On a recent morning the tiled halls of Harmony Science Academy echoed with the sound of a leaf blower. In the foyer of the charter school, on the northeast corner of the Grand Parkway and Westpark Tollway, freshman Shervin Hosseingholi Nouri sat balanced atop a hovercraft he had built, floating on a cushion of air from the electric blower. In a nearby science lab, freshman Lynn Al-Emam used different chemicals to demonstrate osmosis and diffusion, and Suha Siddiqui, a freshman, explained the operation of the right human lung.
The projects are the culmination of months of work and were presented in anticipation of the school’s annual Science Technology Engineering Arts and Math festival Feb. 8. Collectively, they also represent Harmony’s science and technology emphasis.
The charter school opened its two-story building in 2011. It has grown to enroll 840 students in grades kindergarten through 10th. It is one of five charter schools in the Katy area and one of 550 charter campuses statewide with about 178,000 students. That growth seems likely to continue locally and statewide, according to state education leaders, as charter schools enter their annual enrollment period—February, March and April.
“There’s a huge demand [for charter schools],” said David Dunn, executive director of Texas Charter Schools Association. “Parents want choices in where they send their kids to school. There are over 100,000 students on our waiting lists.”
Charter schools are state-funded public schools that must meet state requirements but also have some flexibility in coursework, school hours and structure, and each has a specialty of study. There are five charter schools in Katy—Trinity Charter School, Calvin Nelms, Harmony Science Academy, Leadership Academy and Aristoi Classical Academy.
“Charter schools give parents an opportunity for choice in education, a [tuition free] alternative to public education,” said Julie Norton, spokeswoman for Harmony Public Schools, which enroll 9,952 students in grades kindergarten through 12th in the Greater Houston area at their 14 schools. “A smaller school setting is very desirable for a lot
In 1995, the Texas legislature approved funding for charter schools. Since then, hundreds have sprouted throughout the state, offering an alternative to traditional public schools. The schools are tuition-free, and enrollment is based on a lottery. As with traditional public schools, there are no special testing requirements to enroll.
“Charter schools are a relatively new form of public schools,” said Debbie Ratcliffe, spokeswoman with the Texas Education Agency.
Every charter school has its own special program, she said. Some of the specialties include science and math, classics, and others focus on drop-out recovery programs.
Charter schools must apply with the state and maintain a nonprofit status. If approved, the schools have a five–10 year contract with the state. If the school’s financials and performance fail to meet certain requirements, it will not be awarded another contract.
A state commissioner approves or denies the charters rather than the Texas Board of Education, although the board has the authority to deny the charter.
The system results in tougher accountability, Dunn said.
As with all public schools in Texas, students at charter schools must pass the STAAR test but they have flexibility on how they deliver it, he said.
Schools can select their hours, and several offer tutoring or extra work for accelerated students on Saturdays. They also have more power over teacher contracts, with the ability to hire teachers on an at-will basis—which means the teacher has no contract and can be let go for poor performance.
Katy area schools
Aristoi Classical Academy charter school in Katy, which has been educating area students for 15 years, received a state grant to expand its school last year, adding 125 students for the 2013–14 school year. The school, which now enrolls 440 students in grades kindergarten through eighth grade, focuses on teaching students history, heritage and classical literature while emphasizing patriotism. Latin is taught for fourth through eighth grades. The school plans to add a ninth grade in the fall.
“We’re really excited about the growth at our school,” said Heidi Manna, Aristoi’s spokeswoman. “We are trying to grow to accommodate more students. We really believe everyone deserves a good education. We focus on character. We want students to contribute and be leaders in their community.”
Harmony Science Academy, with its science and technology focus, offers clubs in robotics, science and LEGOs. It also encourages, and sometimes requires, participation in science fairs and robotics competitions. But it also offers a variety of more traditional extracurricular activities, including drama and choir. Sixth through 10th graders can participate in basketball, soccer, volleyball, tennis and cross country. In fact, the campus won the state championship among other charter schools in JV basketball in February.
Some charter schools, like Harmony, require 100 hours or more of community service for students to graduate.
Charter schools receive state funding but do not benefit from local tax revenue or facilities funding, like traditional public schools do, Dunn said. Consequently, charter schools receive $1,500 less per year per student on average than traditional public schools, he said.
Many charter schools seek a variety of grants and raise private funds to supplement their budgets or to pay for additional supplies and buildings. Many charters simply do without extras such as gyms or science labs and have minimal libraries, Dunn said.
That funding disparity is at the center of a lawsuit, currently in progress by The Texas Charter Schools Association against
“We are working with the legislature to increase the number of charter schools and add facilities funding so existing schools can grow to meet the demand,” Dunn said.