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NORTH BAY – For this year’s Spotlight in Education, the Business Journal is highlighting the leaders of the North Bay's charter high schools.

Charter schools, public schools that operate independently while being funded by the districts they are in, have been allowed in the United States since 1965.

The California Charter Schools Act of 1992 established the rules allowing educators to come up with a charter that a district would back.

Charter schools are attended by choice and tend to be more racially diverse, according to a study by the U.S. office of education, as well as being smaller.

They also have the ability to be more focused on specific areas of education.

Sonoma County has 36 charter schools, both elementary and secondary. Marin has three and Napa currently has none, though some of the Sonoma County schools serve Napa students.

Napa does have alternatives to the public schools, most notably the Napa Valley Unified School District's New Technology High School that focuses on integrating education and technology in an attempt for “students to develop the resilience necessary to succeed in a rapidly changing world,” according to the school's mission. There are a number of private institutions in Napa as well throughout the North Bay.

Jim Orrell, assistant to the superintendent of the Marin Office of Education, said one reason for Marin not having many charter schools is the high number of private schools.

While many charter schools have been successful, there has been some backlash from the public school community.

In 2007, the Marin County Grand Jury looked at charter schools. At that time there were four schools chartered by Marin school districts, two elementary and two high schools.

The issue brought forth was that because of financing, there may be conflict between the district board of education and administrators and the charter school board and administrators.

“The charter school legislation almost inevitably causes tension between traditional public schools and charter schools. The mere creation of a charter school seems to suggest that the existing schools in a district are not adequately educating the students and are not using creative or innovative teaching methods, a notion that school district boards and administrators reject,” the grand jury report said.

Mr. Orrell said research demonstrates that charter school education and public school education are not that much different. However, he said that choice is important.

“In education, the concept that one size fits all does not work,” he said.

Amy Jones-Kerr, the principal of Roseland University Prep in Santa Rosa, agrees charter school performance can vary but said they are needed to meet the needs of students.

“The charter program has been really great for us because it has provided a place where students can be successful," she said. "We were able to come up with our own focus — large comprehensive schools have a broad focus. For our kids in our area, many would say that if they were somewhere else, they wouldn’t be in school.”

She notes that charter schools still are subject to the same state and advanced placement exams as other schools.

The idea that students can have a focus of education is the reason for the creation of a charter school, said Ms. Jones-Kerr. Also, in her district, there were no middle or high schools, so students had to go to a different district to get secondary education.

“The idea for the school was pushed by the parents in the community,” she said.

“It was a K-6 district,” she said. “The parents got together and said, ‘We need a middle school.’”

The charter legislation was approved, and the charter was accepted. Once the students reached high school age, they decided to charter a high school as well.