From: ST. LOUIS POST DISPATCH, Sunday, June 7, 1998
The focus of education reform
READY OR NOT, HERE COME CHARTER SCHOOLS
Enthusiasm for privately run schools supported by taxes is growing fast. So far, they affect few students.
By Terence Samuel, St. Louis Post-Dispatch - Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- Story time at the Children's Studio Public Charter School:
During some obscure epoch, past or future, an unfriendly monster attacks the sun. The assault comes after rain has washed away the sun's protective coloring, making it more vulnerable to the monster.
We know all this because a girl named Asha ventures into a garden that is "a big ooga booga" and finds a flower so unbelievably purple, she wants to know how it got that way. Ask the sun, says the flower. She does.
Says the sun: "'Cause I colored her purple and her Mommy and Daddy and her brother and her whole family purple, 'cause when my family was so yellow and orange and the rain washed our color off, a monster came to get us."
The 3- and 4- and 5-year-olds who concocted the tale are sitting in a story circle at Karma Johnson's performance art studio. There they learn about sound and movement, about stories and drama.
The story flows and new words and new worlds take shape. The learning is palpable.
But these children are not simply inventing new and mysterious worlds. In some ways, they also live in one. As pupils at a charter school, they are at the center of a reform movement in American education.
Charter schools are public schools that operate like private schools. The defining difference is that they are supported with tax money. Many of these schools shape studies around a theme, a topic or the nature of the student population.
An increasing number of educators and parents believe these schools hold the potential to rescue the nation's public education system. At the moment, however, only 200,000 students are enrolled in nearly 800 charter schools nation-wide. That's just 1 percent of the children currently enrolled in public schools. By September, the number of schools will increase to 1,200.
There are seven charter schools now operating in Illinois, and at least nine more have been approved. Last month, on the last day of its session, the Missouri Legislature approved charter schools for St. Louis and Kansas City.
The National Education Association supports charters. Democrats would like to see the limited experiments expanded to include "charter districts." Republicans, who advocate school choice, support charters as a way of breaking what they describe as the public school monopoly.
If there's a laboratory for charter schools it's in Arizona, where more than 30 percent of all of the nation's charter schools have been established. And they have made an impact. The Phoenix school district has seen a decline in enrollment, rather than the vast expansion that had been predicted. Many of the students no longer in the public schools have chosen charter schools instead.
Still, it's too early to render an overall judgment. Some schools have been shut down for failure to live up to their charters. Others have suffered from fiscal mismanagement and poor teacher preparation.
And some critics wonder how private schools that use public money can be held accountable.
'I get hugs and kisses'
As the debate intensifies, the learning continues at the Children's Studio School. There it seems that all the ideals of reinventing education have come to bear fruit: dedicated teachers, involved parents, small classes, a safe and engaging environment. There are only 40 students at the Children's Studio and the average class size is about 12.
Borrowing room on the third floor of a traditional elementary school, the Children's Studio is a place of warmth. "We love them," said Karma Johnson, a poet and performance artist. "I get hugs and kisses. We are always talking about how lucky we are to have these children."
This semester the theme is growth and change. The rooms are full of baby pictures. The children learn about time, about the movement of the planets, about what happens in the rain forests of the world.
They have individual plants that they must water and otherwise nurture. They have built a solar system of cardboard and acrylic and string and sticks that hangs like a Calder mobile in a corner of one classroom.
Belaynesh is 4, fine-boned and easy to talk to. "I'm not shy, " she says, but admits, "I am little."
Asked what she likes about the school she inhales and smiles: "We draw and write and tape and glue and sit on the blue rug and lie on the rug and take a nap and eat lunch and go to the bathroom and play toys time and go home and go to sleep."
Then she adds: "I like to wake up and go to school again."
Her classmate Christopher is drawing trees at different heights, demonstrating good grasp of small, medium and large and the concept of growth.
Asked to explain what he has learned about growth and change, he announces, "Butterflies. No. Caterpillars change into butterflies."
Seife (pronounced Safer), a 4-year-old, sits in his teacher's lap, cutting out faces for a collage. He cuts and glues and explains that the misshapen, oversized face he has sculpted out of the orange construction paper is his own. He is not very talkative on this particular day, but his poster hanging in the hallway expresses his feelings: "I love this school. It has a big head. I will give it a hug and a scrunch."
Helping troubled youths
While some charter schools have been established to give children a good start on their educations, others have been designed to rescue students on the cusp of adulthood.
One of them is Samantha Crandal, a sparkly eyed 17-year-old who lives in the Eckington section of Washington. She only recently mastered the multiplication tables at See Forever, an alternative schooling and jobs program that caters to teens. In the fall, See Forever will become the Maya Angelou Public Charter School.
Samantha is one of 15 students who spend long hours in class in a three-story row house in Northwest Washington, then head to work at a restaurant owned and operated by the school.
Samantha's elementary school experience was very different from what takes place at the Children's Studio. Her third- and fourth-grade teachers were addicted to crack. That wasn't the only reason she didn't learn, but it didn't help. "I was always the class clown," she admitted. But being in a class with 30 or 35 other children with unrecognized dyslexia was not helpful either.
In the sixth grade her sister tried to teach her the "times tables" but by then school was already of little interest to her. She was already developing an attitude, she said.
"I just felt like it wasn't for me," Crandal said, "because when I didn't understand something, it was always that I wasn't paying attention or that I wasn't trying. So you start to develop an attitude."
By the time she was a teen-ager, school had fallen off her list of priorities. Instead, she would hang out, party and smoke pot. She was later arrested and faced the possibility of a prison term.
It was her trouble with the law that led her to the See Forever program.
"I'm addicted to school," Crandal said recently, as she sat on the third floor with a teacher and three other students reviewing social studies material. English is her best subject. "I rarely know anything in social studies, but I'm learning."
In the review they covered zoning laws and restrictive covenants, Prohibition and Jim Crow. They reviewed employment patterns during and after World War II.
"This is an inspiration in my life," Crandal said. "You're learning, you're having fun. The people here just have a way of letting you know they care about you."
They correct her grammar, she said and she is grateful. "I know I mix ebonics with standard American English at the wrong time," she said.
Now she is hungry for an education. "I'm 17 years old and I have a chance, so whatever they are offering I'm going to take it," she said.
The school day at the See Forever runs from 9:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. "But most of the time," Crandal said, "you won't see me leaving the building until 11 at night."
Charter Schools Opened Approved to Open PendingApproval
Alaska 15 2 Arizona 241 27 California 130 142 6 Colorado 50 8 5 Connecticut 12 5 Delaware 34 4 District of Columbia 3 16 1 Florida 33 45 6 Georgia 21 Hawaii 2 Illinois 7 9 Kansas 3 12 Louisiana 6 Massachusetts 25 12 Michigan 107 20 Minnesota 27 3 New Hampshire 0 New Jersey 13 26 New Mexico 5 North Carolina 34 30 Ohio 0 2 Pennsylvania 6 26 Rhode Island 1 1 South Carolina 4 1 Texas 20 41 Wisconsin 18 10
Total 786 429 34 (817) (438) (22)
Source: State departments of education and charter school resource centers ******************************* Note: The numbers in the table are those in the article, as are the totals. The numbers in parentheses are the actual sums.
******************************* POSTnet provides an overview of the charter school system. Go to http://www.stlnet.com and click on Today's Links. ************************************************************************* ************************************************************************* Jerry P. Becker Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction Southern Illinois University Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA Fax: (618)453-4244 Phone: (618)453-4241 (office) E-mail: JBECKER@SIU.EDU