OREM About 400 charter-school educators from all over the state gathered at Utah Valley State College in Orem on Monday to trade tips, talk shop and learn from the experts.
"I'm brand new to charter schools," said teacher Mathew Kennington, as he headed to the first workshop.
Kennington, a teacher at Maeser Prep Academy in Lindon, is transitioning from Meridian School, a private school in Provo. He planned to soak up all the knowledge he could during the two days of charter-school seminars.
Some of the classes were held at the Utah County Academy of Sciences, a charter early college high school on the UVSC campus.
It's the second annual conference for charter educators, sponsored jointly by the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools and CharterSTAR, a grant through John Hancock Charter School in Pleasant Grove.
Besides about 60 presenters, the keynote speaker is UVSC President William A. Sederburg. He is slated to speak today at 8 a.m.
Dozens of vendors are targeting the conference with offers including textbooks, SMART Boards, lockers and uniforms.
This fall, there will be 67 Utah charter schools serving about 28,000 students. Nationwide, there are more than one million students attending more than 4,000 charter schools in 40 states and the District of Columbia.
Nationally, the number of students attending charter schools is growing annually by about 15 percent, according to the State Office of Education.
Marlies Burns, director of state charter schools, said a new issue charter schools are facing is the Legislature's new requirement for an official accountability process.
"Charter schools have been held accountable, but this is a very formalized process that is outlined in legislation, which will put them on a five-year plan," Burns said.
At the end of five years, there will be a high-stakes review to determine whether the charter schools have met their goals. Some schools could face corrective action or assistance, she said.
Charter schools are public schools created by a group of parents, teachers or community leaders who see an educational need in their community and want to meet that need.
To operate, charter founders must submit an application for approval by the State Charter School Board or the board of a school district. Charter schools are funded by taxpayer dollars, must abide by state law and are held to the same testing requirements as mainstream public schools. Charter schools may not discriminate in admissions nor charge tuition.
Opening a charter school is no small task. Every school is different and faces varying challenges. Burns said the state has been focusing on training charter-school leaders for an entire year prior to their opening a school. "Because of that, I believe they are more ready to open than some of the schools that opened up the first few years," she said.
Mark Etheridge, school community coordinator for City Academy in Salt Lake City, said charter schools emerging now don't have the learning curve the early charter schools did. City Academy was one of the original eight in the state. "A lot of people have learned from our experiences," he said. "It's easier for the ones who have started in the last few years."
Charter schools receive startup funding the first year and then are on their own. Etheridge said common questions are: "Where did you find the building? How did you get tables and chairs? How did you get kids in the building? How did you figure out this law and that law?"
Many charter-school administrators were teachers first. And they aren't experts at starting or running a school, Etheridge said.
"Our school, day one, 11:30 a.m., the kids said, 'Where's lunch?' Oh, yeah." The school brought in fast food for a month until they figured it out, he said. Every charter school's story is different.
Edith Bowen Laboratory School in Logan had already existed in conjunction with Utah State University. The school was accepted as a charter school last fall through Logan School District. The main challenge there has been the paperwork and formalities."It's been a challenge, but the state and charter school office is so well informed. They just stayed with us all the way through it," said Mark Peterson, principal of Edith Bowen.