Community schools, privately operated academic institutions that receive per-student state funding similar to that received by public schools, are exempt from many of the state laws governing education -- including being free from the constraints of the state-mandated curriculum.
While public schools must adhere to a strict schedule of subjects, community schools can design their own course schedules and educational environments. Consequently, the programs at many of Ohio's community schools differ from those at most public schools.
Village Shule, an elementary school in Toledo, focuses on visual and performing arts, languages and a multicultural curriculum. The Roman Catholic nuns who operate Youngstown Community School emphasize ethics in their curriculum, while students at Riser Military Academy, which opened this fall in Columbus, are immersed in a discipline-based boot camp atmosphere.
Ohio's laws also allow community schools to focus on specific groups of children. According to information supplied by the Ohio Department of Education (ODE), the Harmony Community School in Cincinnati admits only children who have not succeeded in other schools, while JADES Academy in Toledo enrolls only students assigned to it by the court system. The M.O.D.E.L. Community School educates about 30 autistic children in Maumee.
Since first authorizing community schools in 1997, lawmakers have significantly expanded the initiative. The first wave of bills permitted the conversion of all existing public schools to community schools but allowed the establishment of start-up community schools only through a limited pilot program in Lucas County.
Later that same year, the legislature sanctioned the formation of start-up schools in Ohio's eight largest school districts.
The General Assembly has also provided $7 million over the next two years to fund community school set-up costs and recently ordered local school districts to provide transportation for community school students. The number of operating community schools has nearly quadrupled in just one year. Although only 15 schools held classes during the 1998-1999 academic year, approximately 55 are operating this fall. According to the ODE, the number would have been even higher, but 10 approved schools did not procure adequate facilities in time.
Steve Ramsey, assistant director of the ODE's Office of School Options, an agency that facilitates the formation of community schools, believes the number will continue to rise.
"We can realistically expect several hundred community schools in the next few years," he said.
But, while these alternatives to traditional public education might be popular, students at community schools have performed poorly on Ohio's statewide proficiency tests. Less than 2 percent of community school fourth-graders and 1 percent of sixth-graders passed all segments of the standardized tests -- reading, writing, math, science and citizenship. Thirty-two and 33 percent, respectively, of their public school counterparts passed.
Furthermore, with the exception of the sixth grade writing test, the passing rate for public school students was at least double that of community school students for each of the individual segments.
Clint Satow, assistant director at the Ohio Community School Center, a non-profit proponent of community schools, believes that this might be due to the high percentage of at-risk students attending Ohio's community schools.
"You can't judge these kids against the average student," he said. "We need to use the marks from this first year as a baseline and see if the community schools help them improve."
ODE data indicate that eight of the schools in operation last year educated substantial numbers of at-risk or developmentally challenged children. The Legislative Office of Education Oversight, a state agency that assesses the impact of education laws, will evaluate the academic and financial effectiveness of Ohio's community schools. In addition to producing reports for the General Assembly, the group will issue annual evaluations of community schools to the parents of children attending those schools and to the boards of education of the districts in which the schools are located.
If community schools effectively educate students and if the success can be attributed to exemption from state laws, perhaps lawmakers should re-examine the effect of those laws on public schools as well.