Montessori

Owen Sillars, 8, left, and Henry Prell, 9, use a "grammar box" as they work on the parts of speech in a classroom at Isthmus Montessori Academy, a private school on Madison's North Side, in January. The school wants to become part of the Madison School District through the district's charter process but saw a proposed five-year contract to make that happen rejected by the School Board in August.

AMBER ARNOLD, STATE JOURNAL ARCHIVES

After rejecting a contract for what would have been the district’s first public Montessori charter school, the Madison School Board has started changing its approach to considering charter school applications.

“We have learned that our current policy ... still does not serve us in a sufficiently nimble, concise or user-friendly manner,” district lawyer Dylan Pauly said in an Aug. 10 memo to board members about the proposed changes, which were approved at the board’s Aug. 28 meeting.

Now, if a group wants to start a charter school — whether from scratch, like the district’s two existing charters were created, or by converting a private school into a charter, like Isthmus Montessori Academy (IMA) tried to do — applicants will use a simplified timeline that begins at least two years prior to the proposed charter school opening.

That’s about a year longer than the previous timeline, with a slightly longer active-review period of about eight months and then several more months than before on the back end for an approved charter school to prepare to open.

The timeline also was adjusted to prevent major board decisions from having to be made in April or May, which can be a time of transition due to board member elections.

“It’s more time to review things and to prepare for opening,” board member TJ Mertz said. “It makes the whole process almost twice as long.”

The type of charter school to be considered under the new timeline would be what’s known as an “instrumentality” of the school district. That means the School Board would employ the school staff and retain ultimate responsibility for the school, even as the school receives considerable flexibility and autonomy in its day-to-day operations, focus and/or teaching methods.

That could mean, for instance, using a non-traditional instructional style, such as the Montessori approach’s self-directed learning and long academic time blocks.

Or it could allow for a school to have a particular focus through which curriculum is themed — such as the environmental focus of Badger Rock Middle School’s academics and the dual-language immersion of Nuestro Mundo, the district’s two existing instrumentality charters, which were created in 2011 and 2004, respectively.

In no case, though — according to a part of the board’s policy on charters that isn’t new — will the board consider proposals for an independent charter school, also known as a “non-instrumentality” of the district. Those kinds of charters can be created by the board under state law, but the district would retain no authority over them, their staff would not answer to the board and the district would lose about $8,100 annually for each student who attends one.

No independent charter schools currently exist in Madison — and the board turned down an application for one proposed in 2011 that was geared toward low-income minority students — but a state office was created in 2015 that could approve some in the city as early as fall 2018.

Instrumentality or not, charter schools are publicly funded — though the school may be required to do some private fundraising — and tuition-free. The idea behind them is to foster innovation and experimentation, and to give students additional choices that may serve them better.

Beyond the timeline revisions, the board in a 7-0 vote on Aug. 28 also agreed to post all charter school proposals, which are public records, on the district’s website within two weeks of getting them, as well as the administration’s analysis of proposals and the guide used for rating them.

A final change approved by the board added a deadline for contract completion to the charter school timeline — by April 2019 for approved schools opening in fall 2020.

IMA’s original proposal in Sept. 2016 envisioned a Sept. 2017 opening for the school. At Superintendent Jen Cheatham’s suggestion, the board changed the proposed opening to Sept. 2018 in January, when members gave conditional approval to the charter proposal, pending contract negotiations to clear up remaining areas of concerns that took about seven months and ended with the board’s rejection of the five-year contract on Aug. 21.

In the coming months, the board is slated to consider several more possible changes to the charter policy that members discussed but didn’t vote on in August. Those include creating a more spelled-out process for renewing charter school contracts, putting outside experts on a charter application review committee that works before the board gets involved, and using the district’s average per pupil cost of $11,700 to estimate annual charter school budgets, rather than relying on the current method, which uses a per-pupil figure that’s $4,800 lower.

“The discussions are raising bigger questions about where we stand on community-fostered innovation, and those are really important questions for us to grapple with,” Cheatham said. “This idea of community-fostered innovation is really important and deserves a place.”

‘This idea of community-fostered innovation is really important and deserves a place.’ Jen Cheatham, Madison schools superintendent
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Karen Rivedal is the education beat reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.