Q. What are charter schools?
A. Charter schools are public schools. Conversion charter schools – like those in the Lake Wales Charter Schools (LWCS) system – are traditional public schools that vote to convert to charter status. The main difference is that charter schools are governed by a local Board of Trustees rather than the county-wide District School Board.
The five conversion charter schools in the Lake Wales system are Lake Wales High, Bok Academy, a middle school, and four elementary schools: Hillcrest, Janie Howard Wilson, Polk Avenue and Dale R. Fair Babson Park. Majority of these schools became a conversion charter school at the beginning of the 2004-2005 school year. Lake Wales Charter Schools opened Edward W. Bok Academy in 2008 and in 2018-19, Lake Wales Charter Schools opened Edward W. Bok Academy North, a replication of Edward W. Bok Academy South.
Q. What are the advantages of a community-based charter school system?
A. The biggest advantage is that our LWCS system is a manageable size. Our student enrollment is less than 5,000, and schools are centrally located in the community. Since the system is very manageable, we are able to operate quickly and efficiently. The LWCS system’s manageable size and efficiency allows more funds to go directly into classrooms for instruction.
Q. How is the operation of LWCS controlled
A. The LWCS system operates under a performance contract (or “charter”) with the Polk County School Board. Charter schools are freed from a number of local and state rules and regulations. They are held strictly accountable for academic and financial results, but have much more latitude about how to best achieve those results.
Our original charter from Polk County was for three years. When we applied for renewal in Fall 2007, our applications (one for each school) were approved nearly unanimously! Each of our LWCS schools provided solid documentation about student achievement, parent involvement, fiscal responsibility, and community participation.
Q. What about the local governing board?
A. The LWCS system is governed by a qualified, well-balanced Board of Trustees comprised of seven local members. The charter and the LWCS bylaws require certain qualifications to ensure that its members represent diverse backgrounds and bring a variety of experiences and skills to the group. The bylaws require that the members of the Board serve staggered terms, without compensation.
For instance, one member must be an active teacher. At least one member must have education, training, and experience in finance; another member must have education, training, and experience in law; another member must have education, training, and experience in business. At least two members must have advanced degrees (such as master’s degrees or better); at least two other members will be required to have college degrees or better. Since these requirements don’t cover all seven seats, members of the Board also may have vocational or trade experience consistent with the career path curriculum.
Read about our current Board of Trustees: http://www.lwcharterschools.com/board/
The appointive process helps remove the Board of Trustees from politics. Every member takes an oath of office containing a commitment to the mission and purpose of the LWCS system. Because these unpaid positions require tremendous time and energy, our Trustees serve because they are committed to the best interests of students and community.
The participation of parents and teachers in the nominating process involves those who have an immediate interest in the success of the system. Although no system is perfect, this one encourages citizens with the highest credibility to serve for the benefit of the children of the community.
Q. Why are LWCS Board members called Trustees?
A. By law, Trustees have a fiduciary responsibility to their beneficiaries. In this instance, the bylaws spell out that the beneficiaries are the students. This means that Board members (or Trustees) have a legally binding fiduciary obligation to act in the best interests of their beneficiaries – the students.
Q. How do schools in the LWCS system provide better learning experiences for my child?
A. LWCS schools provide 1) educational innovation, 2) student choices, 3) school achievement, 4) local governance, 5) discipline, 6) teacher advantages, and 7) funding advantages.
As a small, community-based system, we are able to make changes quickly based on local needs. When our local educational leaders see something working well, it can be expanded quickly. When they observe that something isn’t working, we can change course quickly too. Since our schools converted to charters in 2004-2005, we have experienced tremendous success – and our students are the ones who have benefited the most!
Q. What is different about the LWCS curriculum?
A. Our teachers are able to design curriculum to more specifically meet the needs of Lake Wales students and their families.
For instance, in elementary grades, the curriculum exposes students to career choices. In high school, students make choices about the career paths they want to follow, and some of their classes are tailored to fit those career paths. The “career path” curriculum is very flexible, and students can always make new choices along the way.
One of the career paths is an academic career path, which includes advanced placement courses, SAT preparation, dual credits, and university preparation work designed to be as academically challenging as the students can handle. Since converting to charter, Lake Wales High School has added significantly more upper level math and science courses for its students. For students who may have different plans, career-exploration paths such as medical services, agriculture, law enforcement, and others are built into the curriculum. These course offerings progress continuously and merge with the curriculum in PCC and Ridge Vo-Tech, so a student can receive an Associate of Arts degree or the necessary certification for jobs and careers.
And this “career choices” example is just one way that our teachers are able to tailor the traditional K-12 curriculum to meet the needs of the Lake Wales community. Charter school leaders have initiated innovative Kindergarten Support programs in all four elementary schools, with the funding support of a very generous local donor. This program puts a teacher/paraprofessional team in every school to work with kindergarten students who start school without basic readiness skills.
