The many faces of a city's charter schools

The 28 years John Skief taught social studies in a Philadelphia high school gave him ample time to consider how inner-city kids could best be educated.

So when the state legislature passed a bill allowing the creation of charter schools in June 1997, Mr. Skief wasted no time. Within three months, Skief swung open the doors of the Philadelphia Harambee Institute, an elementary school offering an Afrocentric curriculum with a particular focus on science and technology.

Like Skief's school, many charter schools are the brainchildren of public-school educators who, through years of experience,have shaped and molded their own theories about student achievement and are now eagerly putting those ideas to the test.

The city of Philadelphia makes an interesting case study of the fledgling charter movement. Today, 13 charter schools are in operation in the city, catering to a wide range of interests and needs.

A number of the schools, which are publicly funded but independently run, have a rough-around-the-edges quality to them. Many are housed in nontraditional settings and lack the polished conformity of public school classrooms.

But a widespread insistence on uniforms adds a bit of spit-and-polish to the atmosphere of many, while small size and a high level of parental involvement create a nurturing quality somewhat reminiscent of the one-room schoolhouse.

Most Philadelphia charters also share another unifying characteristic. While in some states - notably California, Georgia, and Colorado -the charter-school movement has been largely driven by white educators and parents, in Philadelphia, black and Latino students make up the bulk of enrollment. It's a sign, some say, of the deep discontent minority parents feel with the public school system here.

Some observers of the educational scene regard the new schools with considerable skepticism. They note organizational difficulties, discipline problems, and fire-code violations that have troubled some of the new operations.

In addition to these growing pains, the schools receive only $5,400 per student, compared with the $7,000 per student mainstream public schools receive. Yet the terms of their charters require them to lift student achievement.

The focus on accountability will eventually vindicate the charter-school movement, its proponents insist. "It will probably take three years to get results," says D. June Hairston Brown, chief administrative officer of the Laboratory Charter School. But when the results appear, she predicts, detractors "will be blown away and embarrassed."

Here's a sample of the ideas on which some of the 13 charter schools in Philadelphia are built:

The Multicultural Academy Charter School

Current student population: 126 students. Grades 9 to 11

Plans: To expand through 12th grade next year with an eventual limit of 200 students

Special focus: Discipline

Background of founder: "My mission is to save the children who fall between the cracks," says Vuong Thuy, who taught English as a Second Language for 18 years in the Philadelphia public schools.

The Multicultural Academy Charter School caters to at-risk students and high school dropouts. Dr. Thuy insists the only thing standing between these kids and a good education is a lack of discipline. In Vietnam, where he grew up, he says, "100 children were taught in one room with no books and no computers and yet all excelled because they had the right attitude."

Thuy says he hopes to shape a similar attitude at MACS through a series of tough, no-excuses policies in a school so small that "there's nowhere to hide."

A number of MACS parents express a high level of satisfaction with the school. "My daughter's actually learning something," says Eleasha Ray, mother of a ninth-grader. "The kids need the rules," says Anita Venable, another mother.

Thuy hopes to attract students like Mayra Colon to MACS. Mayra dropped out of high school during her sophomore year and stayed out for two years. But today she's an honors student at MACS and plans to go to college. "I study so much now that I told my mom to take the TV out of my room," she says with a smile.

The Laboratory Charter School

Current student population: Grades K to 6, 350 students

Plans: Will expand to 12th grade, adding a grade each year with a limit of 700 students

Special focus: Foreign-language education

Background of founder: "I wanted to create a school with rigorous attention to the basics and then to offer something plus," says D. June Hairston-Brown, a former special-education teacher and school psychologist in the Philadelphia public schools.

The "something plus," she decided, would be fluency in two foreign languages for all children.

Today Dr. Brown's students study both French and Spanish for 40 minutes each day, from kindergarten on. Brown plans to add an Asian language in the next few years.

The curriculum also includes some more fanciful touches. The Laboratory Charter School requires that all students memorize a poem each week. And teachers put a recipe in the homework package that goes home every Thursday night for parents to inspect. The recipe, they say, is intended to strengthen math and measuring skills, as well as to encourage family time.

The World Communications Charter School

Current student population: 450 students, Grades 6 to 10

Plans: To expand through Grades 11 and 12 within the next two years with an eventual limit of 1,000 students

Special focus: Job skills

Background of founder: "As a public school teacher, I saw schools that weren't really preparing kids to get into the job market," says Martin Ryder, chief administrative officer of the school, and a former principal in the Philadelphia public schools. That's why Dr. Ryder's school, which is housed in a former school of dental technology in downtown Philadelphia, focuses on offering students practical job skills.

Sophomores at the school spend three days a week in an intensified academic program, and two days learning job skills at off-site locations. Juniors and seniors will continue that training, with an internship as one requirement of senior year.

Janice Hall, a 10th-grader, is learning offset lithography and computer graphics as part of a joint program with a local union. She loves the fact that the skills she is learning could allow her to earn up to $26 an hour and might be a means of working her way through college. "I've got my foot in the door and I'm pretty happy about it," she says.

The Philadelphia Harambee Institute

Current student population: 225 students Grades 1 to 8

Plans: To expand through Grade 12 within the next six years with an eventual limit of 360 students

Special focus: An Afrocentric curriculum with a heavy emphasis on science and technology

Background of founder: John Skief, a former social-studies teacher in the Philadelphia public schools, founded the Harambee Institute to offer an alternative to African-American parents who felt the public schools were not meeting the needs of their children. Parental involvement is a requirement for admission into the school.

The curriculum focuses on African-American culture and includes an exploration of African tradition and language. The curriculum also places particular stress on the teaching of science and technology.

"My brain is full of lots of math and vocabulary words," Russell Johnson, a second-grader at the institute, announces proudly.

The schoolwork here is much more challenging than at the public school he attended last year, he explains, but that's OK. "I'm learning lots more and plus, there's no fighting," Russell says.

Youthbuild Philadelphia Charter School

Current student population: 174 students in Grade 12

Plans: Will expand by 25 pupils next year

Special focus: Construction skills

Background of founder: YouthBuild is unique among Philadelphia charter schools in that it existed as a program within the public school system for seven years before becoming a charter. But the conversion has been a great benefit, says Simran Sidhu, the school's director of development. "We can now hire our own teachers, design our own curriculum."

The program, which is partially funded by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development,was founded in 1991. The motivation was to respond to the alarmingly high dropout rate in Philadelphia's public high schools. (In the 1997-98 year, 28 percent of juniors quit school.) Dropouts between the ages of 18 and 21 are given the opportunity to earn a high school diploma while simultaneously learning construction skills.

YouthBuild students alternate one week at school with a week on a construction site rehabbing one of the city's 27,000 abandoned buildings.

A survey of YouthBuild graduates over the past three years showed that 75 percent are now either in college or employed at a full-time job, with about one-third working in the construction industry.

*Send e-mail comments to coeymanm@csps.com

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