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Eyes on the Prize

Charter school lotteries are lessons in hope and disappointment.

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The process was very old-school. Michelle Taylor, state school choice coordinator, hugged a just-scrubbed 5-gallon bucket (it used to hold soy sauce) and stood before a 20-foot-long stretch of tables framed by a group of parents, children and teachers at Boise's Sage International Middle School on Feb. 28.

"OK, let's get started. Is everybody ready?" asked Taylor, her optimism filling Sage's second-floor lunch/recreation room.

As a late-winter afternoon became evening, Taylor pulled hundreds of brightly colored index cards from the bucket, reading aloud the names of children printed on each card before handing them to an assistant, who neatly arranged the cards on the tables. By sundown, the educational fates of approximately 650 children were on full display.

Not unlike the 2010 documentary, Waiting For Superman--chronicling the perceived failures of the nation's public education system while following a handful of students' quest to be accepted into a charter school--the Sage drawing was only the latest of dozens of charter lotteries throughout Idaho that have resulted in great fortune to a minimal number of public school children, but left thousands more on the doorstep.

"The estimated waiting list across the state, the last time I checked, was over 7,000 names," Taylor told Boise Weekly. "I can tell you that at a lottery we held last week, we had a parent who was in tears because their child got in and we had another parent in tears because their child ended up No. 100 on a waiting list."

Waiting for the sixth-grade lottery to begin sat a young girl named Chloe, too nervous to take off her jacket, her green sneakers constantly tapping the floor. For the better part of two hours, she, her mother and younger brother would sit for a while, stand up, pace around, leave the room for a few minutes, come back and sit--their nerves becoming more transparent as the minutes ticked away.

"Of approximately 650 applicants, we have 87 spaces among all the grades tonight; and of those 87, 46 of those spaces will be taken by siblings of existing students," said Lisa Lechner, Sage business manager. "For instance, in the second grade, we only have two spots available. In the fourth grade, we don't have any spots available but we'll still draw those names to create a waiting list."

Taylor began pulling the names. There were plenty of Duncans, Joshuas, Jennys and Graces. There was even a Cosmo, a Brooklyn and a Dakota.

"Good job, team," shouted Don Keller from the back of the room, nearly an hour into the lottery. "We'll have you out of here by midnight."

The joke from Keller, Sage's chief administrator, was met with nervous laughter.

"I've been in education for 26 years," Keller told BW. "I've worked in tough inner-city schools. I've worked in rural schools. But as the years went by, I kept hearing the word 'charter' more. Good press, bad press, lots of press. But as I did my research, I learned that charters were doing some pretty cool stuff, so I really wanted to learn their secrets."

When asked what Sage's secrets are, Keller thought for a moment and broke out in a wide grin.

"It's definitely a good curriculum," he said. "And an outstanding leader."

Sage opened its doors in 2010, first offering kindergarten through seventh-grade classes to 217 children.

"We currently have 485 kids in kindergarten through ninth," said Keller. "Next year, we're adding another 89 students as we add 10th grade, and we'll add 11th and 12th grades in the two years after that."

When asked where he would put all of the proposed students and educators, Keller grinned again.

"We're working on that. But you know what? It's a good problem to have," he said. "We're very successful."

Keller traces Sage's roots to his own personal attempt to get his kids into another public charter school.

"Yeah, I had my daughter in the lottery for Anser Charter for two years," said Keller. "I remember she was No. 60 on their waiting list."

Heather Dennis said she was equally nervous when she first put her oldest of three children in the Anser lottery years before she became the school's organization director.

"I can honestly say that, next to meeting my husband, getting my children into Anser through that lottery was the second most important moment of my life," she said, her eyes welling up.

Anser, which first opened in a vacant downtown Boise office building in 1999, has grown to 365 kindergarten through eighth-grade students at its Garden City location.

"But we have no further plans to expand," said Dennis. "We feel the Boise School District has pretty good high schools, plus the financial model of running a charter high school is incredibly difficult and we don't want to torpedo what we've got by reaching too far."

