By Dr. Holly Robinson and Eric Wearne
Fulton Science Academy, a 3-year-old charter school in Alpharetta, is one of the many charter schools in America participating in a well-deserved celebration of National Charter School Week, May 1-7.
The school focuses its curriculum on math and science instruction, which its mission statement describes as “the key to future success.” The results are reflected in the improvement in achievement and overall educational experiences of the school’s 320 students.
On the 2004 CRCT, 100 percent of the school’s eighth-graders met or exceeded expectations in Reading, and 95 percent did so in English, Math, Social Studies and Science. The school also made “Adequate Yearly Progress” last year under No Child Left Behind. This is a good public school, a good charter school.
Charter schools are public schools that challenge the traditional governance structure of public education. These schools may not charge tuition, must attract students to their programs and must justify renewals of their charters by showing improved academic achievement. In exchange for this stricter accountability, charter schools are freed from many bureaucratic and union regulations that hinder achievement in so many other public schools.
Every public school in Georgia, and that includes every charter school, must make sure its curriculum addresses the state curriculum – the Georgia Performance Standards. This is good. The problem is that we expect all traditional public schools to do this in basically the same way. Despite the reality that schools house many different students with many different interests and learning styles, the organization and instructional styles of schools across the state are strikingly similar.
Charter schools are uniquely able to tailor their programs to their students, and to be held accountable for their results. This is the way to expand educational opportunities and to reach educational excellence – by freeing schools to specialize and excel while still addressing the Georgia Performance Standards, and by inviting students from widespread areas to attend.
Fulton Science Academy’s Science Olympiad Team won first place among 20 teams at the regional Science Olympiad tournament in February. This is not the first win for the academy. The school also won last year’s competition. And this year, a seventh-grader from the school won first place in Physics in the Junior Division at the Georgia Science and Engineering Fair.
Of course, it would not be impossible for a traditional public middle school to compile such a good record in such a short period of time. But it would be much harder for a regular public school to tailor its curriculum to the interests of all of its students.
To that end, Fulton Science Academy uses two specialized, innovative curricular programs: the Connected Mathematics Project (CMP) and the Foundational Approaches in Science Teaching (FAST).
Traditional public schools may commit to innovative programs, but often, school-wide reforms end up as short-lived experiments. Accountability expectations require that charter school organizers, including the academy, research their programs and think long and hard about the direction they want their school to go before they ever open their doors.
Prior to opening, organizers of Fulton Science Academy sought support and advice from the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, which has been a leader in the state’s charter school movement. With their mission and programs written into their charter – essentially a contract – and because their success in fulfilling the terms of their charter determines whether the school can continue to exist or not, charters are able to specialize their programs and have a real commitment to and active role in student success.
“To ensure that all our children receive the education they need to succeed, schools must be innovative, accountable, and committed to student achievement,” President Bush declared in a proclamation marking National Charter Schools Week.
“The charter school movement was founded on these principles and has played an important role in expanding educational choices in America.”
By those standards, the Fulton Science Academy has risen to and met the challenge.
Dr. Holly Robinson is senior vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. Eric Wearne, a research assistant at the Foundation, is a Ph.D. student in Educational Studies at Emory University and a former high school teacher of English and Debate. The Foundation is an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.
© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (May 6, 2005). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the authors and their affiliations are cited.