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Kalispell Public Schools looks to create charter schools

by HILARY MATHESON
Daily Inter Lake | October 22, 2023 12:00 AM

Kalispell Public Schools plans to apply to the Montana Board of Public for Education for permission to establish public charter schools.

Administrators anticipate that the completed applications will be on the agenda of an Oct. 24 board meeting in order to meet the Nov. 1 deadline.

Currently, Flathead and Glacier high schools are considering a “school within a school” concept, meaning the public charter school would be housed in the existing high schools rather than a separate building. Administrators also brought up the possibility of turning Linderman Education Center, the alternative high school, and the Agricultural Education Center into charter schools.

“We’re reviewing all the schools that may fit into a public charter school concept,” said Interim Superintendent Randy Cline.

That includes Kalispell Middle School and the district’s elementary schools, he said.

The action follows the passage of House Bill 549 this year, which authorizes public charter schools in Montana.

“The way I look at it is, you know, I think that we want to be the innovators. We want to be the ones that are leading this,” Assistant Superintendent Mark Fusaro said during an Oct. 10 board meeting.

“We know that there’s a lot of other entities out there that can create these charter schools and we want to be able to provide as many opportunities for our students and the Legislature has given us that authority through transformational learning. The board is signed on to flexible systems of learning and we really, really have a lot of great ideas out there,” Fusaro said.

The public charter schools would operate under Kalispell Public Schools and be governed by the district’s Board of Trustees. The Board of Public Education will monitor the charter schools’ performance. Publicly funded, the charter schools would be tuition-free.

While having the flexibility to meet the needs of different learners is at the core of discussion — so is funding.

Voters rejected four elementary and high school levy requests earlier this month. A levy hasn’t passed in the high school district since 2007.

“I’ve just been so disheartened by, you know, failed levy after failed levy, that maybe we need to look somewhere else for money,” said Michele Paine, principal of Flathead High School.

In the same fashion as how traditional public schools are funded, districts would receive an annual basic entitlement to operate each charter school. A charter school would operate on a separate budget.

The basic entitlement amount is different depending on if a charter school serves elementary, middle or high school grades. High school charters would receive the highest basic entitlement, around $321,254, Cline said. An elementary charter would receive the smallest amount, roughly $55,741, which may not be enough to cover educational expenses, he said, even in a “school within a school concept.”

“This is an opportunity to get some funds to help us do what we are working so hard to do for our students,” Trustee Jinnifer Mariman said. “I mean this is a way to expand the pie when we can’t get a community to help us expand that pie.”

THE APPEAL of a charter school is the flexibility it offers districts. Kalispell Public Schools has emphasized personalized, competency-based learning. Competency-based education essentially means that a school meets students “where they are” in their learning and allows them to advance at their own pace in mastering skills and concepts.

“It’s a different way of looking at school,” Cline said, in a system that has remained the same for decades.

Paine said the length of time high school students have to earn credit is something the high schools are familiar with. Last year, she said five Flathead students finished two years of math courses in one year. On the other hand, she said summer school gives students more time to complete coursework.

“So we’re starting that flexibility in length of time,” Paine said.

“It’s a direction we want to go more into and having a charter school designation would allow us to do that,” she added.

Linderman was used as an example of how a public charter school operates with its flexible scheduling (offering morning, afternoon and evening classes), curriculum delivery (online, instructor-guided and seminar classes), small class sizes and courses that have varying completion deadlines.

“The school’s already there. The staff is already hired. If that became a charter school, you know, what additional [things] would we need?” Cline said, regarding adding opportunities that aren’t already offered.

Linderman’s focus is credit recovery and helping struggling Flathead and Glacier students graduate high school through individual education plans.

The concern with turning Linderman into a public charter school, Cline said, is that students are enrolled based on needs. Under charter school requirements, a lottery is held if more students enroll than can be accommodated. What if a student who needs just one or two courses to graduate doesn’t get in and drops out, Cline wondered.

FLATHEAD ENVISIONS a charter school with a “career path focus” for sophomores through seniors.

“We’ve seen a lot of internships blossom under Mike Kelly and work-based learning, and so we feel like the next step for us would be to streamline that and be able to provide that for more students,” Paine said.