Dennis said this year's lottery at Anser, much like Sage's, offered nearly impossible odds.

"We had approximately 600 applicants and we had 29 open spots," she said. "When I call to give somebody the good news that they got in, there is usually a lot of happy yelling."

Anser is known as a so-called "expeditionary" school, one of 165 similar institutions across the nation.

"We have all the same standards as traditional public schools, but we offer hands-on, project-based learning with a lot of opportunities in adventure."

As an example, on the day that BW visited, a group of Anser students were hauling their ski gear into the building, preparing for a journey up to Bogus Basin later in the day.

"Plus, our third- and fourth-graders are studying the Boise River, and I think they've been down to the river 12 to 15 times already this year, taking water quality samples and studying habitats," said Dennis.

Ultimately, when students leave Anser to attend Boise's traditional high schools, Dennis said they excel because "our kids are great detail thinkers and writers."

"I think the biggest difference is their desire to learn," she said. "They know that it's OK to do well in school and not have to face the stigma of being nerdy or successful."

While Idaho public charters receive primary funding through student enrollment--in a "money follows the child" formula used for all public schools--charters have traditionally received no state funding for brick and mortar. But that could change soon if House Bill 206 becomes law. HB 206 would earmark designated percentages of state facility levy funds for charters, which currently are funneled solely to traditional public schools (BW, Unda' the Rotunda, "House Committee Gives Passing Grade," Feb. 26, 2013).

But Robin Nettinga, executive director of the Idaho Education Association, representing Idaho's unionized teachers, balked at the funding detour, reminding charter sympathizers that they knew the risks when they opened their doors.

"IEA supports the concept of charter schools," she said. "But they know what they're getting into when they go down that road. We understand and empathize with public charters' stretching of precious funds. But every schoolhouse in the state could make that same comment."

Ultimately, the committee opted to forward the funding restructure to the full House with a "do pass" recommendation.

Dennis insisted that the biggest funding myth surrounding public charter schools is that they come at an additional cost to parents.

"I give enrollment tours throughout the year and I usually get asked, 'What is the tuition?' I love to say, 'It's nothing,'" she said. "I even had a legislator ask me that once."

Keller said Sage's academic standards also set his school apart from traditional public schools.

"We're the only International Baccalaureate School in Idaho," said Keller, explaining that the curriculum encourages students to become "compassionate and lifelong learners."

Editor's note:

A check with International Baccalaureate--headquartered in The Netherlands--indicates that Sage is one of six Idaho schools that offer one or more programs affiliated with IB.

Sage is unique in that it is Idaho's only public charter to offer IB's Primary Years Programme (ages 3 to 12), but Boise's Riverstone International--a private charter--also offers the PYP. Additionally, Riverstone offers IB's Middle Year Programme (ages 11 to 16) and its Diploma Programme (ages 16 to 19).

Eagle's North Star Charter--a public charter school--also offers IB's Diploma Programme.

Also, three traditional Idaho public schools, Meridian's Renaissance High School (DP), Coeur d'Alene's Lake City High School (DP) and Hayden Meadows Elementary (PYP) offer IB programs as part of their curriculums.

"Our graduates pass all of the Idaho basic courses, but then they have to pass six more international exams to get an IB diploma," he said. "IB students have a 30 to 40 percent higher success rate in college."

Meanwhile, Chloe, the young girl hoping to get a shot at one of those IB diplomas at Sage, grew increasingly nervous as the Feb. 28 lottery finally progressed to its sixth-grade drawing. As Michelle Taylor continued reading name after name, it was clear that Chloe was doing some quick math in her head. Sage's sixth grade only had 13 openings and four were to be taken by siblings. And there were 46 other applicants. Chloe's name was No. 38.

Taylor tried to shout out some encouragement as Chloe and her disappointed family got up to leave.

"Definitely stay on the waiting list. You never know; you might get a call during the year that there could be an opening," said Taylor. "It could be worse next year."

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