Alma Fuerte Public School will open Monday with about 85 students in transitional kindergarten through the second grade. Unlike most public schools in the area, Alma Fuerte was not created by the Pasadena Unified School District (PUSD). It is a charter school designed by a group of parents who want their children to learn entrepreneurship.   

“We want our students to succeed in 21st-century careers,” said co-founder and Director of Operations Anne Lee, an attorney and mother of two who lives in Pasadena. “They will need social and emotional skills as well as academics.” Students will also learn about computers, robotics and other technologies. 

Charter schools like Alma Fuerte are privately operated but publicly funded; they are tuition-free and open to any student who wants to attend. These schools seek to provide parents with a greater range of options for educating their children. Charters must meet the same academic standards of other public schools, but generally have more freedom and flexibility in their management, curriculum and hiring.     

“We’re a little more nimble,” says Lauren O’Neill, executive director of the Altadena-based Odyssey Charter School. Comparing PUSD, with 18,000 students, to the 470-student Odyssey, O’Neill says her school can “get through a lot of the bureaucracy without the muck.”

The charter school movement received a boost when President Donald Trump appointed Betsy DeVos, a longtime supporter of charters and home schooling, to head the US Department of Education. And as a result of the May 16 election, the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education now has a majority of members who support the charter school concept.

“Evidence over the past five years argues that the public has never been more supportive of public charter schools now based on growth in charter school enrollment and polling data,”  states the website for the California Charter Schools Association. According to the group, 1,243 charter schools educating 602,837 students operated throughout California during the 2016-17 school year.

Seven charter schools will operate in Pasadena and Altadena during the 2017-18 school year. According to the most recent statistics compiled by the California Department of Education, five charter schools with 1,314 students were based in the two communities during 2015-16.

Under California law, several agencies are authorized to issue charters for alternative public schools. PUSD has granted charters to four local schools: Aveson School of Leaders and Aveson Global Leadership Academy in Altadena, and Pasadena Rosebud Academy and Learning Works in Pasadena. Other schools, like Alma Fuerte and Odyssey, are chartered by the Los Angeles County Office of Education. Charters are granted for a five-year period, after which the charter can be renewed.

Proponents of charter schools say they offer parents and teachers the opportunity to create specialized programs that are unavailable in traditional public schools.

For example, Kurt Rahn, communications director at Learning Works, says his school removes the obstacles preventing some kids from attending school, providing education to dropouts, pregnant girls, kids in trouble with the law and homeless children. The school maintains an extensive network of chasers who “know every single one of the students on a very intimate level” and “literally chase them into coming to school.” 

Supporters also maintain charter schools are more academically accountable than other public schools because they answer to both parents and the chartering agency. “Their charter is granted for a period of five years and after that period they must prove they are meeting their promises,” says Lee. At Alma Fuerte, she added, county education officials will make site visits to the school and the school will be required to prepare monthly reports on its financing and operations.

However, critics, including state and national teachers’ unions, are skeptical about charter schools’ accountability and transparency. In addition, California Teachers’ Association (CTA), a politically powerful teachers’ union, questions if these schools are truly offering an educational experience that is unavailable in traditional public schools. California charter schools, CTA states on its website, “sought to empower small groups of educators to launch a wide variety of innovative start-ups that, by experimenting with new approaches to education, would develop superior models fit to meet the needs of the diverse students that make up [the] state’s school population. … While some charter schools have proved exemplary, much of the industry has become dominated by the same types of organizations legislators had sought to reform: large chains of schools where materials, methods and evaluation are centrally dictated and teachers lack the power to set the curriculum; Charter Management Organizations that replicate a single model over and over again, with little variation.”

No doubt charter school founders are familiar with union arguments, but that hasn’t stopped them from organizing new campuses. Lee, for example, says Alma Fuerte plans to add another grade each year, eventually instructing transitional kindergarten through eighth-graders by 2023.

“Charter schools give parents the option of finding the right education for their child,” she says. “Families want more personalized learning and they should have that option.”