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Rising to the challenge: The charter school revolution on Guam 




By Ron Rocky Coloma, Mar-Vic Cagurangan and Phillip Cruz

 

 

The educational landscape of Guam is witnessing a significant shift with the rise of charter schools. Recent developments, such as the establishment of Mt. Carmel, have brought the total number of charter schools on the island to five. 


"When I joined as vice chair, there were only three charter schools,” said Evangeline M. Cepeda, the chairperson of the Guam Academy Charter Schools Council. “Now, we're at five in less than four years. There's a clear demand."


The current enrollment figures for the 2023-2024 school year are as follows: Guahan Academy Charter School with 752 students, iLearn Academy Charter School with 778 students, SIFA Learning Academy Charter School with 421 students, Career Tech High Academy Charter School with 140 students and Mount Carmel Catholic School with 344 students.


The Guam Academy Charter School Act of 2009 paved the way for the establishment of charter schools. Unlike public schools under the Guam Department of Education’s orbit, charter schools operate with some autonomy under a contract with the Guam Academy Charter Schools Council. The law allows no more than seven charter schools to operate, with two elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school.


The law was enacted to increase learning opportunities for all students with special emphasis on expanded learning experiences; encourage the use of different and innovative teaching methods; and create new professional opportunities for teachers, including the opportunity to be responsible for the learning program at the school site. A charter school receives funding from the general fund equal to the number of students enrolled in a charter school.


The council has a budget of $14.4 million in fiscal year 2024, with a $7,500 allotment per student.  The Guam Department of Education’s cost per student is $11,000.

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The growth in charter school enrollment in Guam is a testament to their increasing popularity. A striking example of this growth is Career Tech High School, which experienced a remarkable increase from just four students at its inception to 140 students within three years. Such growth stories are not isolated incidents but reflective of a broader trend toward charter education in Guam.


The surge in charter school enrollments can be attributed to several factors. First, the growing awareness and understanding of what charter schools offer seems to play a significant role. Initially, many parents mistook charter schools for private institutions requiring tuition, a misconception gradually being corrected. 


A primary challenge in integrating charter schools into Guam's educational framework is the general lack of awareness and prevailing misconceptions. "Many still think charter schools are akin to private schools requiring tuition,” Cepeda said. “This misunderstanding hinders enrollment and support." 


Addressing these misconceptions is vital to ensuring that families are fully informed about the choices available to them. "The concept of charter schools is relatively new in Guam, even after a decade. It's still a novel idea to many," Cepeda added.


This newness means that both parents and educators are on a learning curve, understanding how charter schools fit into the broader educational system.


Charter schools offer an opportunity to cater to diverse educational needs. Each school's unique focus, whether it's science, liberal arts, or vocational training, provides alternatives to traditional public-school education. 


"Charter schools are not one-size-fits-all,” Cepeda said. “They offer specialized programs that can be more closely aligned with a student's interests and learning style.” 


Additionally, the specialized curricula and teaching methodologies adopted by the schools appeal to parents and students seeking a more tailored educational experience.


The Gu​ahan Academy Charter School, the first to be established since the law’s enactment, focuses on a program called the “Literacy Institute,” which is designed to provide comprehensive intervention to allow students to catch up with their peers, complete high school, and be prepared to enter the workforce or for post-secondary education.

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iLearn and SIFA both specialize in science, technology, engineering and math, while Career Tech Academy focuses on trade skills, such as health science, hospitality, STEM, information technology, manufacturing and construction, that prepare students for gainful employment.


The shift toward charter schools also impacts the traditional public school system. Cepeda believes charter schools ease the operational burden on the Guam Department of Education. 


"By transferring 2,500 to 2,700 students to charter schools, it's like reducing the totality of JFK enrollment,” Cepeda said. “This isn't about pitting public schools against charter schools. It's about offering diverse learning methods suitable for our students.” 


Student migration to charter schools has caused public school enrollment from an average of 31,000 a decade ago to 25,648 in school year 2022-2023, according to the Guam Department of Public School’s 2023 report.


