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Montana Board of Public Education approves 19 charter school proposals

Posted at 8:42 PM, Jan 19, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-20 12:13:11-05

HELENA — On Friday, the Montana Board of Public Education voted to approve 19 proposals for charter schools, from school districts across the state. It wraps up the first round of charter applications under a new state law – and a process that leaders say was quick and challenging.

Approved charter school proposals:

· Billings Early College School

· Billings Multilingual Academy Charter

· Billings Opportunity School

· Boulder Jefferson Academy

· Bozeman Bridger Charter Academy

· Bozeman Online Charter

· Corvallis Distance Learning Charter

· Corvallis Transformational Learning Charter

· East Helena 227 Academy

· Frenchtown Bronc Fast Track Public Charter

· Great Falls Core Elementary School

· Hamilton Bitterroot Polytech

· Helena Montessori Charter School

· Helena Mount Ascension Learning Academy Charter School

· Helena Project For Alternative Learning Charter School

· Kalispell Flathead PACE Academy Charter

· Kalispell Rising Wolf Charter

· Missoula CONNECT Academy Charter

· Missoula TEACH Academy Charter

“This has been a learning process for all of us, and I'm going to be the first to admit we did not do it perfectly, and we have received critique and criticism on the process,” said board chair Tim Tharp. “We were handed this from the Legislature with a very, very tight timeframe, and folks around the table, as well as partners, all stepped up and provided a great deal of assistance.”

House Bill 549, one of two charter school bills passed during the 2023 Montana legislative session, allowed local school districts the opportunity to submit applications to open charter schools. In total, 13 districts submitted 25 separate proposals.

The proposals the board approved came from 11 different school districts: three each from Billings and Helena, two each from Kalispell, Bozeman, Missoula and Corvallis, and one each from Great Falls, East Helena, Frenchtown, Hamilton and Boulder.

The successful applicants cover a wide variety of goals and structures – though several districts made proposals with similar academic programs, like remote or hybrid online/in-person learning, alternative school programs for students seeking more flexibility in instruction or scheduling, career and technical-focused education, and early college programs. Others were more specialized, like Billings’ Multilingual Academy, intended to serve a growing population of English-language learners; Great Falls’ CORE Elementary, designed to give new teachers hands-on training; and Jefferson High School District’s Jefferson Academy, focused on serving students at Youth Dynamics’ residential treatment facilities in Boulder.

Successful applicants now have 45 days to work out a charter contract with the state. Once that’s finalized, they’ll be authorized to operate for five years.

Board members went through each of the applications on their own over the last month, and voted individually on which ones they believed should be approved. The 15 that got support from five out of seven board members were set to go forward. Members then agreed to advance four others after additional discussion on Thursday – in some cases saying they hoped to address some of the questions they had during the contract process.

Charter schools under HB 549 must be “innovative and high-performing,” and the board members said there are still a lot of unknowns about how to judge those criteria. During their discussions, they asked questions like what is appropriate for a new charter and what should simply be a program within existing schools, and whether to consider districts expanding current programs differently from those launching new ones.

One particular area of uncertainty is around online charter schools. Leaders said state law allows students to choose to attend school outside the district they live in, but it also says districts can only offer remote learning to students within the district.

“We do have discrepancies in the law that we want to address, and there are some things that we are going to ask for some interpretation on,” Tharp said.

Park City School District had proposed an online charter program, targeting students statewide – something some board members expressed reservations about Thursday. Park City Superintendent Dan Grabowska told MTN he agreed to withdraw their application this time, but he plans to resubmit it during the next round of applications in June. He says they will address some of the concerns board members raised, but he believes the overall structure will fit within the bounds of the system HB 549 set up.

The board denied five charter applications: three from Kalispell, which they said didn’t show sufficient proof they’d be high-performing or have a high likelihood of success; a gifted learning center from Corvallis, which they said didn’t show it met the requirement to be innovative; and a proposal from the Liberty Elementary School District in Liberty County to serve seven Hutterite colonies in several counties, which board members said was highly innovative but that they had concerns about how it was structured as well as whether it met the other requirements.