Last week, the Richmond School Board approved its first public charter school – a breakthrough that may eventually benefit Virginia families even beyond its capital city. The Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts is scheduled to open in just over a year. Its approval, by a 5-2 vote, is contingent upon agreement on contract details in the next 90 days.
The school’s innovative approach to learning will combine an emphasis on community involvement and environmental awareness, and a rigorous academic focus based on Virginia’s Standards of Learning. It will be open to any child in the city of Richmond, free of charge, with no admissions requirements, and offers a program that features an interdisciplinary curriculum, a year-round school calendar, and a comprehensive plan for evaluating student progress.
The charter’s organizers are Richmond residents and parents, many of whom are active in local causes and activities, and include several experienced educators. Their proposal has the support of a diverse collection of community leaders. The school will be housed in the former Patrick Henry Elementary School in the Woodland Heights neighborhood of South Richmond.
Last week’s approval represents a meaningful step forward, not just for Richmond, but for Virginia. Charter school growth in the Commonwealth has been slow since it passed a law authorizing charter schools in 1998. Of the eight original charters statewide, only three remain open today, while the others function without their autonomy as programs within other schools. In Virginia, unlike most states, only local school boards have the authority to approve charters.
In 2004, Governor Mark Warner signed new legislation, authored by Delegate Scott Lingamfelter, designed to aid the development and consideration of new, high-quality charter applications. The response has been encouraging, as Virginia has seen a “second generation” of new charter school applications – characterized by tighter education and business plans, and informed by many of the best practices employed in some of the nation’s best charter schools.
The results have been promising, too. This fall, the Community Public Charter School will open its doors in Albermarle County, offering a smaller, arts-infused alternative learning environment for middle schoolers. A charter application is currently pending with the Norfolk Public Schools as well. That proposal, also from an experienced education team, would offer a valuable new educational option, specializing in helping learning-disabled children from low-income families. Both of these applicants have received grants from the federal Department of Education’s Charter School Program to develop and implement their plans.
Charter schools are public schools that operate with autonomy and independence within their school district, in exchange for being held accountable for improving student achievement. Nationally, more than 4,100 charter schools serve over 1.2 million students across 40 states.
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