SALT LAKE CITY -- As nearly 500,000 Utah students head back to traditional schools this week, about 12,000 will be filling the classrooms of charter schools — more than 5,000 of them new students.
Charter schools in Utah have been growing rapidly since 1998, attracting families who don't feel the traditional system offers the programs and services they need. This year 36 charter schools will be operating in Utah, though one is expected to revert soon to non-charter status. Eleven of them are making their debut.
"I think (charter schools) are of great interest to parents — we live in a state where education is valued by families and they will go where they need to to get that quality education," said Carolyn Sharette, director of American Preparatory Academy charter.
"We have a mind-set in the charter community of ensuring the success of every student," Sharette said. "Public schools want every child to succeed, but (charters) exist to have every kid succeed — we set the schools up ourselves for that very purpose."
Nearly all Utahns have heard of charter schools. But many people scratch their heads when it comes to the actual definition and purpose of the schools.
Charter schools are public schools. Charter schools are free. And anyone can enroll.
Certain schools may have specific target populations, but like a traditional public school, students do not need to meet any requirements or pass any exams to get in.
Students enroll in charter schools for various reasons. They generally are smaller schools with smaller class sizes than traditional schools, and many have a specific emphasis, said John Broberg, state charter school director.
Most don't have transportation or varsity sports, but they do have some programs that traditional classrooms don't have. Those offerings, from accelerated science and engineering programs to dual language and film production programs, have garnered interest from students all over the state.
Many of the secondary charter schools target underserved populations and focus on college preparedness, while opportunities for individualized learning are a common attraction for elementary schools.
The schools are often run by parents or businesses. They must abide by state requirements, from testing to following the core curriculum, but have some freedom for teaching innovations.
Even so, not everybody has boarded the charter bandwagon. Charter schools draw students from traditional schools, along with state funding. So districts like Carbon School District that already have declining enrollments say charters suck much-needed funds from programs in traditional schools and put students in those schools at risk of losing learning opportunities.
But in larger, growing districts, many charters have long lists of students waiting to get in. American Preparatory Academy in Jordan School District has around 1,400 students on the waiting list, Summit Academy has more than 1,000, Ogden Preparatory Academy has more than 500 and the Academy for Math and Engineering in Salt Lake City has nearly 300 students waiting in the wings.
Still, most schools do extensive marketing through the media, fliers, open houses and mailers to get the word out on what programs their charters offer.
(Copyright 2005 The Deseret Morning News)