Charter School founders see success as they watch initial first-graders graduate

Sean C. Morgan

This was a milestone year for the Sweet Home Charter School as the first students to start first grade there graduated this year.

The school completed its 12th year this summer after opening in 2006 in rented space at the Church at 18th and Long.

Out of the Class of 2018, five out of 18 seniors who attended the Sweet Home Charter School were in the National Honor Society, said Sherrie Ingram, a parent and board member, last week in a informational meeting between the school and the Sweet Home School Board. Five of the 22 students who received honors diplomas attended the Charter School.

Two out of the 13 graduates in the top 10 percent were from the Charter School, she said, and 12 of the 18 seniors who attended the school have plans to attend college.

The top scholarship in the Sweet Home School District, worth $180,000, went to a student, Ricky Yunke, who attended first through sixth grade at the Charter School, Ingram said. He received a U.S. Marine Corps. ROTC scholarship to Oregon State University.

Among 2018 graduates, three students spent the entirety of their elementary years at the Charter school. They are Yunke, Justin Kurtz and Ingram’s daughter, Tori Ingram.

People Involved in Education, which operates the Charter School along with Sand Ridge Charter School in the Lebanon Community School District, sees many of its students go on to be in the top 10 percent at their high schools, become valedictorians and join the National Honor Society, said Mary Northern, director of operations for PIE.

Joining in August 2006, Ingram has been a board member since PIE opened Sweet Home Charter School. PIE also operates Sand Ridge Charter School in the Lebanon School District. Yunke, Kurtz and Tori Ingram all attended kindergarten there.

“It was so hard to get the school, and then 12 years, this is awesome,” said Sherrie Ingram. “We were approved six weeks before school started. We had to hire everybody. We had to get everything ADA-approved in the church.”

The school offered kindergarten through third grade its first year and then began adding grades. After three years, PIE purchased the old Liberty School campus from East Linn Christian Academy. The Charter School had to cut sixth grade temporarily for property repairs, but it is steaming ahead today with kindergarten through sixth grades.

Its agreement with the School District allows the school to offer through the eighth grade, but the PIE board hasn’t discussed expanding into junior high at this point.

PIE, parents and staff have done a lot of work to the Liberty building over the years.

“There’s amazing murals when you first walk in,” Ingram said. They’ve upgraded security with a locking entrance and a camera surveillance system.

Ingram kept her three children, Tori, Addi and Jacob, in the Charter School until junior high. Because of his proficiency, Jacob has been able to skip a grade in math and will be taking pre-calculus as a freshman at Sweet Home High School.

“It just provides a choice for parents and for the students,” Ingram said.

Northern said the Charter School is “different.”

“We’re just a choice. People have to look at what we offer and decide if it’s for them. Why do we need to come into a distract if we’re going to do the same things? (It’s) basically an option for parents if they can’t afford private school.”

When parents are working three jobs to make ends meet and unable to pay for options beyond their local district school, “we’re the option, and we set out like that,” Northern said.

One choice the school provides small class sizes, Ingram said. The most the Charter School has had is “maybe 22 students,” and each classroom has a full-time teacher and a full-time assistant, she said.

The other key is the level of parent involvement, Ingram said. Parents must drive their children to school each day, so they’re at the school at least once per day.

“Parent involvement is crucial,” Northern said.

Sometimes, the Charter School gets students who have had a hard time in another school, Ingram said, and in some cases, it can make a difference for those students – it’s just another choice.

“We’re more structured,” Northern said. The schools require a uniform, so students are viewed the same way.

When the time comes, the students “are well-prepared to return to the district,” Ingram said.

According to Oregon Department of Education School Report cards, in the third through the fifth grade the Sweet Home School District had 36 percent of its students meet or exceed state language arts standards and 33.4 percent meet or exceed math standards in 2016-17.

The Charter School had 52.2 percent meet or exceed language arts standards and 47.8 percent meet or exceed math standards.

Statewide, 50.4 percent met or exceeded standards in language arts and 47.8 percent met or exceeded math standards. Among “like schools,” counting various demographics and socioeconomic conditions, 40.4 percent met or exceeded standards in language arts, while just 33.1 percent met or exceeded math standards.

Ingram said a rumor seems to persist that tuition is required, but it’s just not true. The Charter School is a public school.

The school receives 80 percent of the state’s school funding, Northern said. That’s not 80 percent of the overall funding compared to regular public schools – not federal funding and not property taxes. It’s 80 percent of one source of funding, the state school fund.

That’s a lot tighter than district budgets, but PIE owns its three school buildings and has reserves built up.

“Yeah, it’s pretty amazing that we’re where we are (after 12 years),” Northern said.

Ask her how, and she responds with her own question: “Why can’t they do it? Why do they struggle? Why does the public system struggle?”

The question is not “How do we do it?” she said.

The charter schools put at least two people in every classroom all the time with an internal cap of 20 students per class, Northern said.

PIE teachers start at more than $34,000, and staff receive 3-percent wage increases.

Northern said that more money would improve charter schools. For example, districts are reimbursed 70 percent of their transportation costs by the state. Although charter schools do provide some limited transportation among buildings, they receive no funding for transportation, leaving parents to take children to school.

They have to meet all of the state’s requirements, Northern said, and the school sees the same inspections by the state. They deal with the same challenges, such as homeless students; but they don’t get a dime extra for it.

Northern said she hadn’t really had a chance to think about the milestone Sweet Home Charter School just reached. She’s busy thinking about “how we’re going to do the next thing.”

“I’m just delighted,” she said. “For me, personally, the reward I get is when I see the kids do so well academically and be able to go to other schools and flourish the way they have.”