October 20, 2021

A charter school comes to Truxton

Photos by Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Livia Dawson, 9, and Callie Austen, 2, right, both of East Homer, play duck-duck-goose at the Truxton Academy Charter School gym Wednesday in Truxton.

Depending on who you ask, the recently approved Truxton Academy Charter School will either provide a unique and engaging learning experience at the former Hartnett Elementay School in Homer, or it will leave students unprepared for the rigors of the rest of their academic careers.

An expert says the reality may lie somewhere in the middle.

Either way, it will come because state aid will be diverted away from public schools and their students.

The Oct. 18 approval by the SUNY Charter Schools Institute was a hard-fought win for proponents of the proposed Truxton Academy Charter School.

The group of board members have been fighting for the school since 2014 and endured several rejections, between applications to the State Board of Regents and State University of New York.

Truxton residents say the charter school could breathe life into a community that has taken a hit since its elementary school closed.

The charter school expects to open in September, however school district leaders are concerned. Closing the former Hartnett Elementary in 2015 was intended help the district focus its resources better.

Instead, those resources will again be diverted, say officials, a hit they still aren’t sure how to absorb.

More importantly, they say it will possibly be detrimental to the students who attend the new school.

“Charters are still unproven in my mind, and I’m not for experimenting with the foundational skills of our young people,” said Cortland School District Superintendent Michael Hoose.

According to the Truxton Academy Charter School proposal, in the school’s first year Cortland is expected to send 20 children, while Homer would contribute 40 students with smaller numbers expected from DeRuyter, Tully, Fabius-Pompey and McGraw.

A hopeful community

Driving through Truxton on a recent weekday, the former Hartnett Elementary School sat empty — devoid of any activity as even a community center that has taken hold there since the school’s closure almost four years ago, was quiet.

Truxton resident Bryan Bartholomew was at a gas station, filling plastic gas cans for his dairy business, Bart LLC.

Bartholomew was thrilled to hear the school will once more be occupied — this time by a charter school with an agricultural focus.

“I hope this school restores rural life because it seems to me that’s where this country is headed away from, rural things,” he said.

Bartholomew hopes that if more students are brought up with an agricultural-based education, they will pursue careers in farming and agriculture.

“The amount of farmers I see with job opportunities passed off to people from other countries is astronomical,” he said.

Because of the charter school, Bartholomew says he has reconsidered leaving the area, and now wants to build a house in Truxton. Maybe the school will revive the community.

“Since the school closed, I’ve watched this town decline,” he said.

Weston Botra, 2, of DeRuyter, plays with area kids in theTruxton Academy Charter School gym Wednesday in Truxton.

A charter school’s appeal

Since the only two SUNY authorized charter schools that are closest in size to Truxton are in Elmira and Ithaca, Truxton Academy Charter School stands to be the first truly rural charter school in the state.

Founding member of the Truxton Academy Charter School Cindy Denkenberger, a retired elementary school teacher, says the school will fill a niche, providing agricultural-based, hands-on learning to elementary students who don’t thrive in traditional academic settings.

The prospect of a charter school in her community is what brought Truxton resident Raina Barber to reside there.

Barber moved to Truxton from Homer in 2015 in the hopes the charter school would be approved so her soon-to-be 3-year-old daughter Sienna, can attend.

Barber said Sienna’s older sister, Peyton, who is in the fourth grade, is a good student, but falls in the middle of her class. Barber thinks she would have benefited from a smaller class size where she would get more individualized attention.

“The squeaky wheel gets the grease. If you’re not struggling and not super-excelling, then you just kind of drift along and I would like more for her,” Barber said.

Effect on school districts

The school will be small — it expects 68 children to enroll to start, expanding to about 142 in the fifth year.

Federal and state aid will cover operational costs, Denkenberger said. It will get $500,000 in federal funding the first year, diminishing each year for five years.

However, when the school gets about 73 percent of each enrolled student’s state aid from their contributing district, that hurts those districts, officials said.

Homer expects a loss of about $1.8 million over five years — projecting 76 students sent by the fifth year — even considering transition aid, which is money the state gives to districts to help offset the loss.

