Facing possible closure because of flagging enrollment , Verona's New Century charter school is proposing to become Dane County's first "green," or environmentally-focused, charter school.

The move, which must be approved by the district's board, illustrates the challenges facing charter schools across the state: to find an academic niche that will continually attract students.

"Having a (charter school) choice means a lot to parents," said Kristina Navarro-Haffner, who has a first-grader at New Century. "We really want to be that option for parents and help the Verona School District bring in more people."

In the last two years, a few charter schools -- public schools given autonomy from their district in exchange for strict accountability -- have changed their focus to attract students, said John Gee, executive director of the Wisconsin Charter Schools Association. A lack of performance or non-compliance with state requirements to be a charter school led to the dissolution of 15 charter schools prior to this year, he said, leaving a total of 206 in the state and 10 in Dane County.

"I think some of the charter schools find out how much work it really is," to operate a charter school, said Bob Soldner, director of DPI's charter school program.

For New Century, enrollment fell from around 100 in 2008-09 to about 90 this year. Its current focus uses students' natural interests and curiosities to determine curriculum, and it wouldn't move to its environmental focus until fall 2010.

The Verona School Board is expected to vote late next month on whether to go forward with the green school idea.

Sign of the times

Dean Gorrell, Verona's superintendent, said what's happening at New Century is a "microcosm" of what districts across the state with level or declining enrollment are experiencing as they make budget reductions to comply with state-mandated revenue caps.

"At some point you just have nothing left to cut," Gorrell said, adding that districts then have to discuss "dissolving or merging" small schools. "New Century is no different in that respect."

New Century, which needs to renew its charter by next school year, also considered a Mandarin-language immersion charter, but a survey of current and prospective parents showed more interest in an environmentally-focused school.

"We want to try to have something distinct in the charter that would maybe attract someone who was looking for something different," said Navarro-Haffner, who also serves on the school's Site Council, a group of parents and teachers that helps set policy for the school.

Being a "green" charter school means "you use the environment to teach all core subjects," she said.

Gorrell said that approach could bring in new families.

"Parents are getting much more savvy for shopping for school districts," he said.

The goal is to increase enrollment at New Century by 45 students over the next three years students. "We really think we can get to 135, that it's not a huge leap," Navarro-Haffner said.

Gee said that could work.

"These environmental schools particularly are becoming real popular," both in Wisconsin and nationally, Gee said. "That strategy would probably work."

Parental dissent

But some parents of students at New Century say they still would prefer a school focused on learning Mandarin and presented a proposal for a separate charter school with an initial class of between 15 to 40 students to the Verona School Board earlier this month.

If it goes forward it could be the first such school in the state.

Preliminary plans call for one or two combined sections of kindergarten and first-grade classes for the school's first year, which could be as early as this fall, said Teresa Mueller, who has a kindergartner at New Century and is one of the parents leading the effort for the Mandarin-language immersion charter school.

Students would spend half their day learning subjects in English and the other half learning subjects in Mandarin, Mueller said.

Mueller said school board members seemed interested but questioned if there was broad enough interest in the school and if enrollment would meet the district's demographics that 25 percent of students in a school receive a free or reduced cost lunch.

"I actually don't think we'll have a problem getting enough interest for two classes," Mueller said, adding plans call for a global curriculum and other language immersion programs could be added as the school grows. "Of course it will come down to finances and if we can get a grant and make our budget work," she said.

Mueller said she plans to apply for two federal grants next year -- one that promotes new charter schools and another that assists new or ongoing innovative foreign language programs.

The Wisconsin Department of Instruction was awarded $86 million in federal funds over five years to identify and help plan 130 more charter schools in the state, Soldner said.

The money would be for the first three years of funding, but couldn't be used to build facilities, he said. So far the department has approved funding for 29 of 33 applications for new charters, he said.


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