For parents looking for alternative schooling options for their children, Ventura County may be a great place to start.
Charter schools — public schools run independently of the traditional school system — are popping up throughout the county, although it is also becoming difficult to get one approved. They can be authorized by a local school district, by the county office of education or by the state.

They were developed in the 1990s to combat the fact that the public school system is slow and difficult to change, and does not always meet the needs of all students. Charter schools give parents more options for their child’s e ducation if local public schools are not performing well or if their student has different needs, and provide competition within the public school system.

There are currently 14 approved charter schools in the county – so many that the Ventura County Office of Education is considering hiring extra staff to help deal with the administrative needs.

Within the past few months, charters have been denied to several schools, such as the Southern California Virtual College Preparatory School in Simi Valley, for which petitioners plan to reapply next year after making necessary amendments to their charter. Piru Elementary School was also denied, though petitioners appealed the decision to both the county and the state. According to Kathy Long, a Ventura County Supervisor, District 3, the charter looked too similar to the only elementary school in the area and would have eliminated choice by converting the only elementary school from a traditional one into a charter.

Yet four new charter schools will open this fall: the Bridges Charter School in Thousand Oaks; the Ivy Tech Charter School in Moorpark; the River Oaks Academy, a home schooling program based in Westlake; and the Architecture, Construction and Engineering Charter School in the Oxnard Union High School District.

“I think it’s a growing phenomenon. More and more people are becoming educated about how to start a charter school, so we’re seeing an increase in the county,” said Dr. Roger Rice, associate superintendent of student services at the office of education.

In Ventura County, charter schools are often grass-roots programs, petitioned by teachers or parents who wish to provide better academic opportunities for children but who might not have administrative experience. However, charter schools can also be run by for-profit educational management organizations, which is more the trend for Los Angeles County charter schools.

The Architecture, Construction and Engineering Charter School was first conceptualized by electrical and other trade unions that realized students were no longer being directed into their fields right after high school. It aims to connect the classroom with real-life applications for students though a project-based curriculum, which is not always possible in a traditional school setting.

“We’re using hands-on learning,” said Ron Fisher, the school’s principal. “You would have a hard time doing that with a school with 2,000 kids.”

Aviva Ebner, lead petitioner of the Southern California Virtual College Preparatory School in Simi Valley, had a different reason for a charter school.

“Our concept was to provide an alternative setting for students who were not being successful in the traditional school setting,” Ebner said. The online school with flexible hours, she said, would work for students with different schedules or needs, such as teen moms, those with medical conditions, or students who want to work at a different pace than a traditional classroom offers.

Some are independent study charters, like the Golden Valley Charter School based out of Mesa Union School District in Somis and the newly approved River Oaks Academy based out of Westlake Village, while others have a campus, often at another school, such as the Ventura Charter School of Arts and Global Education at DeAnza Middle School.

Charter schools do not need to comply with the same financial regulations as traditional public schools. Though their sponsoring district has some oversight, they are allowed to bypass much of the bureaucracy of school districts and spend their funds as they deem necessary to educate their students.

More and more charter schools are appearing in the state, but out of the 6.3 million students in the California public school system, less than 5 percent attend charter schools.

The Charter Schools Act of 1992 authorized the development of charter schools in California, which now has one of the largest charter school programs in the country, with more than 800 schools in 2009. But charter schools tend to be small, with only a few hundred students who are chosen by lottery from a pool of applicants.

They also have a tendency to provide special programs for students, such as the bilingual education at the University Charter Schools at California State University, Channel Islands, and the Architecture, Construction, and Engineering Charter High School in Oxnard.

“It makes it so much easier for the family to be involved. Charter schools can serve kids that don’t feel comfortable in other settings,” Ebner said.

But running a charter school comes with its own unique set of challenges, including relations with sponsoring school districts and strict accountability for high performance.

“There are some additional obstacles and hurdles to become a charter school. It’s a balancing act,” said Jack O’Connell, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction. “They’re not a panacea for every community.”

There is no guarantee of success with charter schools, although they can be beneficial to a community. Not all charters are run with the students’ best interests in mind, nor are all their programs successful in supplying the high achievement they promise.

“Charter schools can be as different as night and day,” said Resa Steindel Brown, director of the River Oaks Academy. If a charter school does not perform as well or better than other public schools in the area, its charter can be revoked.
In addition, some school districts are hostile to incoming charter schools, which can take away scarce funding and high-achieving students. “If the charter school is extremely successful and attracts families, people are worried it’s going to be a mass exodus from the traditional schools,” Ebner said.

Teachers in charter schools usually are not unionized or tenured, but instead operate on contracts, and are also not held to the same certification standards as at non-charter schools. According to a study by the National Center on School Choice, a charter school teacher is 132 percent more likely to leave the profession entirely than a traditional public school teacher.

But for Linda Ngarupe, executive director of the University Charter Schools, as long as the focus is on doing what’s best for the students, everyone wins.

“It does take a huge commitment from the staff and faculty, but if people are focused on doing what’s best for kids, and if we keep our focus there, all schools improve,” she said.