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Charter schools build on a decade of experimentation

Ten years later, what have we learned?

By Marjorie CoeymanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 7, 2003



NEW YORK

There could hardly have been a more glorious day for the Bronx Preparatory Charter School.

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Despite numbing December temperatures, the school's chorus sang spiritedly as founder Kristin Kearns Jordan, shovel in hand, smiled for the TV cameras and then turned over a chunk of soil in an empty lot, making way for a new state-of-the-art home for her school.

This was not Bronx Prep's first moment in the limelight. Educators, parents, and state officials had already thrilled to the tale of the lively new charter school for low-income students that, within a year, had its young charges sporting crisp uniforms, playing violins in the school orchestra, and watching their math and reading scores fly upward.

But in some respects, the groundbreaking serves as a symbol for the charter-school movement as a whole. Having hit the 10-year mark in 2002, the movement is putting down roots and making plans to stay.

Across the country, a number of charters are outgrowing their original settings in church basements or storefronts and redefining themselves as established schools in more traditional school buildings.

For the moment, such clear-cut examples of forward motion remain the exception rather than the rule.

But despite a wide variety in charter schools' degrees of success, some experts say the changes they'll make to public education in the long run may be far more dramatic than can yet be imagined.

Successes and failures

The nation's first charter school - a public school that accepts greater freedom from bureaucracy in exchange for a promise to perform at or above local standards - opened its doors in Minnesota in 1992.

Since then, the movement has spawned some exciting success stories. Particularly in urban areas - where such stories were badly needed - high-profile charters moved into low-income neighborhoods and proved that they could take the same kids and, with less public money, produce better results.

In suburban and more affluent areas, some newly opened charters have made less of a dent in standardized test scores, but they have still achieved major gains in terms of parental satisfaction.

Yet, at the same time, the movement's failures have been making plenty of headlines of their own. Some schools have been poorly run, while others have been denounced as out-and-out frauds. There have been tales of charters that abruptly shut midterm after breaking every promise they had made.

Equally discouraging have been reports such as the one released this September by the Brookings Institution's Brown Center on American Education in Washington. A survey of 376 charter schools in 10 states looked at standardized test scores and found that the charters in four states were performing worse than the traditional public schools surrounding them. In the remaining six states, their performance was "indistinguishable" from the average.

The real truth, say some observers, is that as yet there are no absolute truths about the charter-school movement.

"I've been in tens of charters that have clear instructional intention, that communicate wonderfully with parents, and that have a real sense of what they're about," says Paul Hill, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington in Seattle. "And I've been in some that are absolutely clueless."

Some charter schools are conservative, back-to-basics academies, heavy on discipline, character education, and learning by drill. Others are arts- focused instructional centers designed to appeal to creative teens who prefer a potter's wheel to an algebra textbook. Still others adopt a theme curriculum, such as an Afrocentric blend of Swahili and drumming alongside spelling and multiplication.

Bronx Prep (which started off in 2000 in a church rectory) relies heavily on spending more time on academics and on raising expectations. Students there attend school from 7:15 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. 200 days a year, which means they receive 50 percent more instructional time than children in traditional public schools in New York.

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