LANSING - At 9-year-old Anthony Foster's school in Benton Harbor, students don't study just reading, writing and arithmetic. They raise salmon from eggs and release them in local rivers, work in a school garden, take nature walks, make applesauce and learn about agriculture.
Anthony, an Eau Claire resident, attends Countryside Academy, a charter school with a curriculum focused on food, agriculture, renewable resources and the environment (FARE).
A charter school, or public school academy, is a tuition-free public school funded by tax dollars. Its admissions policy cannot discriminate based on academic or athletic achievement and its board is not publicly elected.
"I feel like parents have a little more control over what goes on at a charter school," said Rhonda Foster, Anthony's mother and Parent Teacher Student Organization president at Countryside. "Kids don't seem to get lost in a system. They hold the kids to a higher standard than a public school, and they teach respect and responsibility."
A new Citizens Research Council of Michigan (CRC) study found that charter school students in the state generally perform slightly better on standardized tests than those at traditional public schools in the same districts, but not as well as the state average.
The study also found charter school graduation rates averaged 56 percent, while the National Center for Education Statistics reported it was 76.3 percent for the state as a whole in the 2007-08 school year.
Lynn Sperry, the administrator at Countryside, said Benton Harbor was a struggling community when the school opened in 1997. Her position is similar to a superintendent in a traditional public district.
The city is still one of the poorest in the country, with about half of its residents living in poverty, according to census data.
Countryside has about 500 students in kindergarten through 12th grade.
"There was no other option for students that was a free public education," Sperry said. "Benton Harbor for many years has been in distress, and parents felt the only option they had for their kids was to take them to a private school."
Sperry added that the FARE curriculum is important because it reflects the economic structure of the area, which is largely based on agriculture and teaches good citizenship, respect and responsibility in a way that students can relate to.
Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, said charters can be a great way for a struggling district to start over.
He said 92 public schools in the state have been identified as performing unacceptably.
"They've been persistently low-achieving," Quisenberry said. "The question becomes, what do you do with those 92 buildings? Research will tell you that it's very, very difficult to transition those schools to success.
"What a charter school does is provide an opportunity where you literally can create a new school, start off brand-new, even if you've got the same students in the same community with the same challenges, and have a higher probability of success," he said.
Doug Pratt, director of public affairs at the Michigan Education Association (MEA), said one advantage of charter schools is that parents are more likely to be involved.
The MEA is the state's largest union of school employees, including teachers.
"What you have are parents who have made a conscious decision to have an active role in their child's education," Pratt said. "They, at a minimum, took a step to move their child from their neighborhood public school into this charter environment."
However, Pratt said it takes more than parental engagement to make a great school, and not all Michigan charters have all the ingredients necessary for success.
"There are certainly some charters that are doing a great job in this state, but there are also charters that made the list of consistently low-performing schools," Pratt said. "In education reform debates, it gets painted with broad brushes that charters are better. That's just not the case.
"Some charters are better. Some aren't."
The study by the CRC, a nonprofit think tank, detailed results from the 2009 MEAP tests and compared student proficiency in charter and traditional public schools. In math, for example, charter students scored higher than in similar districts but lower than the state average.
Mark O'Keefe, the executive vice president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said a recent Stanford University national study found that only 17 percent of charters outperformed traditional public schools in the same district, and 36 percent performed worse.
"That means that if you were to go from a traditional public school to a charter school in the same neighborhood, you would be twice as likely to end up in a school that performed worse as you would be to end up in one that performs better," he said.
That 2009 study by Stanford's Center for Research on Education Outcomes evaluated charter schools in 16 states, not including Michigan.
O'Keefe said it's hard to judge schools solely by test scores because of the many additional factors that affect student achievement.
For example, charters often have modified curriculums in areas such as technology or the arts, or targeted student bodies, such as low-performing students or those from low-income areas.
"Each school is different getting all students to college might not be the objective of that school," said Penny Davis, director of communications at the Center for Charter Schools at Central Michigan University. The university authorizes and oversees many charter schools in the state.
"The objective of that school might be to get students to graduate, or preparing special needs students for work," she said. "So achievement is subjective you can't base it all on the MEAP or an assessment."
The CRC study said in 2008-09, 87.1 percent of the 241 charter schools in the state met standards for adequate yearly progress set by the Department of Education.
Rhonda Foster, for her part, is content with her decision to educate Anthony in a charter school. She said her son is an excellent student, earning all As and Bs.
But does attending Countryside make it easier to get him on the bus in the morning?
"He enjoys school as much as a 9-year-old boy can," Foster said. "He does really well, but if Mom says 'Oh, you can stay home for the day,' you better believe that he's going to do that."