During our brief history as the LWCS system, our teachers and school leaders have introduced many creative ideas to improve learning and achievements in our LWCS schools. We are very proud of the innovation that takes place every day in LWCS!
Q. Do charter schools have to meet state standards?
A. Yes. Charter schools must comply with Florida FCAT reading requirements, Florida Sunshine State Standards, class size amendment, and Florida requirements for high school graduation.
Q. What is the plan to raise test scores?
A. Since conversion to charter in 2004-2005, our LWCS schools have made great strides in all areas, including performance on Florida’s FCAT assessment tests. Each year, after receiving FCAT (and other testing) scores, the instructional team at each school studies the data, and develops strategies to work on any weaknesses. Our schools have done a terrific job of using testing data to decide what teaching methods work best for the students at their schools.
However, we recognize that there always is more room for improvement. We want every student performing at his/her highest possible level. As we continue to provide more resources directly to the schools, we expect to see additional instructional innovation as school teams work together to address the needs of their students.
Quality schools are just one part of the learning equation, however. As we all work together on behalf of the students who live in our community, we still need parents and families to stay involved. Homes and schools must work together in partnership, because children learn as much at home – and spend many more hours and days at home – as they do at school. We need families to help us with the basics like reading and behavior, and also spend time talking to their students about what happens at school. When parents show interest in school, and ask questions about class and homework, students understand that school is important.
Q. How are charter schools funded?
A. Our basic funding is the same as traditional public schools. In fact, state law requires charter schools to be funded “the same as students enrolled in other public schools in the school district.” Each student generates a certain amount of local, state, or federal funds that are used by schools for education. This amount of “per student” funding makes up the operating budget for public schools. In Florida, charter schools receive 95% of these funds. The District keeps the other 5%, but is required by law to provide services to the charter schools in exchange for the 5%.
In the LWCS system, our philosophy is that the maximum amount of our funding should be spent on instruction at the school level. Because of this philosophy, we operate a very lean administration at our Central Office. The Lake Wales Charter Schools Foundation looks for other revenue sources – like grants and sponsorships – to help supplement our budget. With money raised by the LWCS Foundation, our students have benefited from additional teachers, support staff, programs and equipment.
Q. Can my child automatically attend a charter school if I live in Lake Wales?
A. There are many different kinds of charter schools. Our LWCS system has “zoned” schools that serve students living in these attendance zones in the greater Lake Wales community. All students living within these attendance zones are automatically eligible to attend.
A new student – someone who has just moved into the community or a first-time kindergarten student – enrolls in a charter school exactly the same as enrolling at any other public school. The parent/guardian and student can complete the paperwork in the school office. Click here to see a list of all state and local requirements to enroll in school: Entrance Immunization Packet
To determine which school you are zoned for, use the “Find Your Zone” tool at: http://www.polk-fl.net/
Q. Are there special costs or requirements to attend? Is there bus transportation?
A. No. Charter schools are free public schools. There aren’t any extra fees or costs to attend.
Bus transportation also is provided, with similar restrictions and scheduling as traditional public schools. The charter law states that both the District and the charter school must ensure that transportation isn’t a barrier to student attendance for families who live a reasonable distance from school. Our charters define a reasonable distance as those distances existing within the attendance zones that were previously served when the schools were traditional public schools.
Q. What if the zoned charter school isn’t the best choice for my child? Can I opt out?
A. Yes. To determine which school you are zoned for, use the “Find Your Zone” tool at: http://www.polk-fl.net/ and look for the name of the alternate school listed after the name of your zoned charter school.
However, the LWCS system strives to provide a high-quality education so that we will retain all our students, and no families will choose to withdraw their students
Q. Can charter schools limit the number or type of students they accept?
A. In theory, yes. All public school facilities have a maximum capacity, and also must meet racial balance requirements. Charter schools are no different. Our charter with the District specifies “target” enrollments for each school, including information about racial and socio-economic balance. (The District designed the original attendance zones in Lake Wales to enable each school to meet these requirements.)
Although we do not want our LWCS system or our individual school buildings to become overcrowded, we won’t turn away students who live within our school zones. Space permitting, we will accept additional students from outside our school zones; when we no longer have the space to immediately accept out-of-zone students, their names will be added to a waiting list.
Q. Can the LWCS system dismiss students that it wishes to expel?
A. Yes. However, since its inception, the whole purpose of the LWCS system has been to retain all Lake Wales area students. We don’t want to “dump” any students on surrounding schools, nor do we wish to impose transportation costs on the District for busing these students to outlying schools.
We are proud to report that during our first three years of conversion charter operation, discipline was never a major conflict between Lake Wales and the District. When our charters came up for renewal, this wasn’t an issue because our school teams, our community and our students all worked to ensure that we never had many challenges to resolve.