An Innovative Educational Alternative Comes to Peoria

by Renee Charles and Meghan Lundeen
Peoria Charter School Initiative

Change is on the horizon for 225 Peoria students with the August 24th opening of Quest Charter Academy, a math, science and technology-focused charter school.

One person who is ready and beyond excited about this new educational choice is Liberty Pritchard, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Pritchard, whose name was the first to be drawn in the lottery. “I was both excited and surprised my name was drawn first,” she explained. “I wanted to get into Quest to learn more in math and science, which are not my strong subjects. I feel the high expectation and extra help are going to really help me be a stronger student.”

John and Elizabeth Parker were thrilled that their two boys were accepted to the charter school because they felt they were no longer able to provide enough challenges in the areas of math and science in the home-school environment. “My oldest son is really looking forward to the challenges that will not only be provided in the curriculum, but having access to higher levels of technology, robotics club and solving real-life problems in classes,” said Elizabeth.
 
Charter School Basics
Charter schools are not a brand-new concept, but they are relatively new to the area, which is why many people don’t fully understand them just yet. Charter schools are public schools that are governed by a nonprofit organization. Because they are public, they are open to all students within a school district—regardless of academic status, where they live or their ability to pay tuition—and there are no entrance exams required. Every student in the district is invited to attend; however, there are a limited number of seats available.

Dr. Cindy Fischer, former associate superintendent for District 150 and charter school board member, has been researching these schools for several years. She explains that there are some core differences between charter schools and general public schools. “Charter schools tend to have a specific theme or focus. For instance, Quest Charter Academy emphasizes a college preparatory curriculum focusing on math, science and technology (MST),” she noted. “In addition, charter schools are governed by their own separate board of directors made up of local parents, educators and community leaders whose focus is on high student achievement and accountability.”

Together, the charter school board and the district board determine the academic standards required by the charter school, and if it doesn’t meet those standards, the district can revoke the charter. Most charter schools have higher standards of accountability and higher expectations for the principal, teachers, parents and students than typical public schools because of the innovative freedom they receive. Charter schools have a proven record of reform, with significant gains in reading and math, higher performance on state tests, improved ACT scores, higher graduation rates, and increased enrollment in college. An education brief from the Illinois Policy Institute states that research shows Illinois charter schools are producing academic results superior to district-run schools with similar student populations.

Because charter schools are public schools and part of the district, they should mirror the district’s demographic makeup. In District 150, 62 percent of students are non-white. The demographic makeup of Quest Charter Academy (based on 202 students) is quite similar:

  • 70% African American   
  • 73% receive free/reduced lunch
  • 25% Caucasian 
  • 51% female/49% male
  • 4% Hispanic
  • 1% others

The charter school concept is picking up steam nationwide, with 365,000 students across the country on waiting lists to attend these schools. That is especially evident locally. There were more than 700 applications for enrollment at Quest Charter Academy but only 225 seats available. Illinois charter school law requires a public lottery if there are more applicants than seats available, to ensure a fair and random selection of students. Quest held its lottery on May 17th at the Peoria Civic Center.

Charter schools are largely funded through public school dollars, with some support from private funds, and are proven to educate students for fewer dollars than the local public school system. Board member Roberta Parks explains that the Quest Charter Academy is working with District 150 so that state funding follows the students. “For the first year, privately raised funds will pay for a majority of the costs of the charter school to take the burden off of the financially stressed school district. For years two through five, the Peoria Charter School Initiative and District 150 boards have worked together to determine the charter school will receive 85 percent of the $11,000 that it costs to educate a child within this district.” Charter law requires the school district provide 75 to 125 percent of per-student funding to the charter school.

A Benefit for District 150
Over the past several years, District 150 has experienced declining enrollment and growing achievement gaps. In 1973, the student population was approximately 24,500, but by 2008, the population had dropped to about 14,000, a 43-percent reduction. At the same time, the City of Peoria population has only declined by 12 percent, suggesting that parents may be leaving District 150 in search of alternatives for their children’s education.

