Students sit quietly in Kathryn Durkee’s dimly lit middle school classroom, studying an element from the Periodic Table.
The room in Albemarle’s Community Public Charter School feels more like a spa than a classroom: soft music chimes in the background, a fish tank’s running water produces a tranquil mood, and the overhead lights—which one student calls “stressful”—are off and replaced with shaded lamps dotting the space.
And the relaxed atmosphere of Durkee’s room is critical, because many of “Charter’s” students have had anxiety or trouble learning in the larger and quicker-paced classrooms at other public schools, from which the students typically come.
“I developed a sense that I wasn’t important. I felt less valued in elementary school,” said Sam Friedlander, who graduated from the middle school last year. “I was put down for being such a bizarre kid, and I really couldn’t learn there at all.”
That was until Sam enrolled in Albemarle’s unique charter school.
Charter schools in Virginia
The Community Public Charter School, which opened in 2008, is a small middle school located on the lower level of Burley Middle School that aims to educate students who have been challenged to reach their potential in other Albemarle County schools.
Founded by two former teachers—and one of two charter schools in Albemarle— the school’s approach is to provide students with smaller class sizes and use teaching methods not always practiced in other schools. Albemarle’s other charter is Murray High School, which opened in 2001.
Charter schools are independently run public schools that can operate with their own school rules and curriculum, but must still meet the accountability standards of other public schools. Students must apply to attend charters, and based on available space the schools select the students.
However, while many areas around the United States have seen major growth in charter schools, Virginia currently has one of the lowest numbers of charters in the country with only six schools in the state.
One of the reasons is Virginia’s restrictive charter school law.
The law, passed in 1998, only allows local school boards to approve and reject charter proposals. In 2010, the legislation was changed to say that charter applicants must first submit their applications to the Department of Education for them to provide a determination on whether the application meets the board’s approval criteria. After the determination, applicants must get approval from the local school board. Being reliant on the local boards makes it difficult for hopeful charter founders because school boards often consider charters to be a form of competition.
“We realized that over the years Murray High School had provided us an alternative school, an alternative setting for students who learned a different way at the high school level,” Billy Haun, Albemarle’s assistant superintendent for student learning, said. “When it came up we said let’s try providing the same opportunity for our middle school students.”
The school uses an art-based approach to help students learn.
The goal of the Community Public Charter School is to use an individualized, project-based arts approach to engage those students who have struggled in their previous schools.
“It’s not just arts-based, it’s learning to think like an artist,” said co-founder Bobbi Snow. “An artist has multiple solutions to everything. An artist is a person who doesn’t give up. An artist is a person who risks failure all the time.”
There is also no dress code at the school. Students can wear hats and sunglasses in class, and they can sit underneath a desk versus behind it if they want. The focus, according to Snow, is not to concentrate on minor issues.
"We don't want to be thepeople monitoring every single thing of their lives, because their whole lives are monitored and dictated,” Snow said. “We try to find ways that they can express some kind of power over their own choices, when they’re not being hurtful to others.”
In order to manage stress, students are not given much homework and they are typically given project-based assessments instead of tests. Both students and teachers alike said the approach has worked.
“Other schools they teach the class, not the students,” 7th grader Athena Palmer said. “[Here] they go out of their way to help you learn.”
“I feel like this school allows me to teach how I always wanted to teach,” second-year teacher Erika Pierce said. “Focusing on student needs first, instead of starting with curriculum.”
The school opened with 23 sixth graders. Since then the school has grown to serve students in 7th and 8th grades, and there are now 42 total students, many of whom go on to Murray High School after graduation. But while the school population has expanded, the growth is smaller than the founders had originally anticipated.
Teachers at Community Public Charter School assign very little homework and give few tests and instead try to give project-based assessments.
When the founders created the school, they had hoped it would expand to 50 students after three years, and then eventually 100 students. But they have been unable to expand because of the limited space they’re given by the County. While the founders said they are appreciative of the space, they don’t have room to expand without increasing class sizes. Currently, there are six students on the waitlist trying to enroll in the school.
Another reason the school can’t expand is the lack of money. The school has received increased funding from the County as the numbers of students has grown, but they still rely heavily on private donations. Snow said that while the school has raised over $1 million since the founding, the financial future of the school is unclear.
A new challenge was last year’s drop in test scores.
While over 85 percent of the students passed their reading and mathematics Standards of Learning tests in 2012, only 49 percent of students passed the reading SOLs in 2013, and 19 percent passed mathematics.
Ashby Kindler, the principal of both of Albemarle’s charter schools, was quick to point out that many schools experienced lower SOL scores last year because of increased state standards. Murray however—which is home to 109 students—received much higher test scores: 83 percent of students passed the mathematics SOL and 100 percent of students passed reading.
But co-founder Sandy Richardson said the current testing standards are not an adequate way to measure success of their students.
“The SOLs are unfortunate,” said Richardson. “We have a population of students…[who] don’t do well on that kind of standardized testing, so that’s one day, one experience.”
This provides an extra challenge for teachers, who so far have had a high turnover rate; the current group of teachers has been at the school for two years or less. According to the co-founders, teaching in a more non-punitive environment is easier said than done.
“This is a hard place to work,” said Richardson. “Kids are very energetic and it takes a lot for a teacher to switch over from being in a traditional setting to being in an alternative setting.”
Despite the bumps in the road, the future of the Community Public Charter School, according to Haun, is bright.
“Each year it has gotten better and better,” said Haun. “It has done very, very well…and we’re pleased with the progress it has made.”