‘I took it as a challenge’: Families tell why they choose charters

Idaho families choose charter schools for a range of reasons. 

But what really resonates with those who continue to drive charter schools’ growth year after year, even through the grip of a global pandemic?

It may be a school’s reputation for pushing kids academically. Or, it may be a school’s emphasis on helping students prepare for life after high school, its commitment to smaller class sizes or simply its atmosphere.

Here’s what three families told us about their choice for charters over their traditional neighborhood schools.

‘I took it as a challenge’

Porsche Gerdes, a sophomore at Coeur d’Alene Charter Academy, remembers principal Dan Nicklay’s words during her orientation at the school as a sixth-grader. 

“In 30 days, many of you won’t be here,” Nicklay told the academy’s newest batch of wide-eyed students.    

“I took it as a challenge,” Gerdes said of the predication. 

Porsche Gerdes, center, with her mother and her sister Mercedes.

Yet she watched over the following weeks as Nicklay’s prophecy unfolded. The academy’s rigorous learning requirements prompted several of her peers to switch schools. 

Nicklay has summed up the academy’s approach to education as working kids “hard” and having “no mercy,” realities that have paid dividends over the years. Since opening in 1999, the academy has developed a reputation as a top school in Idaho and the nation, garnering recognition from the Washington Post, Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report. 

While the academy isn’t the best fit for all kids, Gerdes credits its postsecondary emphasis for returning each year.

“It’s a college prep school,” she said, outlining her plans to somehow fuse a love for language into her postsecondary pursuits. 

She believes habits developed at the academy will provide the stamina she’ll need for a four-year degree, and possibly beyond. 

The school’s postsecondary emphasis has also won over Gerdes’ mother, Sarah Gerdes. For her, it’s about helping students link their education with life after high school. 

“The ones who succeed at the school are the ones whose parents help connect the dots from education to the future,” Sarah Gerdes said.

‘It just felt so homey’

Academics played a part in Mindy Gifford’s decision to bypass her kindergartner’s neighborhood school for a charter across Idaho Falls, Alturas International Academy. She likes the school’s emphasis on letting students work in groups based solely on instructional levels, not grade levels. Unlike her neighborhood school, Alturas offers full-day kindergarten at no extra cost.

But Alturas’ appeal transcends academics, Gifford explained, referencing a tour she took of the school’s facilities before her daughter, Cali, gained entrance via an annual enrollment lottery. 

Mindy Gifford sends her daughters, Cali, left, and Carley to separate local charter schools.

“It just felt so homey,” Gifford said of the school’s renovated facility near downtown.

Gifford’s second-grader, Carley, attends a nearby charter of her own, American Heritage, where flags drape the hallways, pictures of the nation’s founders line the walls and students adhere to a red, white and blue dress code.

The patriotic emphasis speaks to the family’s conservative political bent, Gifford said, adding that the school’s limitation of 15 kids per kindergarten classroom played a big part in enrolling Carley there.  

The required collared shirts aren’t always the most comfortable, said Carley, who enjoys wearing T-shirts around the house during summer. “Sometimes they itch.” 

Having a choice of where to send her kids is also a big deal for Gifford. It’s not that her neighborhood school isn’t good, she said, but the specific appeal of some local charters stands out.

“It’s nice to have a choice,” said Gifford.

‘They’re preparing kids for life’

Caldwell parent Yolanda Abendano said a choice in schools is nice, but Caldwell-based Elevate Academy’s emphasis on connecting kids with specific careers has enticed her family to bypass their neighborhood schools over the years.  

“They’re preparing kids for life,” she said of the charter’s focus on helping at-risk youth.

One method for doing that: giving kids access to a career-technical program emphasizing pathways to certifications and jobs in criminal justice, culinary arts, welding, construction, business, firefighting and the emergency medical field.

Abendano’s twin daughters, Sydnee and Shanel, are heading into their eighth-grade year — and prepping for their first year in Elevate’s career-pathway program in business and manufacturing. 

The Avendados celebrate the graduation of their oldest daughter, who also attended a charter school.

Emphasizing careers has emerged as a popular draw for at-risk youth and students in poverty. This Las Vegas-based magnet school has capitalized on the emphasis to national acclaim.

Focusing kids on careers doesn’t necessarily translate to higher academic performance. Elevate’s most recent SAT scores were among the lowest in the state — with the school’s focus on helping struggling students a likely factor.

But for the Abendados, the benefits of jumpstarting a career outweighs test scores — and has already paid dividends for the girls, who say they made $300 around Mother’s Day from their own business making treats. 

“More choices, more challenges” is an in-depth look at the robust effort to expand Idaho charter schools. The series considers what the well-funded push means for Idaho families and leaders and how the state is adapting to the growth. EdNews data analyst Randy Schrader provided data and information for this series. The series, at a glance:

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  • ‘I took it as a challenge’: Families tell why they choose charters

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About Devin Bodkin

Reporter Devin Bodkin covers education issues in East Idaho. He is a former high school English teacher who specializes in stories about charter schools and educating students who live in poverty. Follow Devin on Twitter @dsbodkin. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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