Richmond's First Charter School Opens
Virginia's fourth charter school, and Richmond's first, the Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts opened last week.
After three years of preparation, the Patrick Henry Charter School welcomed its first students last Wednesday. At an alternate location, the school's board of directors began looking for available classrooms space earlier this year when it became apparent that the Patrick Henry facillity would not be up to code in time for the school year. Woodland Heights Baptist Church has agreed to rent the school space for the first year while renovations are completed on the 85-year-old building, which include ADA compliance additions, as well as fire alarms and sprinklers. Kristen Larson is the school's spokesperson and parent of a kindergarten student at Patrick Henry.
Larson: Hopefully we can begin construction in late September. The plan we have right now is a three-phased approach. Overall construction costs are about a million. We can get about a quarter of that back using historic tax credits and we have probably received close to 150,000 in donations so far; and we have pre-approval for a loan for 200,000 for the first phase.
While free for any student within its district to enroll, charter schools differ from public schools in that they are not bound by the standard regulations of a local school board, but by their state-approved charter. Patrick Henry's charter outlines a science-based curriculum that integrates different subjects for a more seamless learning experience. The school also utilizes Forrest Hill Park for lessons about plants and nature. The Patrick Henry School will rely on grants and donations for start-up and initial operating costs, but will transition to a publicly-funded institution after three years. With 150 total slots available for kindergarten through fifth grade and 255 applicants, Patrick Henry had to hold a lottery for enrollment. Larson says early parental feedback has been very positive.
Larson: The year-round calendar is big. You know, only having a six-week break in the summer as opposed to a twelve-week break, the children retain more because they don't have a three-month break from their lessons. We also have a required school dress code--it's a level playing field. You know everybody's wearing very basic clothes and they're focused on their study. The other aspect that we have is the required parental involvement of six hours per quarter. Parents are really excited about that. That can be anything from volunteering in the cafeteria to taking home projects to help the teachers cut out things for their classrooms. And parents want to be involved and they feel good contributing to their child's school.
Governor Bob McDonnell has been a long-time supporter of charter schools and says he hopes that the Patrick Henry School will serve as a model for more schools like it in the future.
McDonnell: We've got a long way to go overall, I think, with continuing to lift the standards. We've got some areas of our SOLs I'd like to see improve. But, it is one tool in addition to college laboratory schools, virtual schools and more focus on math, science, technology to really help our young people to compete in the global economy. They've got to graduate college-ready or career-ready. Charter schools is one tool to make them have them do that a little bit better.
Larson says she hopes that future will be made to state and local law to make it easier to open charter schools.
Larson: The state charter law, if you go and look at it, it's very short. So, that's where a lot of the issues have come up because there are no policies and procedures and this is a new charter school. This is new for the city of Richmond, this is new for the state. So, it's uncharted territory. We are writing the policies as we're doing the process and there is a lot of gray areas that still need to be worked out.
Earlier this year, Governor McDonnell withdrew Virginia from the latest round of the federal Race to the Top Program, which provides incentives to states for building charter schools. McDonnell said the federal requirement for all states applying for the grant money to adopt a nationwide set of common core standards would force Virginia to lower our current standards of learning.