Mike Kelly is the district’s work-based learning director.

Paine gave an example of an existing internship class in operating heavy equipment.

“What if that could fall under the umbrella of our career path charter school. The kid explores all these different job opportunities … and then they can work flexibly on their core classes and graduate early and be able to just jump right into a good job,” she said.

In any given year Flathead has roughly 65 students graduate a semester early, Paine said.

She said the high schools do a great job of reaching advanced and struggling students through established programs at Flathead, Glacier and Linderman. Flathead has college-level courses through International Baccalaureate and at Glacier, Advanced Placement.

“We serve those students really well,” Paine said.

“There is a population in the middle, however, that I feel like we could do better and we could help provide some specific career-focused coursework and some flexibility and core classes to serve that kid better” she said.

Much of the ongoing discussions harken back to conversations about transformational learning in 2022 sparked by Transformational Learning, Montana Advanced Opportunity and Workforce Development state grant funding and Senate Bill 8, which established that student performance is measured by comprehension rather than the amount of time spent in a classroom seat or a student’s age.

As part of the application process, the district will outline the mission and vision of proposed charter schools along with detailing academic programming, governance, business operations and community support.

“I am in full support of serving public charter schools here in the Flathead,” Trustee Sue Corrigan said. “Not just for financial reasons, but I think it gives us a lot of flexibility and the ability to do some of those innovative things and for us to be leading the charge, not for somebody else telling us we should be doing this.”

BOZEMAN CHARTER School, which is part of Bozeman School District, is currently Montana’s only public charter school and arose out of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The charter school currently serves about 40 third- through eighth-graders through a combination of online and in-person instruction. That’s a drop from the 120 enrolled during the pandemic. It also used to serve grades K-8.

“It’s been difficult,” Bozeman Superintendent Casey Bertram said. “We launched with five teachers. We’re down to two. We’re barely hanging on enrollment wise.”

Bertram said when students started returning to in-person instruction during the pandemic there was a desire to continue offering students flexible schedules and online learning.

“All core instruction is taught synchronously and remotely — so they’re attending school live with their teachers in the morning for core subjects and in the afternoon they are meeting in-person for social, emotional learning,” Bertram said, but not all students attend the afternoon session, which requires parents to transport students to the school.

Bertram said students opt to attend the charter school for a variety of reasons.

“A student may have depression, ADHD, or a variety of reasons that make being in a traditional classroom very challenging,” Bertram said.

When students meet in-person, class sizes are also smaller, which appeals to families.

“For families in it, they love it,” Bertram said.

Bozeman School District also operates Bridger Charter Academy as a “school within a school.” The academy is housed in Bozeman High School, but also serves students at Gallatin High School.

“Back in 2016 when Bridger Academy was launched, we launched as a charter because we were seeking a variance to time seat requirements and to have a proficiency-based model,” Bertram said.

Students can take one or more classes at Bridger, which serves about 100 students. Students ultimately earn a diploma from either Bozeman or Gallatin high schools, but he said Bridger holds a special graduation ceremony for its students.

“We don’t want competition between the schools. We want to offer options for parents,” Bertram said. “We’re trying to meet the needs of our students.”

While it wasn’t impossible to create a charter school prior to HB 549, a key difference is in funding, said Bertram, a former principal at Hedges Elementary School, in a phone interview with the Daily Inter Lake.

As with Kalispell Public Schools, funding would come at a crucial time.

“The inflationary increase from the Legislature is nowhere near keeping up with the cost of living in Bozeman” Bertram said. “Our costs increased by 12%. We went through a $4.1 million budget reduction last year.”

“Districts are in a tricky spot with how the funding formula works,” he said.

Whether labeled as transformational learning; innovative learning; career and technical education; work-based learning or alternative education — “All the AA’s are doing that work. I see a lot of them pursuing HB 549 because we’re doing innovative things for kids,” Bertram said.

“Call it a charter school if you want. If we’re going to play the charter game in Montana, which it looks like we are, one — let’s meet the needs of students and two — let’s fund the schools that are continuing to meet those needs,” he said.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

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