Charters on 'Horne' of a dilemma

Posted on July 09, 2007 | Type: In the News
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On a recent Friday afternoon at the Pine Forest Charter School in west Flagstaff, school director Michael Heffernan made his way upstairs to an attached classroom where the school's seventh- and eighth-grade classes meet.

On the chalkboard before him, an enormous brown ship rode a white-capped Atlantic sea -- the rowboats filled with human occupants merely white specs before the ship's towering hull.

The scene was drawn by Pine Forest teacher Arne Kaiser during a recent orientation for incoming Pine Forest middle school students. It was part of a lesson on the laying of the first Transatlantic telegraph cable, which, by telegraph communication, finally connected North America to Europe.

The arts-intensive lesson represents one of many ways in which Pine Forest's Waldorf-inspired curriculum differs from that which is commonly found in traditional middle school.

But, according to at least one free enterprise advocacy group, Pine Forest and other charter schools' ability to teach students by using such non-traditional methods could soon be compromised. The issue has resulted in the Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute taking the Arizona Department of Education to court.

That's because the Education Department's newest requirements for middle-school American history, the Goldwater Institute has stated, are at odds with charter schools' autonomy in how they choose to present and implement their curriculum.

SUBJECT SEQUENCES TOO INTRUSIVE

The lawsuit challenges a recent move by Arizona State School Superintendent Tom Horne to require all schools in Arizona teach U.S. history during seventh- and eighth-grades starting 2007-08, contending such a move is unlawful and prevents charter schools from teaching within their distinct educational philosophies.

Named in the lawsuit, which was filed June 22 in Maricopa County Superior Court, are Horne, his department and the state Board of Education. The Goldwater Institute filed suit on behalf of four public charter schools located in Tucson and in Phoenix, in addition to one charter school management company.

Additionally, the schools argue that any attempt by Horne or his department to sequence grade-by-grade curricular alignment -- such as in U.S. history -- would prove troublesome because the state's standards don't always match that of the individual charter schools.

Before beginning to operate, charter schools must have their school governance, curriculum and budget approved by the state -- a requirement plaintiffs argue proves charter schools are curricularly sound. Also, Arizona charter school students are held accountable under state-standardized testing required under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

State standards differ from standardized testing in that Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS) test only measures students' progress in reading, writing and math. State standards, on the other hand, require the teaching of different subjects, such as art and history, at certain grade levels.

It's the latter with which some charter schools are taking issue.

"Grade-by-grade alignment to the State's social studies curriculum necessarily will disrupt and displace the plaintiff schools' curricula as incorporated in their charters," plaintiffs in the lawsuit said.

At Pine Forest, it could mean less of the learning, arts and handiwork that define the school as being Waldorf-inspired.

WILL ROME TAKE FALL?

For nearly 17 years now, Pine Forest Charter School, founded in 1995, has operated on a small but colorful campus located on West Kaibab Lane in west Flagstaff.

The school began as a grade K-4 school but has since grown to include grades K-8. It currently serves upward of 200 elementary- and middle-school students.

Teachers start mentoring students at the kindergarten level and then move on with those students as they progress through the grade levels until they reach Grade 8, creating a type of family environment.

The use of music, handiwork and in imaginative play is heavily involved.

As part of their Waldorf-inspired curriculum, students in Grade 6 study Roman history and other ancient civilizations.

In Grade 7, they do an in-depth study of European history, including the Dark Ages, Renaissance and later exploration, such as the transatlantic telegraph line chalked onto the middle school classroom.

In Grade 8, it's U.S. history, including the Revolutionary and Civil wars.

But under Horne's proposal, Heffernan said, American history would be more spread out between seventh- and eighth-grades, leaving less time to go into such depth in either grade.

He also expressed concern that a move by the state to dictate that American history be taught at both grade levels, in a certain sequence, would preclude Pine Forest teachers from spending as much time on other aspects of education that makes the school so unique.

"If we're mandated to teach a certain concept in a certain year, then it's going to take the place of something else. That's the challenge," Heffernan said.

STANDARDS ARE MINIMUM

The concerns of Arizona state charter school directors regarding state-mandated education, particularly of those filing the lawsuit, have not fallen on deaf ears, Arizona School Superintendent Tom Horne said.

However, he stopped short of backing off a requirement that all Arizona schools, including charters, teach to at least the minimum requirements set by the state board of education.

"These standards are agreed to by teachers from across the state and then accepted by the state board as to what students need to know and do by a certain grade level," Horne said. "The standards don't prevent you from teaching anything. They're a minimum -- not a maximum."

Horne continued to say charter schools are free to teach the standards by using whichever curriculum that they chose. But ignoring the standards is not an option.

"It's a bad principle to establish that state-funded schools should be able to ignore state standards and not give kids the knowledge and skills that have been established by the state."

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