Where these kids come from, doors are closed. The doors are closed to an out-of-town vacation or a house with a yard and a pool or even a family car or tickets to a ballgame. The door is closed to a street you can walk down after dark, a street not lined with boarded-up stores, in a neighborhood where the sound track isn't police sirens.
We can't send kids to schools where more doors close: the doors to small classes and a librarian and a counselor and a nurse. The doors to new books and computers and art-music-gym and remedial teachers and intramural sports and to new ways of learning. The doors that lead to college and a job and better than what they have now.
America is the land of limited opportunity to kids from bleak streets. We can't let school be part of the problem.
The Buffalo School Board just voted not to sponsor charter schools for a year (there's no moratorium on charters the district doesn't sponsor). Charters are public schools, not bound by all the rules that can stifle learning. There are arguments for and against charters, but to me -- with a teacher wife and kids in a charter and a private school -- it comes to this: Lend a hand or stick a head in the sand.
Three out of every four kids at Pinnacle Charter School are so poor the government buys them lunch. Some families can't buy the house and car needed for school-safer suburbs. They can't afford a private school. Pinnacle is what choice looks like for those parents. This is where their kids come to hear the uncommon sound of a door swinging open. A door of opportunity.
"It's choice," said Lenelle McMillan, mother of third-grade twins, jabbing a finger to drive the point, "and my right as a parent to have that choice."
Bright people are figuring out new ways to teach kids. That's what the best charter schools are about. Freed of "can't-do" union rules, eager to use what works best, they are works in progress in search of progress. The best of them will be models copied across the country, giving kids with a thin book of chances more of a chance.
Some charters are little more than well-intentioned failures. Others, like Pinnacle, are greenhouses for new ideas, with teachers free to try and parents eager -- even desperate -- to see it work.
"I've had parents come in and say, 'Please help my child,'" said Principal Heidi Rotella.
Rotella was assistant superintendent in Lancaster. The schools there are well-run and filled with have-more kids. That's why Rotella left. Those kids will get what they need. Some of Pinnacle's kids need all the help they can get.
That's why she started Pinnacle, on the city's East Side, last year. That's why a handful of teachers followed her from the suburbs. Now there are 300 kids, in K through six, with 85 on a waiting list.
Charters get about three-quarters of the money of a traditional public school. They have to do more with less. A recent study, funded by Bill Gates, said some of them are.
The scent of something new is fresh in these halls. Pinnacle has just a one-month summer break, so kids don't forget what they've learned. There's a longer school day, art-music-gym, dance, foreign languages, piano, yoga. Kids learning Chinese history also hear Chinese songs, do Chinese painting and learn Chinese words.
Rotella tosses around phrases like "flexible grouping" and "integrated model." Parents talk about "family feel" and "hugs and handshakes."
For a lot of these kids, school is the way out of bleak streets -- the way to college, to a job. The path to the American dream.
From what I've seen and heard, Pinnacle is kicking open those doors of opportunity. The imaginary thud is the school's theme music. There's no marching band at Pinnacle, not yet. But they all know the tune.