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July 23, 2019

4 min

Dr. Jessica Spallino

Back to the Roots of Independent Study Public Charter Schools

I've worked in the independent study public charter school space since 1999 back when they were far more utilitarian than they have become today. There were no funds for families to spend, no selecting and purchasing preferred curriculum, and no desire for freedom from the requirement to demonstrate work completed and academic progress.

The small independent study public charter school I worked for twenty years ago was a fairly new concept at the time, governed by its own board and established out of a direct need of the local school district schools. Our small school served students who weren’t quite fit for or struggling within the standard model of education. Many of the students who came to us were referred by local public schools and had needs that weren’t necessarily identified in an IEP, but difficult to address in a model where teachers were working diligently to serve classrooms of nearly 40 students.

This characterization of newly released students from the local school district schools during this time is in no way criticism of the schools from which they came. Based on our experience with the students that came to us, they showed an urgent need for deeper personalization, modified instructional and content delivery and an overall minimization of distractions. School district teachers in seat-based classrooms tasked with instructing potentially 40 student classrooms are far too weighed down to provide the personalized, one on one attention and support that students like these needed on a daily basis.

Seat based classroom teachers fulfill the daunting task of instructing large groups of students within a limited period of time each day to address individual needs. Students may receive the personalized support needed per their IEPs, but students who have needs that may not be officially documented are left to their own devices to progress in an environment that their teacher may already be stretched too thin to successfully serve. This is where independent study is used as an effective modality for students with a variety of potentially more mild needs that still prevent them from being successful in an environment where teachers need to primarily tend to the collective group. These students then not only create an even more challenging scenario for a seat-based teacher, but become increasingly frustrated and even worse, may land themselves in trouble.

Once students enrolled in our independent study program, they were often either frustrated, stressed or in trouble. We’d frequently detect a deep sense of relief once they were in a setting that was primarily one on one and at a pace that seemed manageable to the student. Once enrolled in their courses, students tended to focus more on their schoolwork and less on their feelings of inadequacy and frustration. We got to know each student and their families quite well and were equipped with independent study resources to appeal to the student’s individual needs.

We were regularly surprised by how much work students could complete once in an environment that better suited their current needs. They seemed able to focus on the most part and became more and more motivated as they left usually challenging work mastered behind them. Not every student reacted so abruptly to the new environment. Some required patient care and sometimes incessant support to keep them on track and focused. Either way, this model, in its raw and fundamental form, appealed to and worked for many students, as it still does. Before there were funds awarded to families to spend on questionable expenses with less focus on academic progress, this supportive form of educating students was a viable option to help students become successful.

This personalized care and unrelenting individualized support is at the very foundation of independent study. The level of fulfillment one experiences when reaching students otherwise disenfranchised by the system (the singular focused system, not the seat-based teachers) is why I’ve remained in this space for so many years. In my various roles within the independent study public charter school community, I have always adhered to this basic foundation in supporting students within this unique model.

The deeply unfortunate aspect within this space today is certainly those that have corrupted the view of these types of programs by allowing greed and a lack of basic ethical behavior to dominate their daily decisions in school operations. Even more disheartening is the fierce battle at play for the number of students that directly impact each organization’s solvency, longevity and validation of educational models.

I feel such nostalgia for the days when independent study public charter schools and district run public schools worked harmoniously together and valued each other and their collective efforts on serving students of all needs and backgrounds. There was a day when the primary focus was the best solutions for students who have a wide variety of needs, not which model was experiencing success. I miss the days where the feeling of true camaraderie in the name of the student was palpable.

Seat based district run public schools are now in direct competition with public charter schools of all types as introducing free public school choice into education has created an intense grab for students that school choice may not only appeal to, but has the capacity to address very specific student needs.

With the recent attacks on school choice and scandals within independent study public charter schools, I find great comfort and resolve in a renewed focus on the fundamentals and roots of independent study and how it can directly impact a student’s life trajectory. And I still hold out hope that through honest work and tenacious support for each and every student, that the respect and collaboration that once flourished between public charter schools and district run public schools can be restored for the sake of our ever-evolving students in a rapidly changing world. Their future – and ours – depends on it.


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