Brandon Wright was having a typical afternoon in high school last week - hustling to get from one class to another.
But a normal day for the 16-year-old and the other 375 students at Toledo School for the Arts is probably a little unorthodox and may make youngsters at a traditional public school a little envious.
On Wednesday, for example, a fast-moving dance class was followed by a Spanish II class that was briefly interrupted by an opera singer practicing just outside the classroom.
Why do kids like Brandon and their parents choose charter schools instead of regular public schools? The answers are usually the same: Their traditional school system has let them down; they want a smaller and safer atmosphere; they want personal attention, and in most cases, they want a particular academic focus.
The charter school movement, which began in Ohio in 1998, has been under constant fire - mostly from the state's teachers' unions and traditional school district leaders - because of the vast number of charter schools that post unacceptable scores on state tests, and in some cases, have fiscal troubles.
"The stories and the headlines are always that charter schools are doing so bad, with a small paragraph at the end that says, 'except for Toledo School for the Arts and a handful of others,' " said Martin Porter, director of the Toledo School for the Arts. "When I can take a breath and look at my school, I am amazed at how well we are doing at the same time the political atmosphere for charter schools is so terrible."
Even the harshest critics grudgingly admit that some charter schools are doing well.
"There are some charter schools that are excellent, but they are few in numbers," said state Sen. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo), who has called for poorly run charter schools and those that chronically post failing test scores to be closed. "We want to find out what makes a good charter school good."
The Blade visited four Toledo-area charter schools that many educational leaders think could be an example for other, less-successful charter schools: Toledo School for the Arts, Performing Arts School of Metropolitan Toledo, Horizon Science Academy Toledo, and Wildwood Environmental Academy.
All four schools are filled with younger teachers, many of whom are only a few years out of college. Charter school administrators say younger teachers are more receptive to different ideas and tend to work longer hours and can be paid less too. Each of the four schools also places a great investment on their buildings - creating an attractive and inviting atmosphere.
Toledo School for the Arts, a fine and performing arts-focused school near downtown Toledo, is the top academically rated charter school in Lucas County. The challenge, says school Director Martin Porter, is to make sure charter schools that get results are separated from the pack of struggling charter schools.
Charter schools are publicly funded but privately operated. A case now before the Ohio Supreme Court could determine whether, or in what form, the educational experiment should continue.
The state plans to spend about $441 million this year on charter schools, which serve about 60,000 schoolchildren.
"I think too often the public is trying to find one measurement that says everything about a school setting," Mr. Porter said. "I think what the charter schools are attempting to do is that not every school or family uses the same measure of quality."
The Ohio Department of Education uses a five-tier ranking system to let the public know if a school or school district is making the grade. In 1999, it began assigning labels of academic emergency, academic watch, continuous improvement, effective, and excellent. When the 2004-2005 grades were released, 71 percent of the charter schools that got a rating, were in the lowest two categories. Only five charter schools statewide fall into the top category of excellent.
Toledo School for the Arts is rated by the state as an "effective" school, and its graduation rate is 97.1 - higher than any Toledo Public high school.
The main attractions at the schools, however, are classes such as visual arts, dance, and music, and how all of those studies are integrated into courses like math, foreign language, writing, and social studies.
"We are probably attracting a group of students who are motivated in the arts, and there is significant data that says students motivated in the arts do better," Mr. Porter said.
From his viewpoint, Mr. Porter said it should not be a surprise so many charter schools don't produce results.
"So many students in charter schools have behavioral problems and special learning needs, and many of those schools are set up to address those," Mr. Porter said. "We tell people that Toledo School for the Arts is not for everybody and if their child has no interest in the arts, we are not a good choice for them."
In Brandon's case, he said, Toledo School for the Arts was a great choice.
"We wanted something different than [Toledo's Start High School] and to be honest, I was in basketball before I came here, and now that I'm in dance, it's making my life more successful," he said. "Plus, we don't have too many problems here like the fights and honestly, I have been out of trouble since I came here."
