CHARTER SCHOOLS: Minds can change

DeWayne Bartels

A charter school can forge a future in Peoria was the message Diane Deatherage Pearson delivered in Peoria a year ago this month.

Pearson is a Peoria native and Richwoods High School graduate. She is now principal of the Dimensions of Learning Academy in Kenosha, Wis., a charter school opened in 1994.

Her opinion, she said last week, has not changed.

Slow acceptance

“The (Kenosha) school board didn’t want it, but the parents did, and they turned the school board around. In Kenosha, charter schools were treated like second-class citizens,” Pearson told the Peoria Optimist Club last year.

Pearson said, last year, attitudes toward something so new might be sour in Peoria, too. But, persistence, she added, can change minds.

“I think Peoria would have a positive experience,” Pearson said, “not to mention the federal money that would come to Peoria.”

Pearson said she remains convinced Peoria needs have not changed. “Peoria needs a charter school. I think a charter school provides choice and causes people to reflect on what they want in education,” Pearson said. “Peoria would also benefit from having a school that fills a niche.”

Pearson said there are parallels between Peoria’s and Kenosha’s experience in developing a charter school — especially in the arena of criticism.

She said the resistance of the local teacher’s union is to be expected.

“It was a slow process here. It took six years. There is still resistance,” Pearson said. “It often takes a good five to 10 years for a charter school to be accepted.”

Motivator

In August 2008, the District 150 School Board gave superintendent Ken Hinton the go-ahead to begin developing the criteria under which a charter school — proposed as a math, science and technology academy — would operate. The new school carries an estimated price tag of almost $12 million.

Students throughout the city in fourth-12th grades interested in math, science and technology could apply. A lottery system would be used to fill the 450 slots open. The district said a longer school day and school year, with opportunities for Saturday instruction, are under consideration.

Pearson said her experience with her charter school has been a positive one.

She said the accountability they have hanging over their heads is a great motivator. Educators and administrators at charter schools, she said, cannot get complacent in a charter school. In addition, she said, the type of teachers drawn to a charter school are risk-takers and innovators.

Charter schools, she said, are not well understood in Central Illinois.

Getting the word out to parents and potential stakeholders, she said, is the most important thing supporters can do.

“Those pushing this need to present lots of information - the who, what, when, where, how and why,” she said. “People get suspicious. The people supporting this need to get into the neighborhoods and engage parents.”