When Sarah Groessl and Jeff Masciopinto moved to Madison's east side in 2004, they switched their daughter Frankie from the west-side Preschool of the Arts to one closer to home. But whereas Frankie had thrived at her former preschool, she quickly became unhappy at her new one.
'It turns out this was a very traditional classroom setting, even in a preschool with a good reputation,' says Groessl. 'But she was left to her own devices. She wasn't needy, and she was good at independent play. Basically, she was ignored.'
After watching Frankie grow more and more unhappy with school, Groessl and Masciopinto, both physicians, decided to return her to the private Preschool of the Arts, despite the inconvenience. The school embraces a controversial 'constructivist' approach to learning. And Frankie, her parents say, is thriving. So is their nearly 3-year-old daughter, Audrey.
Now Groessl is wondering where 4-year-old Frankie will best be served for kindergarten. A recent tour of one private school left her unimpressed. Commercial posters plastered the walls, and the teacher proudly noted how every student colored the same bunny picture.
'The environment that I saw, it was just crushing the creativity out of them,' says Groessl. 'The lesson was that everyone had to be the same, do the same, and draw within the lines,' she says.
One possible alternative for Frankie and her parents is the Studio School, a proposed charter school modeled on the Preschool for the Arts. The school could open next fall, perhaps inside underused Lapham or Emerson Elementary, as Madison's third public charter school.
A constructivist approach favors inquiry-based project studies rather than prescriptive lessons. The school will also emphasize arts and technology, to tap kids' creativity.
'A school like this is great both for kids who don't learn well in traditional settings and for kids who are fine in traditional classrooms but are missing out on the opportunity to learn creative, outside-the-box thinking,' says Groessl.
Many parents are actively researching educational options for their young children. Increasingly, they are expecting more from public schools than the one-size-fits-all model schools have traditionally offered. Across the state, school districts are opening more charter schools and boosting their offerings of online and virtual classes to diversify educational approaches.
Some see these alternatives as necessary for the future of public school districts ' especially urban ones struggling to eliminate the racial and income achievement gaps while expanding opportunities for both struggling and high-performing students.
'While the system serves many children well, it doesn't serve all of them well,' says Senn Brown of the Wisconsin Charter Schools Association. 'By recognizing that kids learn differently, and by creating options to serve them, school districts do better for all kids.'
Charter schools have sprouted up across the nation in response to growing demands from parents and educators who want more choice in public education. Nationwide, about 1.2 million children currently attend almost 4,000 charter schools. Most are overseen by local school districts, and target a specific niche or teaching philosophy.
Unlike Milwaukee's voucher schools, which are private schools that receive public funds, charter schools are public, nonsectarian schools created by contract or 'charter' with the sponsoring school board. Under state law, charter schools are granted freedom from rules and regulations in order to pursue more creative approaches.
In Wisconsin, nearly 200 charter schools are operated by local school districts. Federal grants, administered through the state Department of Public Instruction, aim to add 100 more charter schools in Wisconsin over the next few years.
Brown says that Wisconsin, unlike some other states, has not seen 'almost overnight growth' in its charter schools. 'Here, it's been more evolutionary. Like any new idea, it takes time for people to understand it and embrace it, because it is a change.'
Wisconsin's expansion has occurred in part because of a three-year, $52 million federal grant. In August, the state awarded more than 30 grants of $10,000 each for start-up proposals, including the Studio School in Madison. More than a dozen districts received $150,000 implementation grants for schools set to open.
The beneficiaries of this funding range from big-city districts like Milwaukee to tiny districts like Butternut and Mellen. Sheboygan received grants for six different proposals.
Many districts are looking to the Appleton Area School District as a model for robust experimentation. The district, with about 15,000 students, has 12 charter schools. 'It's been a win-win for charter and traditional schools,' Brown says.
Appleton's charter schools range from the Classical School, a K-8 school of 423 students that embraces the Core Knowledge curriculum and Direct Instruction, to Odyssey-Magellan, a school of 137 gifted students from grades three to eight that is partially integrated into other schools. The district also offers a Montessori school for grades 1-6, an alternative high school for kids struggling in the traditional high school setting, and a high school focused on engineering and technology.
'Our charter schools have filled unfilled niches,' says Linda Dawson, assistant superintendent of student services in Appleton. 'They've helped with overcrowding at some schools, they've allowed other schools to continue to exist with declining enrollment, and they get students and teachers together who share common interests and passions.'
Dawson says district officials scrutinize data ' whether it's from test scores or surveys of school morale ' to ensure that both charter and traditional schools continue to improve. And she says traditional schools have recognized the need to do better in order to stay competitive, which has boosted overall school quality.
'If large numbers of people are leaving a school, we need to look at whether that school is meeting the needs of its clients,' Dawson says. 'For us, charters have been a good thing.'
Charter schools have flourished in Dane County. Deerfield, Marshall and Middleton-Cross Plains operate alternative high school programs, while Verona has a charter school dedicated to the Core Knowledge curriculum. Cambridge and Monroe have granted charters to virtual schools.
Madison seems more ambivalent.
For years, school officials here rejected charter schools. This was due in part to fear that students from more-involved families would disproportionately opt out of traditional schools, leaving behind higher numbers of low-income and minority students.