Quest Charter Academy has already had an impact on that issue. Twenty-four students, or 10.7 percent, were not enrolled in District 150 schools—these are either students who are new to the district, district students who attended private or parochial schools, or were homeschooled in the past. This accomplishes one of the goals set forth for this charter school—to bring families back and to keep families from leaving.

District 150 data shows a 20 to 30 percent achievement gap between low-income students and non-low income students in fourth, fifth and sixth grades. This gap is most evident in math, science and reading. Recent analysis also showed that just 63 percent of District 150 students graduate after four years of high school, compared to the state average of 74 percent.

Vicky Stewart, charter school board member and vice president at Illinois Central College, says, “If we are to achieve President Obama’s goal of leading the world in college completion by 2020, we must make preschool-12th grade education a priority. Nationwide, four out of every 10 new college students, including half of those at two-year institutions, must take remedial classes upon entrance into college. Solving the problem with remedial programs at the college level is not the best solution. We must use every avenue possible to ensure that the young people in our community graduate from high school ready for college and a career.”

The Peoria Metro Region is forecast to have 7,000 fewer skilled workers than needed in 2012, partially because of the issues with regional educational achievement. Without a qualified workforce, it is quite possible that businesses will begin leaving the region in search of better-educated and higher-skilled workers. This would be a major economic hit to the area.

The District 150 administration understands a quality educational system directly correlates with economic growth and community vitality. Board member Kyle Ham believes that’s why district administrators decided they had to provide an educational alternative. “They realized an alternative could encourage parents to choose Peoria Public Schools as their educational choice and stay in this region,” he says. To accomplish this goal, District 150 and the City of Peoria developed a memorandum of understanding to investigate a math, science and technology educational opportunity within the District 150 area.

The Long Road to Development
The path of the Quest Charter Academy has been a long, sometimes difficult road over the past six years. It was and remains a true collaborative community effort. Business leaders, community members, educators and parents alike have put in their time and effort to make this project happen.

In 2007, a diverse 30-member community advisory committee comprised of members from higher education, health professions, trade unions, the business community, social service agencies, educators and parents, was established to coordinate a research effort to learn more about charter schools. This team visited charter schools in California, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin and worked closely with national and state charter school organizations to learn their inner workings and how the charter school concept would best fit into District 150.

A smaller steering committee was formed to summarize the research results and present recommendations to the Peoria District 150 Board of Education. This steering committee included Glen Barton, retired Caterpillar CEO; McFarland Bragg, executive director of the Peoria Community Action Agency; Dr. Cindy Fischer, retired District 150 administrator; Mac Pogue, retired IBM manager; Roberta Parks, president of the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce; Dr. Vicky Stewart, vice president of Illinois Central College; and Kyle Ham, president and COO of Peoria NEXT.

This committee established a not-for-profit organization called the Peoria Charter School Initiative (PCSI) and responded to the district’s application request for a charter school proposal. This process was very complex, requiring four months of full-time work. It was completed and presented to the public on June 2, 2009. The proposal included starting a charter school with grades five, six and seven. There were to be three classes per grade level, with 25 students per class, totaling 75 students per grade. An additional grade would be added each year until the school provided educational content for students in grades five through 12, reaching its full capacity of 600 students.

While the application met district standards for approval, due to significant cuts in state and local funding, the district Board of Education became concerned with funding the charter school for the 2010 school year. One such cut was state transitional funding for charter schools, which was supposed to help the district recoup costs incurred for the first three years of operation of a charter school. Based on financial anomalies like this, the District 150 school board proposed delaying the opening to the 2011 school year.

Glen Barton said the consensus among PCSI members was that if the opening was delayed until 2011, community support and momentum would be lost. “This type of delay would probably result in no charter school in Peoria District 150,” he said. Fortunately, the Caterpillar Foundation responded by offering a $500,000 challenge grant to the community, under the condition that the charter school be opened in 2010.

