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Class is in session at Iowa’s newest charter schools

Students in the Hamburg Charter High School program add career training to their studies. Four focus areas are currently available: welding, carpentry, health care and culinary arts.
Courtesy Mike Wells
/
Hamburg Community School District
Students in the Hamburg Charter High School program add career training to their studies. Four focus areas are currently available: welding, carpentry, health care and culinary arts.

Two new charter schools in Iowa are welcoming students for the first time. The schools are the first to open under a law aimed at growing the state’s charter system. They also show some potential flaws in funding that could discourage others from starting more charters down the line.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a new law in May of 2021 that allows both public school districts and independent “founding groups” to create new charter schools funded by state dollars.

The first charter to be organized with no ties to a local school district is Choice Charter School, an all-online program aimed at helping students who have dropped out of high school to earn their diplomas.

Founder Cynthia Knight said the program is built around a virtual “charter-verse,” an online platform where students from any part of the state can take classes, interact with classmates and follow up with instructors.

“We are very student-centered, so we want to take the kids from where they are to where they want to be in life,” said Knight, who also runs Jordahl Academy and Iowa Net High Academy. “If that’s college, then we're going to get them ready for college and prepare them to be successful there. If it's in the workforce, then we're going to get them connected to the workforce through apprenticeships and work experiences.”

Around 60 students were enrolled to start classes Tuesday, although Knight said she expects that number to grow. The program is designed to take up to 300 students in the first year.

The goal, Knight said, is to reduce the number of students who leave high school and never graduate. More than 4,300 students dropped out in the 2020-2021 school year, according to the most recent numbers announced by the Iowa Department of Education.

“What has happened to these young people in the past has not been successful and they're telling us they don't want to do that,” Knight said. “So this has to be something very different.”

Funding questions

According to Knight, the state’s funding model for charter schools nearly derailed the project before it got started.

Under state rules, charters will be paid based on their enrollment. Knight believed that meant she would receive funding based on her projected enrollment of 300 students, while the Iowa Department of Education planned for payments to be based on existing student numbers.

Without funding up front for the student numbers she was expecting, Knight said it would have been difficult to hire teachers and purchase technology.

Ultimately, the Iowa Department of Education gave Choice Charter School an early one-time payment of $1 million in order to get the program started.

“So that helped get the funding that was needed to get this up and going,” Knight said. “I do think, though, that we need to look at the legislation and we need to work on that to make it very clear all the things that weren’t clear this first year.”

The IDOE has not said whether initial funding will be available to future charter school applicants.

The Iowa State Board of Education adopted rules in August for charter schools to be paid in installments based on enrollment numbers recorded at four points throughout the school year.

In contrast, state funding for local public K-12 school districts is always a year behind. Funding for the 2022-2023 school year, for instance, is based on the enrollment count taken in the fall of 2021.

A new high school for Hamburg

The state’s other new charter school is launching in the southwest Iowa town of Hamburg, which closed its high school in 2011 over a lack of funding and declining enrollment.

Students in the new Hamburg Charter High School, affiliated with the Hamburg Community School District, will divide their time between academic classes and career training in the area of carpentry, welding, health care or culinary arts.

The training is hands-on. Students in carpentry will help to build a new house in Hamburg. Freshman Martin Rodriguez said going to the work site breaks up the usual school routine.

“It doesn’t limit you to not being able to do normal school work. You can still do normal school work, it’s just you’re going to have to be on the grind,” Rodriguez said. “You don’t lose any education. In fact I think you gain it.”

All students in the charter school will work in paid apprenticeships over the summer months, from up to 15 hours per week as first-year students to full-time work as seniors. Rodriguez plans to work on his father’s carpentry crew.

Supt. Mike Wells said he plans to add career training in information technology, electrical, plumbing and cosmetology to Hamburg Charter High School as enrollment and funding increase.
Courtesy Mike Wells
/
Hamburg Community School District
Supt. Mike Wells said he plans to add career training in information technology, electrical, plumbing and cosmetology to Hamburg Charter High School as enrollment and funding increase.

Hamburg Supt. Mike Wells said that either by the end of a semester or a year in the charter school, students will know whether they have chosen a profession they want to stick with.

“If you hate being out in the weather and you're a carpenter, you'll figure that out very quickly before you invest tons of money in (associate’s degrees) or college,” Wells said.

The charter demands discipline from students in ways that traditional schools don’t, according to Wells. For instance, if a student accrues 10 or more unexcused absences they may be forced to leave the program. If a carpentry student loses a tool, they’ll have to purchase a new one.

“If kids come to this school they have to be willing to roll up their sleeves and work because this is a working school getting skills,” Wells said. “And if you’re lazy this definitely is not the place for you to be.”

Thirty-six students are enrolled in the Hamburg charter school. Wells said more are on a waiting list, but the charter had reached the maximum number of students it can serve under its first year budget of $250,000.

Unlike Choice Charter School, Hamburg did not receive advance funding from the state to get started, relying instead on grants and donations from other sources. Wells said that limited the size and scope of the program in year one.

“The thing keeping us from adding programs is funding,” Wells said. “At Christmas, basically, we get the first installment of money. So you’re always kind of behind the eight-ball as you’re planning.”

The IDOE is currently taking applications from school districts and founding groups that want to start charter schools in the 2023-2024 school year. The deadline for applications is November 1.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa