Mount Pleasant Magazine July/August 2020

154 | | W hen it comes to education in Charleston county, we are not lacking for choices. Charter schools became an option in South Carolina in 1996. Today, we have several robust offerings that are listed on the website. Charter schools, like public schools, are publicly funded and do not charge tuition. However, unlike their public counterparts, Charters are independently run. In fact, they get their name “charter” from the contract, or “charter,” that a group gets to operate the school. To help navigate charter schools, East Cooper Montessori Principal Jody Swanigan offered some valuable insight. She came onboard as a teacher when ECM first opened and pivoted to the principal position shortly after. That was 17 years ago. First, she pointed out that if you are thinking about enrolling your child in a charter school, remember it is entirely lottery-based. “Unlike a neighborhood public school, anyone in the county can apply, which gives much-needed access to a more racially and economically diverse pool of families,” she said, adding that, in the case of ECM, she estimated they take in 900 applications a year for 60 slots. If you are considering a charter school, Swanigan said you need to make sure it fits the whole family, not just the child. “You have to be comfortable with being a big part of the school’s growth and development and involved in your child’s education,” she said. “There is a shared common goal to make the school great.” Swanigan feels charter schools are places that breed innovation, and that there is a “natural desire to lift it.” This is in part because of the way a charter school is structured by the nature of choice given to both families and educators. Charter schools offer more flexibility than public schools, in terms of the delivery of curriculum and school hours. Their funding is based on enrollment. And unlike traditional public schools — which are additionally funded for transportation and facilities — charter schools must use their instructional funding for all expenses, including transportation and facilities. “You take the per-pupil revenue allotment on the county level, take out revenue streams allotted for transportation, capital improvements or maintenance, and what is left are your instructional dollars,” Swanigan explained. She dismissed the misconception that charter schools have no oversight. “Charter schools administer the same high-stakes testing as all public schools and receive school report cards, so families compare the same data points across all publicly-funded schools. Charter schools follow the same health and safety mandates, curriculum mandates and similar employment laws,” she countered. She was careful to note that while 20% of the staff does not have to be teacher-certified, that only applies to non-core subject positions. Swanigan also cited the extensive audit standards, which is why charters depend on having a strong business plan in place. “The operational budget is more flexible and is set by the charter school governing board. The school can use their resources to add additional staff where it determines a need. For example, this year ECM is adding a medical health and safety specialist to help set guidelines for re-entry from a medical perspective, in addition to the school nurse.” Swanigan conceded that the appeal of a charter school is usually its size and reputation. True, smaller is not always better because bigger can include more options, but she feels there is a sweet spot that seals the deal for most families. “Gaining a personal relationship with a school is desirable for many families,” she said. “It’s more about the mindset of having local control, which also has its pros and cons. I like to say we are only limited by our own creativity. Without bureaucracy, without the infrastructure on a district level to depend on, it’s really up to the educators and families to create excellent experiences for our children. Great education happens with strong leadership, great resources, innovative spirit and awesome educators, whether charter or traditional.” Independent Schools The ABCs of Charter Schools BY PAMELA JOUAN East Cooper Montessori Principal Jody Swanigan.