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In a Basis Flagstaff biology classroom, five high-schoolers are perked up over the data they'd gathered from their lab on the oxygen consumption of peas.

In a Flagstaff High chemistry classroom, 28 teenagers are just as studiously translating chemical formulas from their symbols to words, or vice versa.

The small class is in a new charter school. Flagstaff High is the city's largest and oldest school. Both schools are comprehensive and offer enrichment for students who clearly see college within the next three years.

What's the difference? This snapshot literally illustrates that one introductory science lab has 23 more students than the other. One is in a charter and one is in a traditional public school, and in simple terms, that explains the class sizes. Charters can have enrollment caps.

Charters, which are public schools with state oversight, enroll more than 124,000 students across Arizona. In Flagstaff, they account for about 2,700 students out of the 12,900 overall K-12 students in town who aren't homeschooled, or about 20 percent (about 320 students make up the small private school market, and a smaller number attend a county-run alternative school).

Local charters typically enroll students with far higher scores on the state AIMS test than the average of students in Flagstaff Unified School District. Also, they have fewer students identified as needing mandated special education services, needing assistance with English language acquisition, or from low-income families.

Educators don't like to nurture animosity, even though their schools produce different profiles.

"It has been my experience that educators are pretty focused on education in Flagstaff and not so much focused on competition between programs, and I don't know if that exists elsewhere in Arizona," said Becky Daggett, executive director at Flagstaff Arts & Leadership Academy.

"But I feel like we have a pretty education-friendly community and people are ultimately -- we're all looking out for the best interest of the youth of the community and making sure that they find educational opportunities that are the best for them," Daggett said.

30 STUDENTS VS. 6

First period is when almost 30 honors students fill Jeff Taylor's Flagstaff High classroom to study "pre-AP" chemistry. This class will prepare them for a second year of chemistry that they would take in advance of the Advanced Placement test in the subject.

The classroom isn't quiet when that many teens, mostly sophomores, get together. But they're talking about their work, and recognizing iron phosphate and magnesium dichloride with the help of laminated periodic tables.

Taylor teaches three sections of pre-AP chemistry, plus a section of AP environmental biology, and one section of regular chemistry. His charge is to build up the chemistry program. His bright students are the kind who set high goals for themselves.

One girl wants to be a biochemist. Another wants to be a doctor in a neonatal intensive care unit.

The budding pediatrician, Lauren Miller, has attended FUSD schools her whole student career.

"They (charters) offer the same kind of opportunities, so I don't think they're any better," she assessed. And she has good friends and teachers here.

Across town at Basis, first period is also where Linda Lenz has honors first-year biology with a half-dozen students (at least, when nobody is absent). It so happens that she is married to Jeff Taylor.

Basis also has a survey class in the sciences for ninth-graders. The freshman class has about 50 students. Only three are in Lenz' honors biology class (the other three are sophomores). This is for students with a stronger middle school science background and a preparation for an AP biology class. For now, they eagerly study their data, filling much of the white board in green and black ink. Lenz said these students are always challenging her and asking question, more than she's had before. She's previously worked in a small district in the White Mountains and in Department of Defense schools.

Lenz said she and Taylor don't talk about "politics." They talk shop, sharing strategies for their classrooms.

"We see it as a positive overall," she said.

Kara Kelty, Basis Flagstaff's head of school, agreed. For more coincidence, her own daughter attends Flagstaff High and is in one of Taylor's honors classes. So she sees how the district and charter schools co-exist.

"I don't see it as competition," she said. "I see it as raising the bar in Arizona."

ACADEMICS COME FIRST

Basis is the newest in Flagstaff's charter school lineup and came with much intrigue: Built new on McMillan Mesa and the first new local, charter high school since Northland Preparatory Academy's 1996 debut, Basis is part of a chain of Tucson and Valley schools. It promotes its Advanced Placement curriculum and attracts students with high AIMS scores who are aiming to earned advance college credit and attend selective colleges.