“This community realized the importance of this new educational opportunity and responded en masse,” according to Barton. $288,000 was raised in two months, just in time for the application to be voted on and passed by the school board. “Thanks to the strong community support and this additional funding, the State Board of Education approved PCSI’s request for a charter on April 13, 2010.”

To date, the community has raised $440,660 toward that $500,000 Caterpillar Foundation challenge, but Barton says this doesn’t mean that fundraising will cease when that mark is met. The need for fundraising will continue.

An Innovative Alternative
Quest Charter Academy will begin with grades five through seven, adding one grade each year for a total capacity of 600 students in grades five through 12. For the first year, the school will be housed in a vacant District 150 school at the corner of University and McClure streets, which formerly housed Loucks Middle School.

Quest students will wear uniforms, and the school is structured to provide a strong, safe learning environment. There will be 28 percent more instructional time than traditional schools, with a longer school day and school year, and double periods of math and English at the middle school level. All students will take algebra in eighth grade.

Mac Pogue, PCSI board member, says the enrollment process of Quest Charter Academy is also unique. “Students are given diagnostic tests to help a team of teachers and the principal decide how to best educate each individual. Quest requires a level of commitment by parents and students, and they will actually sit down with the principal and sign contracts of their commitment to the school’s expectations.” Pogue says the curriculum is designed by Concept Schools and includes Project Lead the Way components such as pre-engineering and technology classes.

Quest Charter Academy has a unique mix of instructional strategies, including direct teaching, differentiated instruction, problem-based learning and the infusion of technology in teaching and learning. Student performance is measured weekly by grade-level teams, and the results of all assessments are available within 48 hours to teachers, parents and students. The data allows the teams to develop specific strategies for student achievement and reshape instruction based on what each student needs. Students are also supported with before- and afterschool programs, Saturday school, lunch and recess learning programs, and summer academic camps. The school will focus on communicating with parents, offering four parent-teacher conferences and an online database to access classroom records. Teachers are asked to make home visits and provide monthly progress reports.

Traditional schools require 18 credits for graduation; Quest requires 28 credits. Graduation requirements include:

MATHEMATICS      
4 credits including Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II, Pre-Calculus
SCIENCE           
4 credits including Physics, Chemistry, Biology
ENGLISH
6 credits including Survey of Literature, World Literature, American Literature, British Literature, and 2 credits of Writing
SOCIAL STUDIES
2 credits including World History and American History/Government
COMPUTER TECHNOLOGY
2 credits
FINE ART   
1 credit
PHYSICAL EDUCATION   
1 credit
COLLEGE PATHWAY   
2 credits including ACT/SAT Prep and College Path
ELECTIVES       
6 credits; 1 must be in Technology; 2 must be in Foreign Languages; 1 must be Consumer Ed/Economics; 1 credit must be taken online
TOTAL
28 credits

The curriculum also includes:

  • Service learning           
  • Senior thesis   
  • Two Project Lead the Way classes 
  • College Pathway 
  • Advanced Placement classes.

Studies have shown that the skill set of the current workforce is not matching up with what future jobs are going to require. America is beginning to see critical shortages of engineers, scientists, nurses, technicians, technologists and teachers—careers that have a foundation of math, science and technology. Local businesses agree and are already seeing a shortage of qualified applicants. Another PCSI board member, McFarland Bragg, says the Quest curriculum will have a college-prep focus. “By offering this more focused curriculum on math, science and technology, we hope to bridge that gap and help our local businesses find the workforce they need right here at home.”

College acceptance is a critical focus, which is why Quest offers ACT/SAT preparation classes and college counseling beginning in eighth grade. Once in ninth grade, Quest will assist students with college visits, fairs, scholarships and completing college applications. It is a goal for the school that each student goes on to college fully prepared for the curriculum awaiting them.

Students at Quest will also be able to participate in extracurricular programs like clubs, special interest groups and advance study teams; local, national and international field trips; soccer, basketball, volleyball, baseball, softball and track; and music programs. iBi 

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