A Publication of WTVP

A community-wide effort is underway to develop a charter school in Peoria that would offer a curriculum focused on math, science and technology.

A quality educational system can be priceless for a community. Studies show the educational system is one of the first things potential residents research when they are considering relocation. A quality educational system can be used as a recruitment tool for businesses to attract employees, and it helps to create a quality workforce. These three factors are critical to the success of a community.

Peoria NEXT focuses on strengthening the region’s culture of entrepreneurialism and attracting technology-based businesses to the community. Education is an important tool for achieving this goal. That’s why Peoria NEXT is assisting with a community effort to develop a charter school in Peoria that would offer a curriculum focused on math, science and technology. This is directly in line with our mission of facilitating discovery, innovation and commercialization of new technologies for economic development.

There is no question about it; we have a quality educational system in place in central Illinois. You can enroll in kindergarten and study all the way through medical school without ever having to change your home address. With a new charter school, students will have a new opportunity and the community will have one more educational feature to set it apart from other communities. District 150 Superintendent Ken Hinton said recently, "We have long been saying that we wanted to provide choice to our families, and this is one more opportunity." By offering a curriculum focusing on math, science and technology we will be exposing students who are interested in these subjects to a more specialized and focused education.

There is more than just an educational benefit to having this school; there are also economic benefits. The curriculum will focus on learning that will properly prepare students for real-world job opportunities in the Peoria community. When students graduate, they will have formed a strong sense of civic responsibility and be eager to assume leadership positions right here in our increasingly scientific and technology-based society. We will be creating a built-in workforce to support our businesses.

How it Started

A group of community leaders, including former Caterpillar Inc. executive Glen Barton, started discussions about the charter school concept in Peoria in 2005: “We noticed a workforce shortage specific to the healthcare, engineering and technology industries. We realized there was a major decline in enrollment in our public schools as families were moving out of the district and looking for alternate education options. We also saw that U.S. high school students were falling far behind on math and science testing compared to the rest of the world. With these three factors, we determined there was a significant need to offer a new component to our local
educational system.”

What is a Charter School?
Cindy Fischer, former associate superintendent of District 150, says the charter school concept is nothing new. “There have been 5,250 charter schools across the nation since 1992. There are currently 32,000 students served by 39 charter schools in Illinois. These schools are popular for allowing for flexibility in curriculum, alternative schedules, accountability and more educational options for students.”

Fisher says that state charter schools are governed by the Illinois Charter School Law, and while they have flexibility from some of the regulations of other public schools, they are held to higher standards of accountability. “These schools are measured by the same academic standards as all other public schools, and many times they exceed those standards.”

How Will the School Operate Here?
This charter school will be open to any student in District 150 who has the desire for a more focused curriculum centered on math, science and technology. “There is no entrance exam and no tuition to attend this school, and any student interested just has to apply,” says Fischer. “If the demand is greater than the amount of spots available, a random lottery will take place to determine who will attend. The plan is to offer three classes of 24 students each in grades five through eight beginning in 2010, and adding one grade per year to reach grades five through 12. If, for some reason, the facility to house the school is not ready, we may have to push the opening back to 2011.”

The District 150 Board of Education is ultimately responsible for the charter school; however, it gives autonomy to the charter holder to run the school, allowing it to be governed independently from the district. The school will be governed by a nonprofit board of directors comprised of community leaders, parents and teachers who understand its importance.

Because the district’s board of directors is ultimately responsible, the district and the charter holder will create an agreement to set expected goals, means of measurement, frequency of measurement and consequences that will be imposed should those goals not be met.

The state funding that comes through District 150 will funnel through to the charter school. The district receives a per-pupil operations cost and a per-pupil tuition cost from the state. The district will pay the charter school between 75 and 125 percent of the tuition cost (which is always lower than the operations cost). In addition, the district will receive transitional impact funding to help make the transition to the charter school. The charter school will receive start-up funding, apply for other grant funding and solicit private contributions to fund the school.

The District 150 Board of Directors voted to support the concept. So too, did the Heartland Foundation’s CEO Roundtable, a group is comprised of more than 40 regional CEOs who realize the importance of a curriculum focused on math, science and technology. The Peoria NEXT Board of Directors is also in support of the project.

What is Next?
We are in the process of developing a local entity that shares a similar mission, interest and passion to apply for the charter. We are also developing the design team that will create the education plan, school culture and assessment system, among other things. As this project moves forward, we will step up community communication so that everyone understands the charter school’s concept and how this project will benefit our community. iBi