The term “charter” may have originated in the 1970s when New England educator Ray Budde suggested that small groups of teachers be given contracts or “charters” by their local school boards to explore new approaches. In the late 1980s Philadelphia started a number of schools-within-schools and called them “charters.” In 1991 Minnesota passed the first charter school law, with California following suit in 1992. By 1995, 19 states had signed laws allowing for the creation of charter schools, and by 2003 that number increased to 40 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. Charter schools are one of the fastest growing innovations in education policy, enjoying broad bipartisan support from governors, state legislators, and past and present secretaries of education. For more information on the national charter school movement, click on www.uscharterschools.org.
Florida’s charter school law was passed in 1996. In that year, five charter schools began operating in Florida. Presently, in the 2003-04 school year, Florida has 263 operating charter schools serving over 60,000 students. For more information on the charter school movement in Florida, click on www.floridacharters.org or www.firn.edu/doe/choice/charter.html.
In November of 2002, the Education Committee of the Lake Wales Area Chamber of Commerce commissioned a Feasibility Study for improvement of Lake Wales area schools. The two-month study was based upon 157 interviews and resulted in a “Report on Feasibility Study” published and distributed on January 31, 2003. The report identified a community consensus that 1) education had become the community’s Achilles Heel, 2) the community should accept responsibility for the quality of its schools, 3) the solution should benefit all students in all schools – no elitist schools, 4) all students should have the basics – reading, writing and math – especially reading, and 5) the curriculum should be more practical and provide real world educational choices that are relevant to local families and the local economy.
An organizing group was formed in early February to plan and implement a system of public charter schools for Lake Wales. The organizers were those persons identified in the Feasibility Study as being concerned about education and having a high degree of credibility and respect in the community. The planning and implementation was done by a Steering Committee and ten Subcommittees, each addressing a specific area required by the application for charter school status. These committees consisted of 40 members with Master’s Degrees mainly in Education, 44 current or former schoolteachers, 74 members with Bachelor’s Degrees, 9 former or current principals or school administrators, 6 members with law degrees, 4 bank presidents, 2 financial planners, 2 certified public accountants, 2 city administrators, 8 business owners, and a school bus driver.
Florida charter school law requires a favorable vote of both the teachers and the parents of a given school before it can apply to the school board for charter status. Favorable votes of the faculty were received from five schools: Lake Wales High School, Dale R. Fair Babson Park Elementary, Hillcrest Elementary, Janie Howard Wilson Elementary, and Polk Avenue Elementary. Thereafter, votes of the parents were conducted in those schools. The parents in the five schools were remarkably consistent and voted 71%, 72%, 73%, 74%, and 75% in favor of conversion.
In September of 2003, the organizers submitted to the Polk County School Board comprehensive and thorough applications for charter status for each of the five schools. At the school board meeting on October 22, 2003, the applications for all five schools were approved and all five were granted conversion charter status. Lake Wales Charter Schools, Inc. opened its doors to the first students in August of 2004.
Serving on the first Board of Trustees were: Gail Crum (teacher representative), Richard “Dick” Howell, Albert Kirkland, Joyce Otte, Jerome Mack, Clinton Horne, and Robin Gibson (chair).
In August 2008, the LWCS system opened its own start-up middle school – Edward W. Bok Academy – for a seamless K-12 charter school system.
Beginning with the 2011-2012 school year, Lake Wales Charter Schools system was designated an LEA — local educational agency — by the Florida Legislature, with responsibility for managing federal programs and budgets.
In November 2011, after years of leasing space, the LWCS system purchased an office building in downtown Lake Wales for the Central Office staff.