Friendly Neighborhood Charter Schools Finding Their Way

Emily Burton is a master of organizing chaos.

Five days out of every week, Burton gracefully moves through a homey classroom bustling with the sounds of small hands busy with tasks of every variety. Shuffling in between stacks of colorful materials she’s seen a thousand times before, Burton bounces from child to child quietly nodding in acknowledgment and correcting minor mistakes, helping them to visualize their lessons where ever they may lay around the classroom.

As the clock slides ever closer towards mid-day, the children’s constantly evolving routines roll on and it isn’t long before the students arrange themselves into a circle, discussing their plans for the rest of the day while Burton’s watchful eye hovers in the background being neither seen nor heard.

These children may be in Burton’s 1-3rd grade classroom, but just like the rest of the Kindergarten through 8th grade students at Ridgeline Montessori Public Charter School, their lesson plans belong completely to them.

“We try to encourage the kids to become independent motivated learners,” Burton said, referring to the Montessori method developed by Italian physicist Maria Montessori which is meant to encourage self-sufficiency and self-teaching. This same methodology is one that the school itself has had to practice during it’s embattled 12 year stint as a Eugene public charter school.

Since opening in 2000, Ridgeline, along with fellow Friendly neighborhood charter school, the Village School, have taken up the unique place in the Friendly area and the Eugene 4J School District as a whole, by bridging the gap between public and formerly private education.

Ridgeline and the Village School, a Waldorf-inspired, arts-infused public charter, are two of the 4J School District’s four public charter schools around Eugene that offer parents a state-sponsored alternative to regular public schools.

But, unlike traditional public schools in the Friendly area, there a few more barriers to entry. The charter school admission process requires winning a lottery for entry into the Kindergarten levels of each school, whereas public non-charter schools must admit all students regardless of space constraints. It’s this process that some members around the community feel is degrading the quality of state education as a whole.

Former Adams Elementary School teacher and attorney Nancy Willard feels the lottery creates the ability for public charters to skim the best and the brightest off the top, making the 4J public schools system weaker from the ground up. Willard claims that the ability to cap class size and dictate the grade-level a child is studying at has exacerbated an existing inequity between test scores and funding of local charter school and traditional public schools in the Friendly area, such as Adams Elementary School and the Arts and Technology Academy at Jefferson.

Willard has been a long-time proponent of eliminating charter schools, voicing her opinion in several letters to the Register-Guard. “An educational program that is succeeding because the school has competent students from highly motivated families is not unique. It is merely elite,” Willard said.

However, Ridgeline School Board Vice President Jen Hornsby thinks Willard’s assessment of charter schools as classist couldn’t be further from the truth, citing the increasing number of Ridgeline children who qualify for the state’s free lunch program along with the positive report cards charter schools in the Friendly neighborhood have received from the Oregon Department of Education.

A closer look at their track record on this issue reveals that since their formation in 2000, both public charter schools in the Friendly district have failed just once to fulfill the federal attendance requirements for economically disadvantaged children, during the 2010-11 school year. However, Hornsby doesn’t believe this singular lapse is indicative of Ridgeline’s character, or charter schools’ attitudes towards education as a whole.

“People believe we’re this rich, elitist school and it couldn’t be farther from the truth,” Hornsby said.

However, over the last 5 years, at least one of the neighborhood charter schools has scored equal to or better than both Adams Elementary and Jefferson on annual state education report cards. Although, these public charter schools’ success doesn’t seem to indicate an inverse trend for traditional schools as Adams Elementary has received an “Outstanding” rating over the past three years. Both Jefferson and Adams have met or been performing near the same levels as the Village School and Ridgeline every year since their opening, continually scoring “Satisfactory” or above on the Oregon Department of Education’s overall reports.

A sign hangs outside of a classroom door at The Village School, a local charter school which offers a holistic and arts-first education to K-8th grade students.

This same idea is something parents of charter school children are quick to point out. Rachael Carnes, who is the mother of two children currently enrolled in Ridgeline, doesn’t believe there is any correlation between having public charter schools in the neighborhood and a dip in traditional public school’s performances.

“I think public charter schools have been unfairly blamed for taking away from our public schools,” Carnes said, “it’s a recipe for failure.”

