GFPS approves plan for new public charter school

The Great Falls Public Schools board unanimously approved staff’s plan to submit an application to the Montana Board of Public Education to create a public charter school under a new state law.

The board voted during their Oct. 23 meeting to allow staff to submit the application which is due by Nov. 1.

The state has indicated they’ll notify the district if they’ve been approved in January, according to assistant superintendents Jackie Mainwaring and Heather Hoyer.

One community member asked the board to consider waiting until the application was complete to vote, but there’s not another meeting before the deadline and it requires school board approval for submittal, Hoyer said.

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Staff presented their proposal to the board earlier in October and has held two public informational sessions about the plan. Board members, district staff and the public have been able to asked questions and Hoyer and Mainwaring said once those questions are answered, people have been generally supportive of the plan.

Even if the district isn’t approved as a public charter school, district staff are moving forward with their plan to select one existing elementary school to turn into what they’ve dubbed CORE School, which is an effort to address teacher recruitment and retention.

If the district isn’t approved as a public charter, they’re using existing laws and regulations to create the program as a magnet school.

It will essentially be a learning laboratory and will be staffed by teachers with masters degrees who go through a separate selection process and will also be hired as adjunct staff for the University of Montana-Western’s education program.

They’ll go through an application process and be paired with student teachers from Western’s program or other university education programs.

The student teachers from university programs will be hired by the district as paraeducators or teacher aides, which have also been in short supply, while their completing their degree program in an immersive educational setting.

GFPS teachers who aren’t selected for the CORE School will be able to move to another school under the existing process in their collective bargaining agreement, according to district administrators.

District officials said current teachers would not lose their jobs under the proposal.

GFPS considering creating magnet public charter school

Current students at the selected school will have the option to stay, but for those that want to leave, they could be moved to a nearby school or go through the district’s existing permissive transfer process.

The classrooms will be filled to state capacity and will use a lottery system to fill any available elementary student slots at the lab school, district officials said.

Mainwaring said the district will select and notify the elementary school by next week.

The district will then set the CORE School’s advisory committee, which is required under the new state law and membership is specified within the law.

Hoyer said the committee will be part of the next step of selecting the principal for the CORE School, which they hope to have completed before the winter holiday break.

In January, the district plans to start the selection process for teachers, Mainwaring said.

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The CORE School would open in the fall of 2024 with the UM-Western students coming that spring, according to GFPS.

In choosing the school that will be the CORE School, the district is using criteria, according to Hoyer and Mainwaring, to include:

  • a school that’s been historically under-enrolled so there are open seats for students to join;
  • enough space for two classrooms per grade level;
  • that has rooms large enough and conducive to other adults coming in to observe without disrupting the educational flow;
  • how many staff members will have to move if they don’t qualify for CORE;
  • nearby schools to absorb students who don’t want to stay at the CORE school;
  • additional space for the college students to do their classes in the building, and
  • whether there’s room to expand the physical footprint of the building if that’s needed in the future.

Bill Bronson, school board member, spoke during the Oct. 23 meeting about the importance of the advisory committee, which will report to the school board, and requested that the committee and/or principal gives regular feedback to the board.

Marlee Sunchild, school board member, asked staff to take time to take care of the teachers who are displaced if they aren’t qualified or interested in speaking at CORE School.

Mainwaring and Hoyer said that staff hopes selecting the building will alleviate some anxiety amongst staff.

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Hoyer said she things there’s been equal parts anxiety and excitement within the district about the CORE School plan.

She said there’s been questions among staff as to what it will look like to be a GFPS employee and an adjunct for Western.

Mainwaring said that in the conversations she’s had about the plan, it seems that people have felt better after having their questions answered.

She said there’s been some misconceptions about what a public charter school is. Under the new state law allowing the creation of public charter schools, public money stays with public schools with the advisory committee and school board retaining oversight.

“That’s one of the unique things in the law about public charter schools, that they’re still governed by elected officials,” Hoyer said.

Hoyer said that there’s been some misconceptions about CORE School that go back to people’s thoughts on what charter schools are. She said the public charter school is not for certain students and will be designed to represent GFPS and the neighborhood its in demographically. There’s no grade point average or parent involvement criteria beyond any regular GFPS elementary school for the CORE School students, she said.

The CORE School will also be funded through the district’s existing budget and won’t affect the local schools tax levies, Hoyer and Mainwaring said.

If approved as a public charter school, it will get slightly more from the state than the standard base funding that’s determined by enrollment, which could free up some general fund dollars for other district needs, Mainwaring said.

UM-Western received a $400,000 grant through the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education for the CORE School to cover tuition for the college students in the program so when they graduate from their condensed three-year program, they’ll be debt free, Estee Aiken, an education professor at Western told the GFPS board during their Oct. 9 meeting.

The public charter schools also have some flexibility to accept private funding, which could offset some costs or allow for some enhancements, GFPS officials said.