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Finding a Home

Are charter school facilities anywhere near being comparable to those of traditional schools? With about 2,700 charters operating across the United States, the question doesn't have an easy answer.

The majority of charter schools are situated in humble surroundings. Charter advocates struggle to find appropriate spaces to lease or buy, and many of the schools have to wrestle with facility headaches such as poor indoor air quality; small, inflexible classrooms and inadequate support spaces; and inadequate or outmoded computers.

“Without a doubt, facilities issues are the No. 1 problem facing most charter schools,” says Ernest Villany, treasurer of the board of trustees of Teaneck Community Charter School in Teaneck, N.J.

Michael Duggan, executive director of the Domus Foundation, a social-service agency that operates Trailblazers Academy, a charter middle school in Stamford, Conn., agrees. “I'd put facilities issues right up there with the need to pay teachers a competitive wage.”

Perhaps only now, when many charter schools have had a few years of experience, we can begin to talk about the importance of adequatefacilities to the success of a charter school.

Up to par?

Not every charter school is burdened with inadequate facilities. Schools such as San Diego's High Tech High School possess buildings and technological resources that may be the envy of the regular public schools nearby.

In its third year, High Tech High occupies renovated spaces in a former Naval Training building. The school features a commons room, individual workstations for all students, project rooms, multipurpose seminar rooms and specialty labs. And, with plentiful support from San Diego's high-tech business community, the school excels in its efforts to train students to use high-tech equipment.

But High Tech High is the exception. The list of potential problems that many charters schools have to cope with seems almost endless. Many charters do not have their own gyms, playgrounds, cafeterias or auditoriums. Others are saddled with minuscule classrooms, or almost no windows.

Some issues arise because of a school's location or mission. A charter school in an affluent suburb can find its site selection constrained by a kind of Catch-22, says Rex Shaw, principal and director of the Teaneck Community Charter School. Real-estate prices in the area may be so high that most available, appropriate properties are financially out of reach, but the school's charter may require it to work within a specific demographic area.

The ability to find solutions to these kinds of challenges is critical to the success of charter schools. Inadequate or inappropriate facilities affect the quality of the educational experience and may hurt a charter's enrollment. Substandard facilities discourage parents who might have been willing to give the school a try.

Learning from charters

Personal opinions may vary about the value of the charter movement, but it is clear that American public education is expanding the choices available to parents and students. Charters will remain an important strand in the fabric of public education for years to come.

Leaders of public schools and designers of public school facilities may be able to learn from charter schools. Many charter schools overcome their inadequate facilities by applying every available ounce of creativity to transform constrained spaces into environments that are as flexible as possible.

Similarly, some charters do not let tight operating budgets stand in their way when it comes to investing in technology. For instance, the Teaneck Community Charter School took advantage of the fact that many parents work in high-tech fields by forming a technology committee. It advises the school on technology issues and holds regular events to raise money for equipment purchases.

Making do can be the mother of invention in other ways. Contemporary educational theorists talk about the need to dissolve the barriers between the classroom and the wider world beyond. Some charters have taken the lead in doing just this, by making field trips an essential adjunct to their in-class curriculum.

“We're always taking trips,” says Shaw. “For a module on World War II, we went to the Intrepid [the sea-air-space museum housed in a 1940s-era aircraft carrier docked on Manhattan's West Side] for a module on medieval history. We traveled to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York so that the kids could see how the Gothic cathedrals were built.”

Such curricular creativity can take charters only so far in working around their facilities' limitations.

“It all comes down to the dollar,” says Duggan.

A great number of charters are perpetually short of cash. Many charters are forced to spend precious time looking for new ways to enhance facilities budgets and fund renovations. Duggan advises charters against taking out large loans for long-term leaseholds or to pay for extensive renovations. The repayment can eat up a significant chunk of the operating budget. Charter school legislation differs widely from state to state, and some states forbid their charters from taking such loans.

Helping hands

So what can charters do to improve their facilities — or to escape their facilities' limitations — without busting budgets or devoting huge amounts of time to fund raising? One solution is to search for an architect who will provide pro bono assistance.

Many architecture firms do a certain amount of pro bono work, and some are willing to help a charter evaluate potential sites, assess a property's long-term value, bring a facility up to code, or design a renovation and help oversee construction. As with so much else that charters do, success in finding a willing architect may depend on personal connections.

At the Stamford Trailblazers Academy, a board member had a friend who is an architect and volunteered to donate his services in readying the school's classrooms, which were in a wing of a state vocational school. The inner-city Trailblazers Academy has a good working relationship with the state education department and the local school district, which made it possible for the school to lease space in an underused public school building.

Often, charter schools can compensate for their shortcomings by working out arrangements with other community institutions, which actually provide some of their space to charters.

The Unity Charter School in Morristown, N.J., operates out of a social hall (reconfigured as six classrooms and a common area) in the Columbian Club of Morristown. A number of charters in Oakland, Calif., began their existences in the schoolrooms of Oakland churches.

But suppose a charter school does not have its own gymnasium. That is the case at Stamford's Trailblazers Academy, which shares a building with J.M. Wright Technical School and has extremely limited access to the gym. According to Duggan, the school has worked out a deal with a nearby YMCA that allows the school to use the YMCA's facilities for physical-education classes on weekday afternoons. Charters without auditoriums or large-group meeting spaces often can work out similar arrangements with local theaters.

Cooperative ownership

Most charter schools that do not have their own building long for a permanent home. That dream can be deferred indefinitely because of funding limitations. One possible way out of the impasse may be to enter into a cooperative arrangement with a private or parochial school.

Teaneck Community Charter School is trying to do just that. For the past several years, it has leased space in a former office facility owned by a girls' yeshiva. The Teaneck charter is negotiating with the yeshiva to share ownership of the building.

Whatever approach a charter takes, one thing is clear: it takes a lot of time and effort to find an acceptable facility and to get that facility ready for school.

“I recommend that facility planning begin at least a year, at a minimum, before the first day of school,” says Villany.

In their enthusiasm for innovative curriculums, parent involvement and close student-teacher interaction, charter school supporters should not overlook the fact that effective education requires an acceptable learning environment.

Merritt, a former school superintendent, is director of educational planning and research for Fletcher-Thompson, Inc. Beaudin, AIA, is principal of Fletcher Thompson's Educational Studio. Charles Cassidy, director of magnet schools and interdistrict cooperative programs for the Connecticut State Department of Education, and Christine M. Casey, an educational consultant with Gordon Educational Technologies, Inc., contributed to this article.

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