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HIGH-STAKES SCHOOLS

BOSTON -- Nearly five years after it opened, the nation's largest charter school is struggling.

Test scores at the 1,142-student Boston Renaissance Charter School are low. Teacher turnover and debt payments are high.

The school has no cafeteria, no playground, and a makeshift gym with wide posts intruding on the basketball court. Some classrooms are cramped, with columns blocking students' views.

Renaissance officials admit they made a huge initial mistake when they purchased the 13-story downtown office building, and drove enrollment to artificially high levels -- 600 students the first year and 900 the next. "This is craziness," said Paul Fay, director of curriculum. "The smaller you start, the more success you will have more quickly."

The Renaissance School, along with 36 other charter schools in Massachusetts, offers valuable lessons for parents, teachers and community leaders who want to establish charter schools in Western New York.

Charter schools are coming to the Buffalo area soon. The state's Charter Schools Institute recommended Friday that three proposed schools in Buffalo -- Tapestry Charter School, King Center Charter School and the South Buffalo Charter School -- be given further consideration for permission to open next school year.

The State University of New York's ad hoc committee on charter schools is expected to approve that recommendation Monday, and if all goes as planned, the schools would open in September.

Three charter schools now exist in New York, but none in the Buffalo area.

Based on the Massachusetts experience, here's what New Yorkers can expect:

Charter-school organizers essentially create new school districts from scratch, and the financial, legal, building and organizational demands -- usually tackled under deadline pressure -- are enormous.

"Finally, what they worry about last, is what they're going to teach," said Katherine K. Merseth, director of research for Harvard University's Children's Initiative and a former public school administrator.

In Buffalo, the group that is seeking a charter for the Tapestry School has already learned how tough it is.

"It turned out just like we were told. If you get involved in this, it's going to be more than you ever imagined," said Steven H.Polowitz, a founder of the group which is one of the three local finalists.

Organizers of the Community Charter School in Buffalo began crafting their plans three years ago, even before New York's charter school law was enacted, said Mary C. Carroll, a founder. That group is seeking a charter directly from the state Board of Regents.

Parents often get far more involved in policy and decision-making than they do at conventional public schools. At a charter school in Lawrence, Mass., parents pushed successfully for school uniforms, even though organizers never envisioned such a policy.

The Tapestry School, which plans to enroll just 100 pupils, had about 80 parents of prospective students -- many with detailed questions -- at a recent information session.

"There's a tremendous sense of ownership and connection that often doesn't form when kids are assigned to schools," said Jerome T. Murphy, dean of Harvard's graduate school of education.

Small charter schools usually work best, both because they are more manageable and because they are better able to meet the needs and preferences of families.

"Small makes a huge difference, especially to low-income kids and kids of color," said Dan French, executive director of Boston's Center for Collaborative Education.

Because of their size and the freedom they offer, charter schools can be profoundly influenced by the approach or style of their organizers or leaders. That leads to innovation and creativity, but also subjects them to abrupt change when administrators leave or guiding principles change.

"You get the charismatic leaders who wear out in three or four years, or the people with good ideas who don't know how to execute them," said Gary Orfield, a Harvard professor and the author of several books on urban policy and minority opportunity.

Flexibility is widely viewed as the key element -- the very reason for being -- of charter schools.

What's at stake

The stakes are high. Educators feel the failure of charter schools would lead to tremendous pressure for publicly funded vouchers and widespread privatization of schools.

"This may be the last best chance for public education as we know it," said S. Paul Reville, chairman of the Massachusetts Education Reform Review Commission and a former member of the Massachusetts Board of Education. "The next stage is on to the world of radically expanded school choice."

In New York, sharply contrasting views already abound.

"Charter schools are a distraction from the mission of improving student achievement and reforming existing public schools, where 90 percent of our kids will always be," said Alison Hyde, vice president of the New York State School Boards Association. "We should keep on track."

Yet competition is a crucial ingredient in school reform, according to the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, which is helping local groups seek charters.

"We need to do everything we can to improve the public education system, and charter schools are one of the tools available to us," said Andrew J. Rudnick, president of the Partnership. "We need to use that tool to the fullest extent possible."

Ups and downs

But the story line on charter schools in Massachusetts is neither dismal failure nor startling success.

Some are well-regarded, others are plagued by unfulfilled promise. Overall, their academic performance largely mirrors that of traditional public schools.

"It's like a closed cereal box," said Dennie Wolf, a senior researcher at Harvard who is heading a reform effort at a Washington, D.C., school. "You have no idea if there's a prize in it or not."

In Massachusetts, for every case of failed reform there are equally striking examples of bold innovation.

For example:

At Boston's Academy of the Pacific Rim, all 100 middle-school pupils study physics, chemistry, philosophy and the Mandarin language. Parents receive weekly journals outlining school events.

Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School -- established by more than 100 community members -- has a personal education plan for each of its 125 students, includes them in its decision-making process, and uses a "town meeting" model for weekly schoolwide sessions.

In Fort Devens, the Francis W. Parker Charter School recorded the state's second-highest scores on 10th-grade assessment tests. Classes are composed of students of differing ages, and promotion is based on oral exams and portfolios of representative student work.

Support growing for charters

The high-pitched national controversy over charter schools is not about to be resolved in Massachusetts.

Some observers here feel they are overhyped, overrated and, in many cases, deeply flawed. They point out that only in New Mexico are more than 2 percent of school-age children attending charter schools.

"Because it's a David and Goliath story, it tends to get a lot of ink, a lot of coverage," Reville said.

But support continues to grow.

"Parents ought to have the right to seek something better for their children," said Janine Bempechat, an assistant professor of education at Harvard and the author of a book on at-risk students. "To me, it's the height of hypocrisy for middle-class educators and politicians to deny working-class children the choices they already have for their own kids."

When charter schools first opened in Massachusetts five years ago, there were an average of two applicants for every available slot. Now there are five for every opening, and pupils are chosen by lottery.

The Renaissance school -- which offers a longer school day, partnerships with more than 10 business and civic groups and school uniforms -- has 16 applicants for every space.

"The lotteries are emotional events," said Joey Merrill, a former assistant principal at a charter school in Lawrence and a former education coordinator for New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. "You have families walking out literally crying."

Similar to Massachusetts

New York's charter school provisions are strikingly similar to the Massachusetts law.

In both states, charter schools have their own governing boards; establish their own curriculum; locate, pay for and maintain their own school buildings; and take care of their own hiring, firing, purchasing and payroll. But their students must still meet state graduation standards and take state-mandated achievement and assessment tests.

In Massachusetts, charter schools are not bound by teacher contracts, so they are free to set salaries and work assignments and to establish longer school days and years.

New York's charter schools operate outside the provisions of existing teacher contracts if they enroll fewer than 250 pupils. Larger charter schools in New York are bound by the contracts in effect in the districts where they are located.

The Boston Renaissance Charter School started out paying teachers less than they would receive at traditional public schools. But it found that it had to raise salaries in midyear, and also shorten the school year, to slow teacher turnover.

Monday: An alternative school where individual attention makes the difference.

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