'Charter schools may be part of creating a two-level system of education, where low-income students have one set of options, and wealthier families have more options,' argues veteran Madison school board member Carol Carstensen. 'It troubles me that we're pulling away from a common school experience, and some people are essentially saying, 'Traditional public schools may be good enough for those kids, but not for my kid.''
Carstensen's views once commanded the majority of the Madison school board. Not anymore. She was the lone dissenter this April when the board gave its support for a $10,000 planning grant for the Studio School. Several board members see the proposal ' and others like it ' as the antidote to some of the district's problems.
The newest charter
Madison has made just two forays into charter school territory: Wright Middle School, a 240-student, 6-8 school that mostly follows district curriculum and teaching practices, and Nuestro Mundo, a charter school created in 2004 by supporters of bilingual education.
Backers of the Studio School hope to follow the success of Nuestro Mundo, located in Frank Allis Elementary School on Buckeye Road. With 143 students K-2 and plans to expand one grade each year, the school's primary focus is dual-immersion instruction, where students learn both English and Spanish.
'Nuestro Mundo has been a wonderful gateway to the Studio School because of its success,' says parent and teacher Nancy Donahue, who's spent more than two years putting together the Studio School proposal.
The school board, which voted 6-1 to support the DPI planning grant, is expected to review the proposal in December, with a final vote on the project scheduled for January. A yes vote would allow the school to open in the fall.
Given the Madison district's ambivalence toward charter schools, Studio School backers admit they're nervous. 'I'm not feeling any acrimony or outward discomfort,' says Donahue, 'but by the same token I'm not feeling the district is supportive, either.'
Donahue is preparing to answer tough questions about the school's unorthodox curriculum. The constructivist approach stresses letting students investigate and work on projects. Students pick a given topic ' whether it's sewer systems, dinosaurs or gravity ' and teachers tailor lessons around those interests. Constructivist classrooms do provide direct instruction but, says Donahue, 'you cannot have a preset curriculum to the degree you can in a traditional classroom.'
One of the misconceptions of charter schools is that students are held to different standards of accountability. Not so. Formal state testing begins in the third grade and, if the Studio School expands to that level, students would take the same state tests.
'The district is going to be scrutinizing everything we do,' Donahue says. 'We know we have to provide evidence that we're doing what we say we're going to do.'
The current plan is for the Studio School to open its doors to students within the attendance area of its home school. Any unfilled seats would then be available to parents across the district, if they agree to pay for transportation. Donahue says officials will market the school to targeted communities to ensure it represents the diversity of its attendance area.
Among the school's major backers are leaders of Madison's arts community, who've been bruised for years over continuing fine arts cuts in Madison's schools.
In a letter of support, officials at the Overture Center for the Arts proclaimed the Studio School will be a 'valuable experiment' that will serve as a model for other schools emphasizing the arts. And leaders of the Madison Children's Museum say the school will be a 'very bright spot in the Madison Metropolitan School District's future.'
Donahue knows she has an uphill battle to convince skeptical district officials and budget-conscious school board members to open a new school that takes a different approach. But she thinks the case can be made.
'We're not angry, bitter people,' says Donahue. 'We're not hyper-activists. We're a small group of involved people who want to do something positive. This isn't meant to make the Madison school district look bad. It's a means to improve the district by providing options.'
Donahue adds, 'There are people leaving this school district. We need to do things to make families want to come to Madison schools.'
The big picture
Two years ago, the Studio School would likely have failed to win support from a majority of the school board. But with the departure of Bill Clingan, Bill Keys and Juan Jose Lopez, the new authority of Lawrie Kobza as vice president and the ascendance of Johnny Winston Jr. to the board's presidency, the board has undergone a transformation.
The current board's new energy was evident at a workshop led by Winston this summer. Board members hammered out a list of ambitious goals, including fixing problems previous boards have ignored.
Winston has been more willing than his predecessors to green-light controversial discussions, allowing board members to advance their own priorities. Lucy Mathiak has succeeded in getting an objective review of the math curriculum. Ruth Robarts has pushed health-insurance talks to the forefront. Kobza is developing new ways for the board to weigh in on budget matters. And Arlene Silveira is chairing a committee on public relations.
While the school board has yet to vote on major reforms, the seeds are taking root. Most board members are beginning to recognize the damage done by constantly complaining about state-imposed revenue caps. It's a message that's failed to resonate with voters, and it's allowed the board to avoid experimenting with new approaches to challenges.
As Winston puts it, 'We've been hit very hard by the revenue limits, and the tendency is to say, 'Woe is me.' It's hard not to get sucked into that. Every year, we go into this collective depression.'
The Studio School charter proposal will be a critical benchmark, testing the board's willingness to embrace reform and experimentation.
Winston's instincts put him squarely in support of the Studio School. 'Here are people who actually have taken the time, have gone through all the steps to make something good happen,' he says. 'I'm fascinated by that, and I want to support them as much as I can.'
If approved, the Studio School will be eligible for an additional $40,000 planning grant, and then larger grants, up to $150,000, over three years. The costs of opening and running the new school would be borne by the district.
'We do need to be looking at different ways of teaching our young people,' says Winston. 'We do need to be innovative and look at new approaches.'
That's a tall order in Madison, Winston acknowledges.
'When you get on this school board, it's hard to get past the idea that you're just trying to stay afloat,' he says. 'The district staff has been cut, and they have more challenges on their plate than ever before. People are discouraged. Innovation, I think, is a secondary thought.'
But it may not be secondary much longer.