Charter schools in Virginia to triple under Norfolk plan

Charter schools are poised to gain a much larger foothold in Virginia thanks to a plan under consideration by the Norfolk School Board to transform 10 traditional public schools into charter schools in the coming year.

Norfolk Superintendent Samuel King proposed the idea, called the Transformation Initiative, this spring as part of a broader plan to reform schools districtwide. His proposal would triple the number of charter schools operating in Virginia from the current five charters, including one scheduled to open in the fall.

The city’s School Board has given King the green light to keep developing the concept. In October, it will vote on official applications for each of the schools.

Meanwhile, the Richmond School Board approved a new charter school this week. The Richmond Career Education and Employment Academy will teach basic life and job skills to students who might struggle to live independently after graduation.

The new embrace of charter schools has not reached the northern part of the state. The Loudoun School Board turned down a charter application this spring, and another proposal, in Fairfax County, did not meet approval last year.

The Norfolk plan targets 10 high-poverty schools that have been struggling to meet state standards, including two schools that had been identified for a state takeover. Each charter will have a specialized theme, such as Montessori, International Baccalaureate, or science and technology, as well as a more flexible year-round schedule and a lottery system so students from across the city can apply.

Norfolk’s School Board will continue to oversee the charter schools, a departure from the typical charter model, in which outside groups run the schools.

Norfolk school officials are calling the schools “public conversion charters,” said Elizabeth Thiel Mather, spokesman for the city’s public schools.

“We know there are different definitions of charters. We wanted to be clear about what we meant,” she said. “A public conversion charter is a school that will have some elements of charter school but will remain under the oversight and policy of the School Board in the City of Norfolk. This is not a circumstance where an outside entity has said, ‘We’d like to take over your schools.’ ”

The transformation plan also includes a new open-campus high school for students at risk of dropping out. It would also be managed as a charter school, but with the help of an outside operator.

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in the Washington region.
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