For Jenna Hodgens, being the supervisor of charter schools for Hillsborough County means running her own little school district. • She oversees the district's 43 charter schools and is responsible for everything from the charter application process to training to state compliance issues. And given the growing popularity of charter schools — eight opened in the county this year — she is always busy. • Hodgens, a former teacher and a mother of two sons, sat down with Times staff writer Elizabeth Behrman recently and gave a primer on everything charter schools.
What is the difference between a charter school and a regular public school?
The difference between a traditional public school and a charter school — because they are both public schools — is that a charter school has its own board of directors. They are able to create their own policy and procedures and curriculum that they use. They have a contract with the school district — that's the relationship — but they are not a school district-run school.
Why are charter schools so popular right now?
It was an education reform in the beginning, and people wanted to see things done differently in public education. I think it took a little bit of time to get it going because in the beginning there were no regulations, and therefore no accountability. Now the regulations have gotten tighter and there's more accountability, which is a good thing fiscally and academic achievement-wise. I think that made the movement become a little more viable.
And I think you're seeing more about them because you hear more about them. You hear the president talk about them, the governor, the commissioner of education. When you hear more about them, people are more interested in creating them and going to them. That's just my opinion.
What are some common misunderstandings parents have about charter schools?
The biggest one is that they think the district runs the school. When there's a problem, they always call the district. We obviously listen to parents, but many times what they call about are things that we really don't have any control over. We explain the process to them and we usually refer them to the principal or the board if they have problem. Our board members can't really do anything to fix that charter school unless it's a statutory issue or student health and safety issue. But if it's a "my son got a B and he should have an A," they have to call the school.
Do students in charter schools take the FCAT?
Yes. Anything that's part of the state accountability system when it comes to testing they are required to do. Any other type of progress monitoring testing, they can do their own. But FCAT, end-of-course exams, kindergarten readiness tests, all of that they have to do. Anything state required.
What is the process like for schools to get a charter? How difficult is that?
You have to have a founding board, and that group will apply. There is an online model application from the Department of Education. It's not fill in the blanks. It's really creating a plan for your school. It has a section for educational designs, facilities, it has governance structures, it's got a business plan. It's a huge endeavor. They turn it in to the district on Aug. 1, and we have 60 days to review those applications and make a decision to our board. If the application meets the statutory requirements, then we normally recommend approval and our board approves it.
What kind of statutory requirements?
There are some in each area. Having a very, very detailed curriculum, spelling out your reading program in detail. How are you going to work with low-level and high-level learners? How are you going to govern your school? What is the financial plan? What is your five-year budget? It's very, very specific.
How many applications do you typically get?
We received 11 applications this year. That is an all-time low for the school district. We had 27 last year, and out of 27, 10 were approved. The year before we had 25, and out of 25, seven were approved.
What are some of the main challenges that the boards of these schools face?
I think the two biggest ones are academics and the fiscal management of these schools. These boards are all volunteer, so just the time commitment sometimes. It's a job, and it's a free job for these people. But most of our schools do have boards that are committed and find the time to meet and put students first.
What would you say are the advantages or disadvantages of sending a child to a charter school versus a traditional school?
I really think the advantage is just parental choice. I always tell them, whatever the school, they need to go and visit and feel the climate. I'm a parent and I have kids in the school system. That's important to me. I think we do great things for kids every day in our charter schools as well in our district schools, so it's more of where does your child fit? What's best for your family?
Sunday Conversation is edited for clarity and brevity.