NAPLES — There's close competition between local charter and traditional public schools to see which students can perform best on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test as testing wraps up this week.
But statewide, charter school students are pulling ahead, according to an April report by the Florida Department of Education. The report, using 2010-11 FCAT data, determined that students who attend charter schools tend to outscore their traditional public school peers in almost every subject.
Local charter schools don't all mirror that trend. Charter schools like Marco Island Middle and Bonita Springs Charter are consistently high-performing, whereas others like Immokalee Community School lag behind the state average.
Marco Island Academy high school opened in August 2011, so it wasn't included in this report.
Proponents of charter schools, like Colleen Reynolds, spokeswoman for Bonita Springs Charter, said the report gives charter schools a reason to celebrate, especially after years of criticism.
Charter schools have more flexibility with curriculum and usually are run by private organizations. They are considered public schools and receive state funding like traditional public schools.
Reynolds said critics often base their judgment of charter schools on a few under-performing schools. She said this report is changing that.
"Just because we have a couple of F (charter) schools doesn't mean that's the norm," she said of charter schools across the state.
On the state's grading system, Bonita Springs Charter school is an A school. Students' scores consistently exceed state standards. Last year, more than 80 percent of the students were proficient in reading, writing and math.
Bonita Springs Charter Principal Deborah Tracy said the school takes extra steps to ensure every student is successful.
Three times a year, the school assesses all students in an FCAT-like environment — a teacher proctors the test and the desks are moved apart to prevent cheating. Those performing below grade level are mentored after school and receive additional schooling on Saturdays.
The school tracks each student's progress and targets lessons to help those students improve.
"We don't just emphasize the FCAT the night before," Tracy said.
Teachers participate in collaborative sessions twice a month to share best practices and to focus on FCAT instruction. Teachers also meet regularly with parents to discuss a student's progress.
"Students didn't feel anxious or frustrated this year," Tracy said. "They knew what the test would be like and how they would perform."
The state will release FCAT scores in June.
But others said the state education agency's report isn't a fair comparison of the schools.
Charter and traditional schools must give all students an equal opportunity to attend the school. However, charter schools can limit enrollment and turn away students if the school doesn't have the services to meet a child's needs. This often pertains to students with severe learning or physical disabilities.
"A traditional public school must educate everybody," Collier chief instructional officer Beth Thompson said.
Immokalee Community School limits its enrollment to around 230 students. Other traditional elementary schools in Immokalee, like Highlands Elementary, have more than 700 students.
Immokalee Community School is a C school. An average of 60 percent of the student body is proficient in reading, math and writing.
Highlands Elementary also is a C school and an average of 70 percent of the students are proficient in reading, math and writing.
The scores are similar, but Immokalee Community School doesn't outperform Highlands.
Bette Heins, education professor at Stetson University in DeLand, said the major determining factor of a student's success is socioeconomic background, not whether the student attends a charter or traditional public school.
In both Immokalee and Highlands, around 95 percent of the students are economically needy.
"Both traditional and charter are performing about the same in most of those categories when you incorporate demographics," Heins said.
Even though the state data favors charter schools, Reynolds and Heins agreed that the charter school movement won't eliminate traditional public schools.
"There are good public schools and good charter schools; poor performing public schools and poor performing charter schools," Reynolds said. "What's important is that there's a choice."