A Small Presence: Charter Schools in Iowa

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By Chris Earl

MAYNARD, Iowa - The halls of West Central Community High School gleam with tradition.

The building itself is about 90 years old and the composite pictures of West Central classes from decades past hang over the lockers of today's students.

This is a very small school district, with fewer than 300 students from kindergarten through high school.

Yet, in 2005, this district, hemmed in by larger surrounding districts, reached out and obtained charter status.

"It's been very good for the students of West Central," said Steve Milder, school counselor and longtime football coach. Milder has been with the district since 1978.

Milder was also part of the push, in 2005, for West Central to develop a charter program that operates within the school. The Northeast Iowa Charter High School includes West Central students in grades 11 and 12.

"We have 52 (students) and 51 kids are taking college classes right now," said Milder. "This is one of the side effects is a spike in our ACT. Our ACT (scores) are higher than our neighbors, our average is 24 with 70% of our seniors taking it."

Milder also said the school's 11th graders are at 100% of proficiency in math and science.

For the 2012-2013 school year, the Department of Education reports only these school districts are authorized as charter schools:

- Maynard: Northeast Iowa Charter High School (Grades 11-12)

- Dubuque: Prescott Elementary School (Grades K-5)

- Des Moines: DM Charter School (Grades 7-8)

- Storm Lake: Iowa Central/Buena Vista Early College Charter High School (Grades 9-12)

Milder said there are some logistical challenges the students do have to face, especially with travel. Some math courses may be held in Oelwein, eight miles away, with other college-level courses at Northeast Iowa Community College in Calmar, 33 miles from Maynard.

"You have to get yourself motivated to get your graduate credits done because, if you're in auto tech (class) all morning long, you have to get back here," said Milder.

Another small district in Eastern Iowa, Sigourney, did offer a charter school, eSeal (eSigourney Entrepreneurial Academy for Leadership) through the spring of 2012 when the district chose not to extend the charter school with the state.

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Yet can the charter school experience translate into a larger school district?

Sara Kepros is with a group of parents pushing for a charter school within Cedar Rapids. Kepros is advocating a building downtown, (www.thedowntownschool.org), that would be part of the Cedar Rapids Community School District, as mandated by state law, but would offer a different learning opportunity.

"We know our districts have good schools but with the constraints of federal funding, there is a 'one size fits all' and we are looking for something that is research-based," said Kepros.

Kepros sites larger metro areas, such as Chicago, Minneapolis and St. Louis, as having "multiple charter schools" with the believe that it could enhance Cedar Rapids learning options.

Charter school supporters made a vocal pitch to school leaders two years ago but Kepros said the board was not interested.

In the spring of 2012, the Cedar Rapids Community School District closed two elementary schools because of enrollment shifts and population trends.

Superintendent Dave Benson said any paperwork charter advocates would have to file for 2013-2014 was not on deadline. Benson said the charter group's timing may not have been ideal as the district was in the process of its enrollment study.

"It's incumbent upon (a group) to make the application," said Benson. "If a group gets organized and will present it to us, we'll give it full consideration."

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