The women gathered around Kate Johnson's dining-room table represent nearly a century of teaching experience in Boston. They weathered the school-desegregation turmoil of the 1970s and many less-publicized crises, but now they face the greatest challenge of their professional lives - and it's entirely of their own making.
They're pooling decades of classroom know-how and opening a school of their own in Boston's West Roxbury neighborhood next fall. It won't look much different from other schools, since it will be housed in the existing Patrick F. Lyndon Elementary School, closed since the mid 1980s because of dwindling enrollment. Inside, however, it will be a totally new operation.
``We feel like entrepreneurs,'' says Mrs. Johnson, describing how they've wrestled with budgets and debated plans for the new school. It will offer a traditional curriculum but with innovative teaching methods.
What makes this kind of educational enterprise possible is the city's Pilot Schools project, which gives people with an idea for a new school a chance to receive funding and carry the idea out. Pilot schools will have much in common with the ``charter schools'' sprouting up across the country. Such schools are ``chartered'' by a state or school district to operate outside the normal public-school bureaucracy, though they still draw on public funds. In Massachusetts, 15 state-chartered schools are scheduled to open next fall.
Boston's six new pilot schools are separate from the state program and have at least one important distinction from charter schools. The pilot schools are ``working within the system, rather than outside the system,'' says Arthur Steller, the city's deputy superintendent of schools. Proposals for these schools were approved by the city's public schools department, working closely with the Boston's Teachers Union (BTU), an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers and an occasional critic of the charter movement.
Both charters and pilots are designed to foster innovations that can percolate through a public-school system. But Mr. Steller believes the pilot schools have a better chance of accomplishing this because they will be working more closely with traditional institutions like the superintendent's office and the union, and because there will be a concentration of them within a single city. ``We're going to use them, hopefully, as laboratories for innovation,'' he says.
The pilot schools will have to function within the same budget constraints as other Boston schools, and their innovations will have to be replicable, at least in part, by other public schools, Boston Superintendent of Schools Lois Harrison-Jones says.
Charter schools are sometimes criticized for skimming off a city's best students and weakening other public schools. Won't the pilot schools, some of which emphasize specialities like the arts or business skills, do the same? ``They're still in the same system, they're still Boston public schools,'' retorts Dr. Harrison-Jones, explaining that the city has nothing to worry about since it won't be losing students, just giving them new opportunities.
The teachers' union has nothing to worry about either, according to Robert Pearlman, director of research for the BTU. Union concerns about charter schools in other areas have focused on a lack of public oversight, he says. But here the school district and the union are partners. The pilot-school plan is written into the union's current contract with the city.
Pilot schools are exempt from most union rules - such as those governing length of work day and work year. (Johnson notes that teachers at the Lyndon School will be asked to report next August, so they'll start right off with a longer work year.) But two rules still apply: Teachers at the pilot schools can't be paid below the union rate for other schools, and they will continue to accrue seniority. Without these provisions, Mr. Pearlman says, nobody would be willing to work in the new schools.
In an extraordinary departure from bureaucratic control, the groups organizing the pilot schools have a free hand in hiring faculty. They can recruit within the city or as far afield as they like.
Students, of course, will come from the city's neighborhoods, and racial balance remains an issue for all Boston public schools. Only about 20 percent of the city's public-school students are white. The Lyndon school will draw from Hispanic and black neighborhoods as well as from the largely white West Roxbury section. But that ethnic mix, in the past a source of friction , is accepted and by more and more of the city's parents, says Nancy Brown, another founding member of the Lyndon school team.
Sherry Brooks-Roberts, also part of the team, explains that the Lyndon school will have bilingual teachers, but their work will be inseparable from everything else going on at the school - team teaching, for example, with coaching among colleagues.
``I think a lot of teachers get stuck in a turf mentality - that no one can look at what I'm doing,'' Mrs. Brooks-Roberts says .
In addition, two ``master teachers'' will be on the school's initial nine-member faculty. They will keep an eye on students' progress and confer with all teachers.
Another teacher and team member, Maureen Roach, says a distinctive facet of the Lyndon school will be ``looping,'' which allows teachers to stay with a class for two years. That's a teacher's dream, Mrs. Brown chimes in. ``It makes September a delightful month. You come into the classroom knowing the dynamics of the group, and you know just what they've learned.''
The Lyndon school's first year of operation will include only kindergarten through second grade, Johnson says, but grades will be added each year until the school reaches its K-5 goal.
Next spring, after students have been assigned to the school, parents will get together and elect five members of a governing board, Linn Landraitis explains. She is one of two members of the founding team who is not a teacher but a parent.
The other nonteacher is Maura Hennigan, a Boston City Council member, who campaigned for years to reopen the Lyndon school. The governing board, she says, will also include two community members who are not necessarily parents.
In the years ahead, Boston's pilot school program could expand beyond the original six. (See accompanying article). Harrison-Jones says future union contracts could embrace more pilots and encourages people to work up plans and apply.