Five-year-old Kate Downs loves to draw, make sculptures and play dress up. She’s reading Curious George and Magic School Bus books with her parents, and is on the cusp of deciphering the words on her own.
"We think she’s a little too smart for her own good sometimes," her father, Chad Downs, said with a smile. So when he and his wife, Jennifer Bodine, went looking for the right school for kindergarten, they weighed their options.
Ultimately, they didn’t go too far. The couple both work at Weber State University, and in the fall they will be sending Kate to a new charter academy on the school’s campus.
The charter school will mark two firsts for the state when it opens Aug. 26: The first charter school authorized by an institution of higher education, and the first to focus solely on kindergartners. Leaders say it will offer progressive teaching methods, give Weber State education majors experience in the field and allow professors to conduct research.
"Our first goal is to look at the whole child and have family involvement," said Chloe Merrill, associate dean for Weber State’s college of education. Even at the kindergarten level, "the perceived demands" of test scores and accountability have forced many schools to gear their teaching toward "unconnected drill and practice methods" rather than helping a child develop "socially, emotionally and physically," as well, according to their charter application.
At the Weber State University Charter Academy, students will be taught using developmentally appropriate practice, a method that empathizes working with students on their level, taking time to get to know them, their cultural background and how they learn.
That philosophy is attractive for Chad Downs, especially the emphasis on social development as well as academics.
And parents like him will likely participate in the classroom or at family night at school, as well as get ideas for activities to do at home.
The school will also help educate new teachers. Weber State students see teaching methods in action, by using their lesson plans in class or watching through a two-way mirror. The school will also be equipped with video cameras so that lessons can be recorded and used for teacher training or in research conducted by Weber State professors.
"I know some parents might be concerned about the privacy issue," Downs said. But, he added, "We’re OK with it. We think it’s supporting the school’s mission."
The 44 students from the five top-of-Utah school districts were chosen by lottery from a pool of 68 applicants, though they are still accepting applications in case spots become available during the school year.
Though there are other charter schools on Utah college campuses, such as the Edith Bowen Laboratory School at Utah State University, those were authorized through local school districts rather than by the higher education institutions. That process became allowed by law in 2010.
"We always wanted to see multiple authorizers," said Marlies Burns, director of charter schools for the Utah State Office of Education. "This is done in many states around the nation, and it’s a pretty tried-and-true practice — we just didn’t have the option here."
Michigan was the first state to allow public colleges to operate charter schools, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. By the late 1990s, more than two dozen colleges were running charter schools, though not all were successful.
In Utah, universities didn’t jump in immediately after the law changed.
"There was a complete year where there were no applications," Burns said. "Public education is a different animal than higher ed, and I think there was a lot of thinking and planning that went on before they were willing to put a toe into this new pool."
Part of that hesitation may have been money. Though charter schools are publicly funded, the tax money likely won’t cover the entire budget, Merrill said.
"We have found it’s probably not going to be a cost-benefit," she said, but "Weber State is committed to it. We will probably have to put some money into it."
Another charter school associated with a college is opening in the fall. Career Path High will be operated by the Davis County Applied Technology College and aimed at high school students who want to go into the trades.
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