One of the first things Kelty will say about Basis is that academics come first here. There are high expectations, and she said parents appreciate that, and that the school communicates progress.

This fall, a student in an Advanced Placement class failed the first test and was devastated. The teacher responded by helping the class with note-taking and how to absorb college-level reading and vocabulary. The student who failed the first test got an A on the next one.

Kelty acknowledged a churn in enrollment -- after the first 20 days of the year, the approximately 500-student, grades 5-10 school had lost a net of six students. Some go, others come in to take their place.

Sometimes parents sign up their child and it wasn't what the student wanted. One left to play competitive sports (Basis only has athletic clubs). When they do leave, they stay positive and say it just wasn't a good fit. Also in the last couple of weeks, the school took in a student from Mount Elden Middle School and hosted a "shadow."

Kelty said students have said Basis gives them a lot of work, "but they haven't said, 'I'm not able to do it.'"

"We find it's important to break down the process of how to be a good student both for students and for families. So in that instance, if a parent calls me and says it's just too hard, we'll pull together all the students and we'll have a parent meeting with the student and we'll say, well, what exactly is too hard?" she continued. "Define too hard. Is it too much homework? And then sometimes we find out things like that student needs to sit at the front of the room or they need some help with organizational skills."

40 ART CLASSES AND COLLEGE PREP

"I think that the reputations that schools gain, rightly or wrongly, probably help to select families that are interested in them."

Becky Daggett, executive director of Flagstaff Arts & Leadership Academy, says this in reflection. FALA's niche is the performing, visual and literary arts (it has more than 40 art classes and only about 300 students), but it also maintains a college prep curriculum. She said people don't seem aware of the academics.

She's also heard charges of elitism about Flagstaff's charters. As a public school, admission is based purely on space, with a random lottery when interest is greater than space.

"Maybe an argument could be made that the motivated parents are the ones who get their kids into charter schools, but I've seen students who have made it happen for themselves and they're taking the bus from the east side of town to get here," Daggett said.

She said a student who isn't happy to be at FALA will probably not be vocal about it. But she said she's never had an interview with a family that didn't want to be there.

FALA has become more popular and has wait lists in some grades. The school has already taken in some Basis transfers this year. There hasn't been any pinballing back to FALA, though in one case a student who wanted to return couldn't because of the depth of the wait list.

MORE THAN CLASSES

Stacie Zanzucchi, principal at Coconino High School and a career educator in FUSD, said she hasn't felt cultural or achievement shifts when it comes to charters.

She listed program after program that are popular and, she estimated, quite strong, crediting them with keeping student interest. She says this not in comparison, just as what she knows to be in her school.

There's the 120-member marching band (no local charter school has a marching band, although they do all have music programs). There's the Army JROTC program that is unique to Coconino, which she said has a waiting list and interest from charter students. The choir sends students to the state honor choir and the drama program puts on two plays a year, including a full-blown musical (with live musical accompaniment) every other year.

The basketball teams have much more interest than there are spots on the teams. The robotics team has attended world competition for the last several years and spread robotics to most schools in Flagstaff, including charters. Special education is comprehensive, including services for students with more severe, rare disabilities, a program just for students with autism, and subject-level interventions. The FUSD high schools also have career and technical education, with financial help from a countywide vocational district.

"All of these things are, I think, possible because we are a (traditional) public school."

GROWTH BY STRUGGLING STUDENTS

Flagstaff High principal Tony Cullen is eager to begin his own new program, an Advanced Placement magnet academy. Like at Basis, students will commit to completing a certain number of AP classes and tests, among other projects, to graduate from the program.

He said this isn't a response to the rigorous charters, as the idea has been around for years, although he expects people to take the timing how they will.

Cullen mentions his school's consistently strong labels from the state accountability system, which take into account how all students grow academically, including the students who struggle.

"There's always comparison to the charters," he said. "You take our top 200 kids and we'll put them against any charter across the nation. They are doing phenomenal."

Hillary Davis can be reached at hdavis@azdailysun.com or 556-2261.

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