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Jason Olson, Deseret Morning News
Brian Villescas, left, Sharoom Samuel and Adrianne Meadows study cell structure at AMES.

Around 15,000 students will be enrolled in more than 50 charter schools in Utah next year. And though a national study says U.S. charter schools serve a larger percentage of minority and low-income students than do traditional schools, Utah's charter enrollment demographic doesn't reflect that trend.

According to a report from the National Charter School Research Project, charters are predominantly found in urban areas. They are three times as likely to be located in big cities, and thus serve more low-income and minority students.

A number of Utah high schools do target low-income and minority students, like the six New Century early college high schools.

Al Church, director of the Academy of Math Engineering and Sciences, said charter schools lend themselves to serving minority and low-income students because of the smaller environment.

AMES is an early college high school that targets minorities and economically disadvantaged students.

"It's a small school, and that gives our students and our parents a chance to have a lot of connection with our school," Church said. "We try to have smaller class sizes — overall teachers have less class load than at a traditional high school — and we get to know our kids more deeply."

Brian Allen, a member of the State Charter Board, said charter schools also tend to manage progress individually rather than a group as a whole.

"I think there is more of a commitment to individual student achievement in charters," Allen said. "They are more passionate about individual student achievement — it's a real cultural thing with charter schools. They are vigilant in getting results because they know people are expecting results."

Though nationally, charter schools seem to attract more minorities and poor students, Utah's charter enrollment so far is the reverse.

This school year minority students make up 13 percent of Utah charter school enrollment, while minorities at traditional schools number 18 percent statewide.

Last school year — the most recent figures available — 25 percent of charter students were from low-income families while 34 percent of traditional-school students were from poor homes.

And last year special education students made up around 9 percent of state charter enrollment while traditional schools had around 14 percent special-education students.

Whether Utah charter schools will soon reflect the national data is yet to be seen. With the rapid growth in charters, the demographics can change dramatically from year to year.

Currently Utah has 36 charter schools with nearly 12,000 students in 12 different school districts.

But next year another 15 schools are expected to open, meaning charter schools will be serving an estimated total 15,000 Utah students.

Charter schools are tuition-free public schools created on the basis of an agreement or "charter" between the school and the community. They are free, public schools but are dedicated to offering choice in education, and tout innovation.

The schools offer programs ranging from performing arts, dual language immersion and early college to film, high-tech and service learning programs.

For more information on Utah charter schools visit www.usoe.k12.ut.us/charterschools.


E-mail: terickson@desnews.com