyed Alma d'arte's small size and emphasis on the arts, while her son flourished at LCHS, joining the choir and the tennis team.

"Both of them really thrived in totally different environments," Albers said. "I'm just glad that the charter school was an option at the time for my daughter."

Janet Gilchrist chose Aldo Leopold Charter School in Silver City for her two sons because of the school's focus on experiential learning and critical thinking.

"It was a clear choice for my idea of a great education for my kids," she said.

Big fish, small pond

Parents often turn to charter schools for their small classroom environments and more individualized attention, said Eric Ahner, director of Aldo Leopold.

Garland Courts said he appreciated that his daughter was a "big fish in a small pond" as a 2010 Alma d'arte graduate.

"It's nice to have that alternative — small school, smaller student body," he said.

All three parents said they appreciated having another option for their families.

"It's expanding school choice for families, and, in my mind, that's the greatest thing charter schools offer families," Ahner said.

Public schools respond

There is a public perception that traditional public schools don't meet the individual needs of all students, and charter schools like Alma d'arte or the New America School serve those individuals, said LCPS Superintendent Stan Rounds.

"The land of education in all of the United States and especially in southern New Mexico has changed," he said. "There is open competition for students."

That competition doesn't worry him, he said, because the district has seen charter school students return to traditional LCPS schools as it adds additional educational options, like alternative high school San Andres and the new Arrowhead Park Early College High School.

And the charter school La Academia Dolores Huerta often serves as a "transition point," Rounds said, helping students master English before returning to traditional schools for high school, often at San Andres.

Funding controversy

The rise of charter schools in controversial, however. The schools receive public funds and are sometimes seen as taking money away from traditional schools.

Charter schools often receive more funding per student than traditional public schools, Rounds said.

"A disproportionate share of money per student is going to charter schools, and, as the state economy struggles, there's a lot of attention being paid to that," he said.

Charter schools can institute a student cap that is the most profitable for the school, ensuring they get the maximum amount of public funding per student because funding is partially adjusted for school size, he said.

But traditional public schools can't place such caps and must accept all students, regardless of what their funding ratio would be.

"It's a business decision (to institute a cap), not an education decision," he said.

To Oliver-Lewis, whether charter schools take money from traditional schools is irrelevant.

"People have to stop thinking that charter schools are different," she said. "Charter schools are still a public school. You wouldn't ask that question to Centennial High, that they're taking money away from Oñate, because they're all public schools."

Charter schools are simply a alternative, she said.

"If there wasn't a need," she said, "we wouldn't be seeing these increases of enrollment."

Lindsey Anderson can be reached at  575-541-5462. Follow her on Twitter @l_m_anderson.

Anthony: Anthony Charter School, grades 7-12, 85 students
Carlsbad: Jefferson Montessori Academy, grades K-12, 164 students
Deming: Deming Cesar Chavez Charter High, grades 9-12, 138 students

Las Cruces:
• Alma d'Arte Charter High, grades 9-12, 172 students
• J. Paul Taylor Academy, grades K-7, 157 students
• La Academia Dolores Huerta, grades 6-8, 120 students
• Las Montañas Charter School, grades 9-12, 296 students
• New America School-Las Cruces, grades 9-12, no enrollment data available

Roswell: Sidney Gutierrez Middle School, grades 6-8, 66 students

Silver City: Aldo Leopold Charter School, grades 9-12, 109 students

Socorro: Cottonwood Valley Charter School, grades K-8, 170 students

Enrollment data from Sept. 13 from the Public Education Department

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