Despite disagreements between both camps, what is clear is that Oregon continues to find a place for public charter schools in it’s budget, mandating 80% of the $5,916 that traditional public schools receive per student go to these same charters as well. As outlined in the Oregon Revised Statue 338, or ORS 338, which sets out state guidelines for public charter schools within Oregon, this figure rises to 95% when dealing with high school charters.

If anything is for certain, the Friendly neighborhood charter schools and the traditional public schools of the 4J district have had their interests tied together by the rules laid out within ORS 338. While each may take a different route to get there their missions remain the same, educate the youth of Eugene. An expansion to include more public charters is not be on the table right now but Eugene 4J School District Associate Director of Finance Caroline Pazzarotti, who has acted as one of 4J’s liaison for Eugene’s public charter schools, feels that the 4J district has chosen the schools it currently supports appropriately.

“I think our district has limited its charter schools to programs that provide instruction options that don’t already exist in the district. And that’s where the value is,” Pazzarotti said.

Ridgeline teacher Emily Burton overlooks the classroom filled with children tinkering away on their own projects. There are no real desks, just a few tables covered in everything from counting beads to a paper sculpture of the jungle abandoned by a young student for some other pursuit. Having been a Montessori teacher for just over 4 years now, Burton realizes this method may not be for everyone.

Different schools are better matched for different kids and different families,” Burton said, “our classroom is built to meet each child where they’re at.”

The hum of children working together grows louder into the afternoon as they move from their individual projects towards group work. Burton continues her sweep around the classroom, trying to be a gentle observer, and only stepping in when absolutely necessary. True to her Montessori teacher training, which advises teachers to be like a “fly on the wall,” Burton would rather avoid those questioning the legitimacy of what she does and focus on what is really important to her, the kids.

I like being able to see the kids grow,” Burton said, “I really like being creative with my curriculum and bringing ideas to life.”

And that is just what is in store for the children of Burton’s classroom. Next week they’ll be having Egyptian day.

Staying current with the 4J School District

For many parents, volunteering within one of the Friendly neighborhood’s 4J School District’s several public schools is a great way to go that extra mile to ensure they are involved in their child’s education.

Yet, for many working parents dedicating their time to helping out at their child’s school isn’t an option due to busy schedules. Luckily for Eugene parents, staying involved and up-to-date on changes to their children’s education system can be a quick and easy alternative thanks to the plethora of options offered by administrators around the school district.

A good alternative is joining your child’s school’s Parent Teacher Association. The Oregon PTA has been around for years and is one of the best out their if parents are looking to news directly from teachers. But if attending meetings is still too tough of a balancing act, keeping up on 4J news can a fantastic option for parents on the go.

If instant updates are what you’re after, following the 4J’s twitter feed (@4Jschools) is a convenient place to start. Still, if Twitter isn’t your thing, subscribing to the newsletter of your child’s school can help you stay up on everything from the time the PTA meets to social events and volunteer opportunities.

For more information, you can visit the 4J School District’s website or contact their communications coordinator, Kerry Delf 

Charting Eugene’s public charter schools

With the Friendly area being a relative hotbed for charter schools, with both Ridgeline Montessori and The Village School comprising exactly half of Eugene’s entire public charter school population, it’s easy for prospective young parents to forget about their education options in the rest of Eugene.

But just as several students outside of the aforementioned charter school’s districts find themselves traveling for the charter experience, so to can parents help their child find their way to the Eugene’s other charter schools.

Located just on the outskirts of Eugene in the neighboring Coburg, Coburg Community Charter School, offers the lower elementary charter education that many parents in the outlying rural community may not have once have available to them. Serving as the city of Coburg’s only public school, Coburg Community Charter School offers classes for Kindergartens all the way through 6th grade.

For more city-based parents with slightly older children, Network Charter School may be the spot for them. Catering to 7th-12th graders, Network provides a diverse array of classroom opportunities, from culinary classes to a ultimate frisbee/math class, that students otherwise might not find in more traditional public schooling options. Nestled in the heart of Eugene, just blocks from the downtown bus station, Network continues to fill its role as the city’s featured charter option for middle school and high schoolers looking to continue their charter education.

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