Elizabeth Stuart
February 25, 2010

High school senior Ciara Marshall has a couple of hours to kill before her 10 a.m. psychology class, so she wanders down to the school library, where a few other students are working on research papers and browsing the Internet, and she fires up CNN.com.

Later, she’ll go to class, do a little homework and maybe fill out a few scholarship applications, she says.

Marshall attends Itineris Early College High School, where teens are “expected to act like college students,” balancing classes, homework and free time independently. Jordan School District runs Itineris in conjunction with Salt Lake Community College.

“It’s pretty unique,” says Marshall, who will get an associate degree along with her high school diploma this June.

But the school might not be so unusual much longer. The Utah House of Representatives gave its approval Wednesday for colleges and universities to authorize charter schools.

Before Wednesday, charter schools could only be approved through a school district or the State Charter School Board. SB55 would allow colleges to delve into K-12 education. All authorizers must defer final approval to the State Board of Education.

With the support of the Utah Board of Regents, the Utah Technology Council and the Utah Taxpayers Association, the bill sailed through the Senate with little opposition. But some House members took issue with the measure. In the end, the bill was amended to require interested colleges to include the State Charter School Board. The amended version will now go back to the Senate for approval.

Those opposed argued that the bill circumvents an already-working system. Under current law, universities can apply to sponsor a school through the charter school board. In addition to Itineris, five different charter schools known as “early college high schools” operate in partnership with an institution of higher education.

Other charter schools, like Edith Bowen Laboratory School in Logan, are staffed by university education programs.

“Why do we need three different entities establishing charters?” asked Rep. Bradley Last, R-Hurricane.

Pro-charter school organizations like Parents for Choice in Education, a Utah nonprofit, see multiple authorizers as a way to facilitate innovation and variety.

“We tend to see different types of charter schools authorized through different venues,” said Judi Clark, executive director for Parents for Choice in Education.

“We really envision universities creating charters that mirror their missions.”

Students who attend a university-associated school are also more likely to continue on to college after graduation, said Rep. C. Brent Wallis, R-Ogden.

“The key here is doing what we can to help our children to go on to an academic university or technical college,” Wallis said. “I’m glad to see … we can get them working towards some type of meaningful degree rather than just waiting to come out of high school.”

As one who’s seen the troubles and triumphs of a college-supported K-12 program up close, Itineris Principal Stephen Jolley said that “anything that enhances the communication between K-12 and higher ed is a positive thing.”

“We’re all in the same game, yet we point to each other and complain,” he said. “We don’t talk.”

There are other perks to a university-managed high school experience, too.

Itineris is located on Salt Lake Community College’s West Jordan campus and is staffed by adjunct professors. Because Itineris shares facilities with the college, teenagers have access to science labs stocked with more than $350,000 worth of cutting-edge equipment.

“For us, this is perfect,” Jolley said. “We’d have fewer offerings and less opportunity without this partnership in place.”