Peering into the faces of three charter schools

These alternative public schools have made a difference for some students.

'They were fascinated by my knowledge of Chinese," says Dennis Wright, referring to the proprietors of a Chinese restaurant he had recently visited. For this ninth grader at the Academy of the Pacific Rim Charter School in Boston, studying Mandarin fits in with the school's blend of Western and Eastern educational practices.

Across the state, in South Hadley, Mass., 11th-grader Tiama Hamkins-Indik rehearses the Lindy Hop at the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School. With a focus on the performing arts, "the atmosphere is completely different, people actually want to be here," Tiama says.

While attending high school in Cranston, R.I., Randy Baker got into trouble all the time, repeated ninth grade, and was failing. "As teenagers, we think school is boring," he says. Now Randy expects to graduate from the New England Laborers' Cranston Public Schools Construction Career Academy. What's made the difference? Smaller classes, he explains, teachers who care, and most important: hands-on construction training.

Whether they're building retaining walls, planning a recording session, or cleaning their classrooms, the students pictured at these three New England charter schools are thriving.

Fifteen years after a Minnesota law made way for the nation's first charter school in St. Paul, their popularity continues to grow.

Some 3,617 charter schools now serve more than 1 million students across the country, according to the Center for Education Reform in Washington, D.C.

These schools are public schools chosen by parents for their children. Because they receive state funding, charter schools are held accountable to meet state standards.

Students are enrolled on a first-come, first-served basis. A lottery may determine who gets in if too many students apply.

Like private schools, charter schools have the freedom to develop their own curriculums and teaching practices.

Spencer Blasdale, director of the Academy of the Pacific Rim (APR) charter school in Boston, traces the roots of this education reform to the scathing 1983 report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education titled "A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform." Six years later, with education reform still lagging, President George H.W. Bush convened a summit of the country's governors to devise ways to address the nation's declining schools.

But charter schools have had their share of problems.

Since they began in 1991, 444 of these schools have closed because of financial difficulties, inadequate facilities, or poor academic performance.

With a mere 2 percent of schoolchildren enrolled nationally, the schools' long-term impact and viability have yet to be established. The latest test case for their efficacy may be New Orleans. The city's schools struggled academically and financially before hurricane Katrina struck last August.

Now, the need to rebuild has local and state officials considering whether to lean heavily on the charter school model.

One such school already scheduled to open this fall is the Carrolton High School for Architecture and Construction. By preparing students to participate in the years of rebuilding to come, the school points up the flexibility of charter schools to design curriculums to meet local needs.

If all goes well, soon, charter school students like Randy Baker will have some peers performing similar construction jobs in Louisiana.

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