Homer Superintendent Tom Turck isn’t sure yet how the school will offset the loss — in January when the district starts preparing its budget it will have to account for the school, difficult without knowing how many students the district will lose.

But Turck is more concerned about how well the charter school children will be prepared by their education.

“Running a school is hard and it all will depend on the quality of people they get to do that job,” Turck said. “I think it’s easy to write in theory but when you’re on the ground, in the classroom with the students, you have to have good people.”

Turck is concerned the students’ early education may not prepare them for the rigors of the later years.

“Once they (the school) are fully implemented, that child may have had six or seven years in there, so what if it’s less than what we would have provided them,” Turck said. “What amount of work do we then have to do to make sure the child is at a level where they will be successful?”

Some good, some bad

George Theoharis, a professor in the school of education at Syracuse University whose doctorate is in educational leadership and policy studies, says some charter schools are places where exciting things happen — others are mediocre or failing.

Which of these the Truxton Academy Charter School will be largely depends on the school’s leadership and teachers, Theoharis says, though there are legitimate criticisms that charter schools can’t equitably handle higher-needs kids.

Charter schools often don’t have the resources necessary to cater to the students with the highest needs, multiple disabilities or severe autism.

“A charter school that is not purposeful about meeting kids’ needs is not a place families will take those kids, in which case that leaves a higher concentration of needs in traditional publics,” he said.

And while the school has many nice ideas — project-based learning and hands-on education — those are all components of a sound education that you don’t need a charter school to provide, Theoharis said.

“Charter schools have become popular in this idea that choice is the way to solve our educational problems and I don’t know if we have the evidence that choice has solved our educational problems,” he said. “With choice there’s a market system of winners or losers and charter schools haven’t solved that.”

Hands-on learning
The Truxton Academy Charter School’s founders say the school will provide educational choice — and a community school for nearby children. Over the course of five years, a rural life lab, with a chicken coop and small animal barn, will be established.

“Students will be responsible for caring for the animals and plants during the school day,” states the Truxton Academy Charter School application. “Students will be actively engaged in using inquiry and exploration to complete meaningful hands-on projects.”

This Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics portion of the curriculum emphasizes creative thinking and problem solving, according to the proposal, which the SUNY Charter Schools Institute noted in approving the project.

Denkenberger said the district is unique in providing hands-on learning for elementary students, as there are hands-on options at the high schools, but not as much at the elementary schools.

However, superintendents say their elementary classrooms already use hands-on learning.

McGraw Superintendent Melinda McCool listed the examples: science projects, interviewing people during career exploration day, or after-school projects like “museum day” when students educate their parents about artifacts they find and put on display.

“The bottom line is that in our own communities we are providing the best educational opportunities that we can for kids,” McCool said. “It’s a vital part of education, giving kids those hands-on opportunities, I’ve never been part of a system that that wasn’t a part of the elementary level (education).”

The charter school also will incorporate Spanish instruction beginning in kindergarten. All teachers will be required to assist in the Spanish lessons. The idea is the school will serve the area’s migrant children, as well as develop multi-lingual skills.

However, superintendents argue the public schools are already providing a sound education.

“Charter schools were intended for bigger inner cities, to give parents a choice from failing schools,” Hoose said. “I don’t see where either Homer or Cortland even comes close to be considered a failing school.”

A slippery slope

Hoose wouldn’t comment on plans that are afoot in his district to establish a charter school at one of the soon-to-be closed elementary schools — Parker Elementary.

The district decided earlier this year to close Parker and Virgil schools to stop the district’s practice of dipping into its reserves each year to balance the budget — to the tune of about $1.4 million yearly.

By closing both schools, the district projects savings of about $1.4 million yearly in staffing costs and about $6.3 million in renovations.

Now resident Donald Chu is pursuing establishing a charter school in Parker after it closes next July. To do that the proposed charter school must first acquire the building — a building that’s already being considerd for youth-focused needs by other entities, including the city, daycare centers and even a church-based school.

Chu thinks the approval of Truxton Academy Charter School shows that a group of residents can create a pedagogically and financially viable school.

“If Cortland remains isolated from the outer world, it will decline,” Chu said. “We need to attract people from outside by providing an environment that they value. Schools are an essential part of that environment.”