Depending on who you ask, charter schools are either a scourge upon public education, or they are the system's only hope. A national, nonprofit network of charter schools calling itself Lighthouse Academies falls squarely in the latter camp.
And now they've come to Tulsa.
Tulsa Lighthouse Charter School (TLCS) opened its doors in a grand opening ceremony last week at its new campus, the former Greeley Elementary School. One of the best things the school has going for it, according to Lighthouse Academies Regional Vice President David Burks, is that it is the 21st school Lighthouse Academies has opened.
"Tulsa doesn't necessarily have a long history with charter schools," he said. "But we're unique in that we're a national organization, so we can provide some sustainability and be able to say that we have had success in other schools."
And truly, they have. Lighthouse opened its first school in the Bronx in 2004. It focuses on the one element that makes Lighthouse Academies' schools different from all the other privately-run charter schools dotting the educational landscape nationwide: arts-infusion, which Burks called the linchpin of Lighthouse programs.
"We came across research that was a longitudinal study of kids in Los Angeles," he said.
That study showed something very interesting about kids exposed to the arts in education, and it wasn't just test scores or being able to identify a Chopin nocturne just by listening.
"Kids that were in classes where there was exposure to arts were more likely to go to college and have successful careers," Burks said. Almost as an afterthought, he added the very interesting element.
"Additionally, they were more community-minded," he said. "They were much more likely to come back to their communities, and they were more likely to give back."
Those data were enough to launch an educational model, and one that has avoided the scandals that have plagued for-profit charter school organizations like Imagine, Inc., which was discovered in 2010 to be overpaying itself very high rental rates with state funds, and also producing students in the Imagine school in St. Louis who performed lower on standardized tests than students from any other school in the city.
The difference, according to Burks, is the arts.
"That was one of the things that would make Lighthouse special -- that we'd have arts-infusion," he said. "We approach things differently."
When pressed about this difference, Burks elucidated on a level of cross-curricular instruction that Oklahoma public schools have heretofore only dreamed of.
"We might have music in math class. Like we talk about fractions, and we bring in music," Burks continued. "We talk about quarter notes and half notes. Well, when the kids are tapping it out, they can hear and feel the difference in fractions."
Any musician already knows this. But to put this into the hands of little kids is pretty freaking cool. And it goes on from there to include very non-traditional means of measuring progress in the classroom.
"A lot of kids don't necessarily need a pen and paper to show you that they've got it," he said. "Maybe they could write a song or do an interpretive dance to show that they've got the material down."
Surely there are people reading this right now and saying to themselves, "What the hell? I had to fill in all those little bubbles with a number two pencil, but these kids get to do a dance?"
However, even the most cynical of those critical of educational fads and movements must admit that times are violently different. Many schools are failing to serve their students, many schools have proven themselves incapable of adapting to the 21st century, many schools have completely failed to incorporate any sort of technological or educational innovations this side of the 1970s.
None of those things apply to Lighthouse Academies, however. Burks gave a short history lesson.
"Our first school opened in 2004 in the Bronx," he said. "It's still going strong, and it's the same model we are using here in Tulsa. I think that's important, because it allows us to know that if we bring something to a new area, it works."
Again, there will be those who say that the Bronx has issues that Tulsa does not, and vice versa.
"Obviously, Tulsa is different from DC or Chicago, but there are basics," Burks countered. "We can show that charter schools work. This program works, and we can show proven results. That's also good, too, because we have a way to support each other. I can call a school in Chicago and ask, 'How did you guys solve this problem or that problem?' We can work together to help each other."
One might ask a rather obvious question: If this is arts-infused education, do all the teachers have to be artists? Where are you going to find enough teachers to fill a building who are, say, experts in teaching social studies and have working (if not complete) knowledge of one of the fine arts?
"The only prerequisites we have for our teachers are that they believe kids can excel, and that arts-infusion is a great way to help students excel," Burks said. "We have an arts teacher and a music teacher, and they work with the teachers to keep the students engaged. Art comes in so many different forms. It's something that should be individual and reflective of what teachers' individual tastes are."
This begs another question, one that opens up the possibility of some fascinating long-term consequences: If Ms. Jones is interested in music, and Ms. Smith is interested in visual arts, and they both teach fourth grade, won't students in one class have vastly different educational experiences than those in the other class?
Yes and no, according to Burks.
"Across grade levels, the teachers talk about curriculum, but we have a wide variety of teaching experience," he said. "Some teachers are new and have been doing it for five years. There are those that have been doing it for 25 years, and that's a big difference. Some of those younger teachers are going to like the Backstreet Boys."
Since Lighthouse Academies encourages the teachers to use what they know and like, the teacher who is one year away from retirement probably doesn't like the Backstreet Boys, opening up the possibility for the aforementioned vast difference in classroom experiences from room to room and teacher to teacher.
But Burks said there is an overarching model that keeps everyone essentially on the same page.
"Overall, the way we respond to students is consistent across the school, but we want teachers to own it," he said. "So if they're more comfortable using, say, visual arts rather than music, we definitely want them to do that."
TLCS currently serves students from pre-kindergarten through the fourth grade. Each year, beginning with the 2013-2014 school year, the school will add a grade, with the eventual goal of being a pre-k through 12th grade facility.
And little old Greeley won't work for very long when that starts happening.
"We'll have to expand, because we don't have the labs and things we'd need to have in order to have a successful high school program," Burks said. "Right now, we're trying to get through the first week. The plan is to get through the next couple of years and see what we need to do from there."
Currently housing 19 teachers and serving 280 students -- most of them underprivileged -- TLCS holds up its recent avalanche of applications as a testament to the need Tulsa has for what they can bring to the community.
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