2021 marks the 30th anniversary of the first ever charter school law enacted in the United States, in the state of Minnesota. Three years later, in 1994, President Clinton put his pen to legislation creating the federal Charter School Program.
The movement created by the legislation has proved massively popular, spawning charter schools in 44 states, including Arizona. Parents were now free to seek out a free public education for their children at a school other than the one within their district. Because these schools could innovate in their teaching methods and courses offered, programs could be tailored to students’ individual needs, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach that had been the traditional model of education.
The result has not only been increased popularity and enrollment for charter schools but increased levels of success. Charter school students consistently outrank traditional public school students in test scores, grades and other metrics of achievement. An added bonus has been that students from low income and traditionally marginalized communities have seen tremendous gains, according to Stanford University’s CREDO initiative, which studies education policy. This means reduced inequality and increased opportunity as students move into the workforce.
Like nearly every other sector of American society, however, charter schools have faced a reckoning due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The switch to online learning has presented massive challenges. Educators quickly learned that just putting a webcam in a class room doesn’t necessarily translate into happy and engaged students. According to another recent report by Stanford University, the average student has lost a third of a year to a full year’s worth of learning in reading, and about three-quarters of a year to more than a year in math since the pandemic began.
With lives upended and the needs of students and parents changing daily, there is clearly a need for schools that are nimble enough to innovate and get the students the help they need as the new school year beckons.
Thrivepoint High School is one fully accredited charter school that offers free online, hybrid, and ground-based instruction at its six physical locations throughout Arizona. Approximately 30% of Thrivepoint’s students participate in the online program and 70% participate in physical campuses or hybrid programs.
The school, which opened its first branch 25 years ago in Phoenix, bills itself as a place for students who are experiencing life events and situations that may preclude them from attending traditional schools.
“We are a great fit for all types of high school students with family obligations, full or part-time jobs, or special medical needs,” said Shannon Smith, Executive Director of Thrivepoint. “Our priorities are to meet the students where they are.”
Since it first opened a quarter century ago, Thrivepoint has been one of Arizona’s early pioneers in online learning with courses that are far from just having teachers speak into cameras. The school’s experience in creating modules tailored precisely to online learning meant that it was uniquely positioned to tackle the challenges brought on by the pandemic.
Students focus on just two subjects at a time every six weeks. Classes consist of 5 students or less allowing for small group education with opportunities for one on one support. In addition to their regular teachers, students are also paired with a success coach to help guide them. Students can work both online and visit in person should they choose.
“I like it because I like my own space and I like knowing everything depends on me,” said Ivonne G., a student at Thrivepoint who mostly uses online schooling but also visits the actual school from time to time. “The teachers are there for you but they also give you your space.”
“We make sure our students get the education they need at their own pace, helping students who may struggle in a traditional environment see the level of success they deserve,” Smith said.
As the charter school movement forges ahead into the next 30 years, Smith understands that the key to continued success is to use your hard won experience to embrace change and meet the ever changing needs of today’s and tomorrow’s students.
“It’s about having greater flexibility in your schedule and you can arrange your classes around work and other responsibilities. If you work part-time or full-time or have child care responsibilities, you can arrange your coursework accordingly.
“Education isn’t a one size fits all.”