Chartered public schools are one of the educational options available to New Hampshire families. There are 27 approved in New Hampshire, including the Academy for Science and Design which won national recognition and a bronze medal as one of the 2016 Best High Schools by US News & World Report. Despite the growth and academic success of chartered public schools across NH and the country, several bits of misinformation persist.
We recently interviewed Ms. Elizabeth Putnam, a Founder and the Director of Operations/Admissions of Polaris Charter School in Manchester, now in its fifth year of operation. Polaris’ mission is to “create a joyful and exciting learning community for intellectually curious elementary-aged children.” Ms. Putnam’s responses are in italics.
General questions about NH chartered public schools:
What is a charter school?
A charter school is a public school. Many people think that charter schools are private schools, but we are not. Every charter school in New Hampshire is non-profit. There are no for-profit charter schools in our state.
Do they charge tuition?
No. We cannot charge tuition. We are a public school that receives state and federal funding.
Can anyone apply?
Yes, any resident of the state of NH can apply to a NH charter school. You do not have to reside in the town or city in which the charter school is located.
Are charter school students less diverse, or do they “cherry pick” the best students?
We are not allowed to select our students. Families choose whether or not they want to enroll, and if they are unhappy, they can also withdraw their child and go elsewhere. Polaris has a very diverse population of students from different cultures, different types of families, and different economic levels. Approximately 10% of our students have IEPs.
Are schools limited to only those students residing in the local zip code?
No. As long as the student is a NH resident, he or she can attend any NH charter school. Polaris has students from approximately 15 different communities. We have students who travel as much as an hour to get to our school.
Can charter schools be religious schools?
No, we cannot.
What are the qualifications necessary for teaching at a charter school?
Charter schools in NH are required to have at least 50% of our teachers be certified. Most charter schools have more than 50%. Although not necessary, many of them have a master’s degree.
Where do charter schools get their funding?
Charter schools in NH get their funding from the state. We do not receive funding from local tax dollars like public school districts. The local tax dollars do not follow the child to the public charter school but remain with the public school district in which the child lives.
In what ways are charter schools accountable to the public?
Charter schools are held highly accountable to the NH Department of Education and to our students’ families. The NH Department of Education approved our opening after a very lengthy application process. We are required to report to the NHDOE on a regular basis, including yearly financial audits. We are also required to renew our charter every five years. If we don’t do well, during the re-authorization process the NHDOE would not renew our charter and we would have to close. Because we are a school of choice, if our families feel that we are not doing a good job, they will leave. Our funding is based on enrollment, so if we do not have enough students enrolled, we would have to close due to lack of funding.
Massachusetts recently had a referendum vote that went against expanding their charter schools. Do NH charter school people have any concerns about how it may impact our state?
No, it will not impact our state because every state’s department of education manages their own charter schools separately and differently from other states. What happens with charter schools in one state has nothing to do with what happens in another state. I believe that this is why many people in NH are misinformed about our charter schools. They hear about something happening with charter schools in another state and assume it’s the same in NH.
What do you see in the future for NH chartered public schools?
The dedicated people who open, work in, and advocate for charter schools in NH, do it for our children. There is no profit in it for any of us. As a matter of fact, many of us earn much less than other educators. We have a passion to help students who aren’t able to learn to their full potential in a traditional setting. Many of our students really struggled in a traditional setting. Each charter school has a different focus and way of teaching, so families can choose one that fits their child best. We complement traditional public schools who have been tasked with the incredibly difficult work of addressing the needs of a huge variety of learners. I see a future of us continuing to work well together to better the children of the state of NH. I see NH families having a choice for their child’s learning no matter whether they are rich or poor, live in a rural or urban community.
Specific questions about Polaris Charter School:
Tell us a little about Polaris Charter School.
Polaris Charter School is a rigorous, project-based elementary school that encourages accelerated learning with a move-on-with-ready approach. Each student has their own personal learning plan which allows them to set individual goals and work at their own level and pace. We also have a very strong social emotional learning program because developing the whole child is more important than simply developing academic skills.
What makes Polaris different from traditional public schools and other charters?
Our multi-age classrooms are small in size and each of our students works at their own level and pace on an individualized plan. Because of this, our students don’t have to wait for the rest of the class to catch up with them, nor do they have to race to try to catch up with everyone when they aren’t ready. Our students delve deeply into their projects, working on something that they are interested in while learning and practicing academic skills.
Is Polaris accepting applications for the next school year? Does Polaris have a wait list?
We will start accepting applications for the 2017-18 academic year in early January. The new application, information, dates, and deadlines will be posted on our website by Wednesday, January 4, 2017. We take applications for our waiting list all year-round.
How can interested families learn more?
Interested families can visit our website: www.polarischarterschool.org They can also email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call us at 603-634-0034.
To learn more about NH’s charter schools or find one near you, go to NH Alliance for Public Charter Schools. They are a 501c4 dedicated to developing and supporting charter schools in the Granite State.