Byline: MARY KELLI PALKA
Charter schools seem a little like magnet schools and a little like private schools.
But they're neither.
They're public schools run by private providers, and they're growing in popularity across the country and locally.
More than 3,200 students now attend one of 13 charter schools in Duval County. That's a 70 percent enrollment jump since last year. And it's at a time when most public schools in Northeast Florida are seeing little to no increases.
Florida authorized charter schools in 1996, but they had a rocky academic start in Jacksonville, where the earliest charters received D or F school grades.
But more recently, River City Science Academy in Jacksonville has excelled on state and federal standards. This year, a high-performing state charter management group opened Duval Charter School, and the nationally recognized Knowledge is Power Program started a local charter.
Some charters have a niche, such as targeting at-risk children, specializing in performing arts or science, or they have longer days or school years. Some require uniforms. Some expect parents to volunteer.
But they all have something in common: They're approved by local school boards but are independent, even though they receive state funding per student, like school districts. So they have more flexibility for teachers, parents and students looking for something a little different.
The increase in the number of charter schools along with an expansion of the charter schools that already exist has helped give Duval's public school enrollment numbers a slight bump of about 1 percent to 124,000 students.
But not counting charter students, enrollment in Duval's public schools, including juvenile justice and other alternative programs, dropped by about 400 students.
St. Johns County schools continue to show enrollment gains - of almost 3 percent - while most other area districts show only small changes.
Charters aren't as big in all districts. St. Johns and Putnam counties each have one charter for school-age children and both have seen some enrollment increases. But fewer than 200 children attend either charter. Clay, Nassau and Baker counties have no charters.
IT'S ABOUT CHOICE
The hallways, classroom and cafeteria at River City River Academy aren't much different than those found in many schools.
It's the people within that make the difference for some who chose to attend the charter instead of their neighborhood school.
Ilma Kovac, 15, likes the small family-like feel of River City Science Academy.
Ilma was in the school's first seventh-grade class when it opened. She's now in 10th grade. She said it feels like the school is safer and less hectic than when she attended Southside Middle School. And the teachers are more attentive.
"Here, the teachers can focus on what the students need more," Ilma said.
The school has been so popular that the academy opened an elementary school at the urging of many parents, said Principal Dogan Tozoglu. The two schools combined have about 760 students.
Suzanne Aure tried to get her then sixth-grade daughter into Darnell Cookman Middle/High School, but ended up on a waiting list. She saw a flier for River City Science Academy and thought it would be a good fit. Her daughter is now in the seventh grade in the charter, which has made A grades from the state the past two years.
"Because she did so well here, I didn't go back to reapply," Aure said.
Tozoglu doesn't see his school as competition to Duval County Public Schools. He believes River City Science Academy is another choice for parents. That's the way Superintendent Ed Pratt-Dannals sees charters, too.
"It's just choice, that's why so many parents take advantage of our 60-plus magnets," he said.
He said there could be a negative impact to schools that lose a lot of children to charters. …