Most local charter schools focus on a niche


Jennifer Smith Richards

The Columbus Dispatch

Sunday January 8, 2012 9:16 AM

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Tom Dodge | DISPATCH

Isabel Peffer gets help with her Samsung Galaxy Tab computer from sixth-grade health teacher Natasha Ballard at the technology-focused Academy of New Media Middle. As part of a pilot program, Samsung donated 50 tablets to the local charter school when it opened in the fall.

There are charter schools that serve immigrant students. Children with autism. Students interested in art or science or martial arts.

Although Columbus started slowly as a home to charter schools, experts say the metropolitan area now is a ‘mecca’ that hosts one of the most-diverse ranges of charters in Ohio.

Central Ohio has 81 charters. Only 21 are traditional; the rest range from schools that serve dropouts to ones that focus on using new technology.

“The composition of the charters in each city reflects what the need was when charters took off,” said Emmy Partin, director of Ohio policy and research for the Dayton-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which studies charters and also oversees some.

Some big-city districts were so academically weak that charters — which are public schools that often are privately run — opened as alternatives to them, Partin said. They still operated like traditional schools but promised to outperform their district counterparts.

“In Columbus, you needed innovative options,” she said.

Terry Ryan, Fordham’s vice president of Ohio programs and policy, said charters grew more quickly in Dayton and other Ohio cities.

“Columbus wasn’t really the ‘charter place,’??” he said. “Now, it’s the mecca.”

With 73 charters, Franklin County has more of the schools than any other Ohio county.

State records show that Columbus has 16 schools with a “dropout recovery” focus, one of Ohio’s largest cadres of charters for students at risk of never finishing high school. At least three have opened in the past couple of years.

The area has four that serve children with special needs — often those with autism or Asperger’s syndrome — according to the state.

Other types of themed schools have joined the market each year, too.

The Academy of New Media Middle, which has a technology focus, opened this school year. The principal there said having a specialty helps attract and engage students but isn’t a prerequisite to being successful.

“I don’t think we needed a niche. I think we needed to show we’re a viable option,” said New Media Principal Erik Cohen. “Just like any competitive market, what do you have that they don’t?”

About 130 students attend. Some were drawn for reasons other than the technology, Cohen said, but that focus helps keep them interested.

Some of central Ohio’s themed charters tout a more-intense learning environment than traditional programs, often because they offer longer school days and school on some weekends. KIPP Journey Academy and Columbus Collegiate Academy are among those.

But others have a more-unusual bent. For example, some schools focus on fitness, particularly martial arts.

“These fitness academies — that is an innovation that we didn’t anticipate,” Ryan said. “It’s as much a marketing thing as it is a school branding. If you’ve got an overweight kid, you like the idea of a school to focus on fitness and health. It’s pretty clever.”

Bill Sims, president and CEO of the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools, which advocates for charters, said more variety is good for parents and students.

He and Ryan said they hope charter schools will be permitted to open in new areas. State law restricts privately run charters to locating within the eight large, urban districts or ones that are academically distressed.

“I do think as the charter-school community has grown to more than 350 schools now, we see emergent more kinds of choice than just ‘How do we help those kids who have been failed in the district schools?’??” Sims said.

“It’s my hope that as the charter-school community grows in the state, that we see more of these niche-type options,” Sims said.

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