The Performing Arts School of Metropolitan Toledo, located in the former Secor Hotel downtown, is often confused with Toledo School for the Arts. But the schools have no connection and a somewhat different focus.
"I don't see us as competitors. I see us as serving two different markets," said Kari DiCianni, the school's executive director.
The school is rated "continuous improvement" by the state, the same as Toledo Public Schools.
Mrs. DiCianni admits her school has had some struggles. It's changed locations three times, has experienced drops in enrollment below 100 students, and is $325,000 in debt.
Unlike Toledo School for the Arts, which has students from 15 northwest Ohio school districts, including Findlay, Performing Arts School is made up predominantly of students from Toledo Public Schools. It is more than 80 percent female.
The school's graduation rate is 92.7, and Mrs. DiCianni proudly points out that all but one of her 13 teachers are considered highly qualified by federal standards.
Leaders of embattled charter schools, such as the Toledo Academy of Learning, say it's unfair to compare a central-city mainstream education charter school with schools like Toledo School for the Arts, Performing Arts School, or those that operate closer to Toledo's suburbs like Wildwood Environmental.
The Toledo Academy of Learning, one of the city's largest charters, is in danger of closing unless it can either convince its authorizing agency - the Lucas County Educational Service Center - to keep its contract when it expires in June or find another agency to take over oversight of the school.
Denise Guynn, Toledo Academy of Learning co-director, said her school is filled with students that have left TPS several years behind grade level.
"You can't expect us to have perfect grades with the students that we are servicing," she said.
The school is in academic emergency and did not meet any state standards except for attendance during the 2002-03 and 2003-04 school years.
Susan Wolf, school leader of Wildwood Environmental Academy, said her school's location is a contributing factor to its early success but noted it has its own challenges, including a fair number of special-education children.
The school is in Springfield Township and does not have a large number of central-city children who have challenges associated with lower-income families.
Wildwood Environmental, which is one of six managed in Lucas County by Leona Group of East Lansing, Mich., does not have a rating from the state of Ohio because it has not been open a full two years and did not have enough students to take the state's standardized exams last year.
Of the students who were tested last year, Ms. Wolf said many grade levels had 100 percent passing.
"Our focus is obviously environmental and we integrate that a lot," she said. "Other schools give [state] practice test after practice test and that takes the excitement out of learning."
Like nearly all charter schools nationwide, Wildwood Environmental is nonunion, and Ms. Wolf said that is actually a benefit.
"It's a merit-based system and the teachers that are here are here because they want to be," she said.
Barb Maniak said she chose Wildwood over Toledo Public Schools for all four of her children.
"My oldest daughter is [in special education], and with Toledo Public Schools, it was always about what she can't do, and when we came here, it was about what she can do," Ms. Maniak said.
Horizon Science Academy Toledo, which also operates in the former Secor Hotel, downstairs from the Performing Arts School, is geared toward math and science. Much the same way Toledo School for the Arts injects art and music into lessons on the American Revolution, Horizon Science infuses math and science into nearly everything.
Emrah Ayhan, president of the board of directors for Horizon Science Academy Toledo, said the school offers small classes, one-on-one tutoring, and opportunities to explore math and science through local and international field trips.
Horizon Science Academy, which is a continuous improvement-rated school, uses a blend of American, Turkish, Chinese, and Soviet educational techniques.
"In those countries, they teach theory, but in the U.S., the teaching is based mostly on experiments," Mr. Ayhan said. "What we do is really try and give the students a chance to be creative in what they are doing - sometimes with complex problems."
Mr. Ayhan said his school's students also arrive academically behind, and the staff devotes extra time to help them improve.
A second Toledo-area Horizon Science Academy operates for 150 students in grades six through eight on Reynolds Road.
Laure Hammond has two daughters, one at each of the Horizon Science schools.
"I wanted a private-school feeling in public-school setting," she said. "The bottom line is, I didn't want to pay the tuition but I still wanted an elite school."
Contact Ignazio Messina at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6171.