Charters test business-as-usual at public schools

What is a charter school? Charters are public schools that operate independently of the regulations governing traditional public schools. Started by a variety of groups, their charter is granted by the state, which holds them to state educational standards. These schools design their curricula and may take a back-to-basics approach, follow a progressive model, or focus on at-risk youths.

Forget bells, forget lockers. Don't think about classrooms, gymnasiums, and cafeterias. In fact, put out of mind anything even remotely resembling a traditional high school setting.

Picture instead one large, high-ceilinged room filled with clusters of desks and animated by the hum of kids at work -peering into computer screens, making phone calls, huddling in small, impromptu meetings.

That's the look at Minnesota New Country School (MNCS), a 135-student charter school serving Grades 7 through 12 in this rural hamlet. Students here are working toward their high school diplomas even as they run an embroidery business, design Web sites for local businesses, and help the state of Minnesota analyze pollutants in local waters.

It's different and it's better, many enrolled at MNCS say of this intensely hands-on, project-oriented style of learning. "I've done so much stuff here I wouldn't have gotten close to at a traditional school," says 11th-grader Jack Bovee.

Schools like MNCS became possible in 1991, when Minnesota became the first state to launch public charter schools - schools that receive public funding and are accountable to the state, but are freed from much bureaucratic regulation. Parents and teachers often initiate these developments.

The schools take different forms. Some are unstructured, like MNCS. Many promote a back-to-basics curriculum or set a premium on discipline. But what all have in common is broader opportunity to experiment than traditional public schools have. As a result, say charter-school proponents, these schools effectively function as education R&D labs, the best initiatives of which will spill over into the mainstream.

That's the idea. But while the competitive forces are clearly nipping at the heels of some public schools, the effect has not been profound. "There hasn't been much pollination between charters and regular schools," says Bill Allen, charter-schools coordinator for the state. "We're not at that point yet," says Cy Yusten, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning in St. Paul. Even in Minnesota, he says, "[charter schools] haven't been in existence long enough."

Yet anecdotal evidence suggests that the still-tiny charter movement -there are only 38 charter schools in the state, serving less than 5 percent of the 850,000-student population - is already creating ripples, and occasionally making some pretty large waves:

*In Duluth, two charter schools sprang up, siphoning 750 kids out of the 13,500-student district. But the schools were so in demand that "if they had the space they could have had 10 percent of the population," remembers Mark Myles, recently retired superintendent of the Duluth school system.

In response to the popularity of these schools, the rest of the Duluth system began adopting their most successful features: a longer school day, upgraded technology, and special reading and math programs. Such changes "wouldn't have happened without the charters," says Mr. Myles.

*In Forest Lake, parents had long lobbied for a public elementary school built on the Montessori method. Repeatedly they were told cost, space, and transportation problems made such a program an impossibility. But when a Montessori charter school was proposed, one of the district's public elementary schools was switched to the Montessori method.

*In St. Paul, which has 14 charter schools, with several more coming online next year, the city school district has scaled back its building projects. "There are 1,000 kids now in charter elementary schools, and there's just less need to build new schools," says assistant superintendent Yusten.

*In Henderson-LeSueur consolidated district, schools have adopted two of MNCS's more successful features: the creation of adviser groups, assigning each student a teacher as an academic mentor, and longer class periods to allow for more project-oriented work. MNCS's requirement that every student make a public presentation several times a year has also inspired many other schools to consider similar programs, one educator says.

Some of Minnesota's eclectic mix of charter schools have also attracted attention well beyond their own neighborhoods. These include a school for dropouts, one for the deaf, two that incorporate traditional native American learning processes, and another that focuses on literacy.

Minnesota's experience is not unique. In Arizona - a hotbed of charter-school creation, with 271 schools now open and the number climbing - the Mesa public school district created four new alternative schools in 1995 and altered its kindergarten program in response to the new competition. In Michigan too, where there are 138 charters in operation, a number of school districts have been retooling to compete with charters.

That's not to say charters have revolutionized every market they've entered. Eric Rofes, visiting professor of education at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, conducted interviews in 25 school districts across the country in an effort to gauge the impact of charters. While about 20 percent of the districts he surveyed have made significant changes in response to the existence of the charter schools, a full half showed little or no impact.

Often, says Professor Rofes, "there's a hostility that precludes that kind of learning." He adds, however, that this is easing. He views as positive new federal funding of programs to encourage more professional exchange between charters and traditional schools.

Rofes notes that the picture varies widely by state. Minnesota, he says, offers many public-education options, creating a climate more conducive to change. Other areas he's watching are Arizona, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia. Massachusetts, he says, is doing the best at implementing its charter-school law.

Most observers agree that it's still too early to accurately judge the potential impact of charters on the system as a whole. But it may not be too soon to consider their influence on individual students. Some students are highly enthusiastic about their experiences outside traditional public schools, and these voices could become a force for change.

Angela Aanas, a ninth-grader, commutes 30 miles to MNCS rather than attend her local school, where she says challenges were few and pressure to follow the crowd was intense. Many students would need more structure than she's getting at MNCS, she says, adding, "I'm more of an independent individual. And I'm so much happier here."

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