Following a state mandate, New Horizons Academy in Wauseon will officially become a charter school, but little will change for its students.
A two-year process culminated in recognition of the conversion by the Ohio Department of Education as of Jan. 27.
The change is somewhat anti-climatic for the academy, located at 220 Lawrence Ave., since it has operated like a charter school from the beginning. The biggest asset for students will be earning a diploma directly from the academy that will be recognized by higher-learning institutions.
The ODE required the conversion after noting that New Horizons provides intervention and educational programming together, and that most of the student scholarships the state provides cover the intervention services. The academy, which has 97 students and 68 staff members, gets no state education funding.
CEO/Executive Director Matt Rychener said the academy has always operated like a charter school “because we wanted there to be no question that we had a quality program.” He said the academy has followed all the standards and extended standards, and the required testing and curriculum based on differentiated instruction for individual students.
Following that system from the start considerably shortened New Horizon’s transition period to a charter school. Rychener said non-charter schools typically begin the process of getting teachers certified, getting the required licenses, and developing and implementing a curriculum after applying.
“That’s stuff that we’ve been doing since day one, because we’ve been operating as if we were a charter school,” he said.
A finalized curriculum sent to the ODE last August was approved in December. Director of Development Amy Murphy said because the school had fulfilled its charter requirements from the start, the state determined during its initial on-site visit Jan. 25 that the standard three additional visits weren’t necessary.
“When they came out they were so impressed with how much has already been accomplished as far as certification and licensure staff and curriculum, how small our staff-to-student ratio is…they informed us at the end of the site visit, ‘We think we can finalize your charter in May. Would you like us to do your final site visit?’” she said.
Murphy said the academy will operate as a non-public charter school so it can continue to receive educational scholarships from the state. It will also get a small amount of funding for administrative and auxiliary services but that will be in the form of a reimbursement the academy won’t receive until next year.
Rychener said public charter status was simply too expensive.
“We’re serving a special needs population, so for us to be able to provide those intervention services that those kids so desperately need, there’s no way we could exist on the per-student money that comes from the public charter,” he said. “And our parents could not afford to pay money out of pocket.”
He added, “Because we’ve been operating as if we’re a charter…there’s no difference (for students). We’re providing everything we’ve been providing.”
Murphy said receiving a diploma directly from the academy eliminates the need for students to rely on their home school district or to get a GED. She said an academy diploma also offers students a sense of identity and belonging that may have been missing.
“For our kids, that is important,” she said.
Charter status will also allow for transportation provided by the home school district for qualified students within a 30-minute proximity, and for licensing benefits.
Some students’ parents expressed concern over the change until it was explained. “It’s always the fear of the unknown, the fear of change,” Rychener said.
He emphasized his belief that the academy’s conversion to a charter school doesn’t place it above public education. He said the circumstances are simply different for students with disabilities, who can’t maintain the same pace the ODE places in traditional classroom settings.
“We have got amazing public schools in northwest Ohio. This is absolutely no indictment on our public schools,” he said.
The academy’s final charter will likely be received sometime in May. Rychener said New Horizons is blessed to have the opportunity to serve the children.
“They’re amazing kids and amazing families,” he said.
David J. Coehrs can be reached at 419-335-2010.