By Kim Hilsenbeck
When Jewel Cournoyer and Natasha MacNevin, both directors at Sylvan Learning Centers in Central Texas, first talked about the idea of opening a public charter school, neither knew much about it. A mutual friend and former public school principal planted the seed.
“I had no idea what a charter school was,” Cournoyer said.
But research and conviction have made the two push toward opening a school in the Kyle area in 2017.
Cournoyer said she had to get over early perceptions of charter schools which weren’t positive.
One of her college professors said, “Let me tell you something about charter schools. They are businesses. They are not schools.”
That stuck with Cournoyer, especially since the professor was someone she respected.
MacNevin also felt she didn’t know enough about or truly understand a charter school concept.
Over the better part of the last year, the pair discovered just how much there was to know.
Becoming a public charter school in Texas, according to Cournoyer, is not exactly easy.
“We are proud to say it’s a very rigorous process to apply for a charter school status,” she said. “But we want to be the best. I like being held to expectations. Striving for those is going to make us better. It’s very challenging to get a charter in the state of Texas.”
Advocating for the Individual Mind, or AIM, is on track to open in the fall of 2017. Between now and then, much work remains, not the least of which is fundraising the $85,000 it will take just to open the doors of the school.
“We won’t get any money from the state until the students are in the school,” Cournoyer said.
Just like a traditional public school, AIM would receive state funding based on average daily attendance. That means if students are present on a given day, the school receives funding. And just as with traditional public schools, when students are absent without a documented excuse, they don’t receive money for that day or days.
As a public charter school – not a private school – it is a free public choice option.
Saying the words ‘school choice’ in Texas could get some people all fired up. But charters have nothing to do with proposed voucher systems where public school funds could be used for private schools.
A charter is within the public school sphere and operates much like a traditional public school, though Cournoyer and MacNevin say with even more accountability and scrutiny from the Texas Education Agency (TEA) that oversees public education in the state.
All students are welcome to the school.
“It is illegal to turn away students who apply for the charter school. We cannot deny anyone,” Cournoyer said.
A charter school is essentially its own school district with an appointed board of trustees.
“We are literally our own school district (ISD),” MacNevin said.
A third generation teacher who was trained in special education, Cournoyer said in her tiny hometown, no one spoke about charter schools positively.
She thinks the public has a different perception of charter schools. Both women believe there are several reasons for the misinformation floating around, including politics and a general misunderstanding of the nature of charter schools.
“There is stricter accountability for financial and academic performance [at a charter school],” MacNevin said. “People think there must be something different about charter schools and where they get their money, and they fundraise.”
Why fundraising? Because unlike a traditional public school, charters must come up with the capital to pay for a building, salaries, supplies and everything else that goes into supporting a school.
Cournoyer said she realizes some charter schools have made the news for misappropriation of funds and other issues.
“That is the truth at some charter schools where there’s been an inappropriate use of the money. Some people have abused it. And that’s made it to the forefront of public awareness,” she said.
But since it’s easier for the state to shut down a charter school than a traditional public school, she thinks the public may mistakenly believe that charter schools don’t work.
“It takes a lot to shut down a failed public school,” Cournoyer said.
MacNevin said her research into charters led her to conclude that the strict requirements of achieving charter school status forced her and her partner to make a plan for success.
“You’re required to have a five-year budget,” she said. “You have to have all these things in place, so it requires you to do the research.”
As they continue working toward the 2017 opening of AIM, Cournoyer and MacNevin have plans in place. They will serve kindergarten through third grade the first year with a school maximum of 240 students. If more students apply than there are spaces, subsequent applicants will be put into a lottery system managed by a neutral third-party.
AIM will then add a grade every year until the school serves K-12.
The plans call for 12 teachers on staff when the school opens.
The women said they will use a co-teaching model where two teachers teach core subjects. The student to teacher ratio is 20:1.
“Every year we will add a grade and three teachers,” MacNevin said.
Right now the school does not have a definite site, but Cournoyer said they are talking with the Word of Life Church on the east side of Kyle. The church owners are interested in selling the property.
“Are we married to it? No,” Cournoyer said. “But we are exploring it as an option.”
As classes begin, the school will follow the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, or TEKS. Their students will have to take the STAAR exams like all public school students.
As former teachers, Cournoyer and MacNevin said they found some things in public education that could be improved upon.
“First, making sure students are mastering skills with the ability to take them to the next level,” Cournoyer said. “We don’t want to ‘teach to the test,’ so to speak.”
She added that she and MacNevin want to see their students receive a more personalized learning and educational experience. Each student will have what they called a Customized Evolving Education Plan (CEEP).
The pair also want students to be “society ready” when they leave the school. Built into their daily lesson plans will be four core values of academics, society and empathy, citizenship and health.
Community partners – eColors and Sylvan Learning Center – will help AIM provide the quality education they envision for their students.
eColors will help teach students how to deal with many personality types. Sylvan will offer parent-pay after school options.
And since a public charter school cannot turn any student away, the facility will be fully accessible and accommodating to students with disabilities of all kinds.
“We want diversity,” Cournoyer said. “We want anyone who is looking for another choice. It won’t be for everyone.”
Cournoyer said the school is aimed toward students who are not fulfilled at a traditional public school.
MacNevin and Cournoyer want to hire teachers they consider the cream of the crop and want to pay on the same scale as Hays CISD.
Cournoyer said, “Teachers don’t become teachers for the money. But should we prey on that? No.”
To help students and teachers alike, AIM calls for year-round school with six weeks on and two weeks “recharge.”
Cournoyer said, “We have a year round curriculum so your hard work is not lost over three months [over the summer break].”