Each year, the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools receives dozens of applications from people wanting to start their own public school.
The Arizona Charter Schools Association hopes a nearly half-million dollar grant will help some of those schools open in low-income areas.
The association was awarded a federal three-year, $444,480 National Leadership Activities grant, designed to help create more quality charter schools nationwide. Only five groups in the country received a grant.
With the funds, the association wants to provide ways to help all charter schools raise the bar of education, as well as support close to a dozen teams as they maneuver through the process to start a new school.
A charter school is a privately operated school that contracts with the state to provide public education. Arizona has nearly 500 charter schools across the state that educate more than 100,000 students. About 1 in every 10 public school students attends a charter school. The schools must meet state academic measures, but have some leeway with operations.
Seven areas in Arizona have been identified by the association as needing charter schools, mostly due to low-income or high minority populations: Apache, Navajo, Pinal, Yuma and Coconino counties and the Phoenix metro and Tucson metro areas.
"By creating schools in the target areas we're putting in schools kids can walk to or putting a school in an area that needs that high functioning education environment," said Peter Hodgson, director of communications for the association.
The association's director of school development, Andrew Collins, said the plan is for charter school founders, through training and mentoring, to create an application strong enough to receive a charter, as well as a plan that could receive starter grant funds from the state or association.
"The biggest piece is in the preparation of the schools. We don't want more mediocre schools. We want them to be performing at a high level ... in their first year or meeting a need that's not there," Collins said.
The association also plans to use the funds to create an online self-assessment program for charter schools. Operators will be able to measure their progress compared to the association's standards, which are currently being updated.
The final piece being put in place with the funds is an interactive, online map that will list every charter and district school in the state, along with its state rating. That will help identify where there are education needs, Collins and Hodgson said.
That piece is really the first step in deciding where to open a charter school, Collins said. The charter application process requires a marketing analysis to show what a newly created charter school will offer that isn't already available in an area.
Each year, charter applications are due to the state board in July. Applications are reviewed by the board and new charters are awarded during a January meeting. Operators have two years to open a school once it's received a charter.