One of the challenges, however, is the long-term sustainability of charter schools, particularly concerning funding and resources. 


The current appropriations law caps the council’s budget per school: 740 students for iLearn Academy; 765 for Guahan Academy; 350 for SIFA; and 70 for Career Tech High Academy. The enrollment figures for the current school year have exceeded the quota for SIFA with 421 students and Career Tech, with 140 students.


"While charter schools receive government funding, they must also seek other avenues to ensure sustainability and independence," Cepeda said. "Charter schools must not rely entirely on government funding. They need to explore other avenues like endowments or partnerships to remain viable in the long run.” 


This aspect is critical for the continued operation and success of charter schools. Long-term sustainability is crucial, and Cepeda noted the need for charter schools to be partly self-sufficient and not wholly reliant on government funding. The council is exploring various avenues to achieve this goal. "Engaging the community and fostering partnerships with local businesses and organizations can provide both financial support and enrich the educational experience," Cepeda said. 


In October 2023, the Archdiocese of Agana officially relinquished its authority over the 67-year-old Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic School, which is now a charter school. According to its website, the Agat school has an annual enrollment of between 350 and 500.

 

“Charter schools demand certain programs that GDOE can’t have,” said Mike Phillips, administrator of Mount Carmel.


He said Mount Carmel uses a program that identifies the project, adds performance to it to make it competitive, provides recognition, and then renews it and reviews it for meeting its goal.  “The atmosphere is much better.  Now that it’s a charter school, it provides the resources students desire,” he said.


At the charter school, Phillips said, students can receive the resources that they need quickly and can raise the standards. Its goal is to make students more proficient in music, CHamoru language and to be able to compete competitively in sports.  “It offers the students the opportunity and the years of practice of becoming proficient,” he added.


Mount Carmel students get a chance and a choice on what they really want to learn, Phillips said. “It gives the students the ability to enjoy learning today,” he added.


Seeking to join the charter school sector is the Business and Technology Academy Charter School, whose application was heard by the charter school council on Feb. 7.


According to BTACS's press release, the proposed charter school seeks to prepare Guam's youth for the demands of the 21st-century business and technology workforce.


Juan Flores, BTAC board member, said the school expects to enroll 200 students in the first year - 100 9th graders, 50 10th graders, and 50 11th graders.


“Since BTACS will be a publicly funded school, students from all over the island will be eligible to enroll,” Flores said. “The school will work to ensure the successful attainment of reading, writing, and mathematical knowledge and skills needed for postsecondary education or gainful employment upon graduation.” 


BTACS plans to have enough teachers for a 20 to 1 student-faculty ratio and a staff of four administrative staff members in the initial year. “When the petition is approved, the board will request an enrollment of 200 students for the FY2025 budget. Considering the current allotment of $7,500 per charter school student, the budget requested will be for $1.5 million,” Flores said.


The trend of increasing enrollments in charter schools is likely to continue, especially as new charter schools open and existing ones expand their offerings. This evolution will require careful monitoring to ensure that both charter and public schools can coexist and complement each other, enriching the educational landscape of Guam.


Cepeda emphasizes that the relationship between charter schools and the GDOE should not be seen as competitive but rather as complementary.  "This isn't a battle between public and charter schools,” Cepeda said. “It’s about offering the best for Guam’s students. Different children thrive in different environments, and having these options is vital.” 


Looking ahead, the prospects for charter schools in Guam are promising but hinge on careful planning and community support. "The growth potential is there, but it must be managed wisely. We need to ensure that expansion doesn't compromise quality or sustainability," Cepeda said.


Future expansion plans should consider the broader educational ecosystem in Guam, ensuring that charter schools complement rather than overburden the existing structure.


"Give charter schools a chance," Cepeda said. "They provide a different environment, smaller classes, and personalized attention. If it doesn't fit your child, there's always the option to return to public schools or explore other avenues."




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