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MAKING IT WORK
THE PUSH FOR CHARTER SCHOOLS CAN SPAWN EDUCATIONAL INNOVATION. CASE IN POINT: A 'PILOT SCHOOL' IN BOSTON WHERE STUDENTS RECEIVE INTENSIVE GUIDANCE AND ONE-ON-ONE HELP

BOSTON -- When a sixth-grade pupil at Mission Hill School was sent to the office for disrupting class, she found herself working on math problems with Deborah Meier, the principal.

"She just can't get long division," Meier said.

Individual attention rules at this 154-pupil elementary school, which is an unusual cross between a charter school and a traditional public school.

Mission Hill is a child of educational reform. There is no school like it in New York State, and no current provision for one.

Even so, it represents the kind of spinoff innovation that could result when charter schools take hold in the Buffalo area in September.

"The traditional public school is not the beginning and the end," said Charles Stoddart, Orchard Park superintendent. "We're all for all children all the time. There are other alternatives."

Massachusetts educators describe Mission Hill as a shining example of the way educational choice is supposed to work.

But for every example of successful innovation in Massachusetts, there are disputes about funding, competition for top students, fairness and equity.

At Mission Hill, every seventh-grade pupil meets regularly with an adult mentor. Students graduate when four-member teams -- which include the pupil's parent -- decide they are ready for high school. And the staff works closely with families to determine which high school would be most appropriate.

"When you walk in, it's very friendly, very welcoming, very warm," said Vivian Lee, who enrolled Jazz, her 5-year-old son, in September. "There's a very strong emphasis on diversity and multicultural education, and we believe that's very important."

When Massachusetts passed a charter school law in 1993, the Boston Public Schools and the Boston Teachers Union responded by offering communities the opportunity to create pilot schools. There are now 11, including Mission Hill.

Like full-blown charter schools, pilots have broad leeway on curriculum, hiring and scheduling. They can also require teachers to work longer hours and school years.

But pilot schools -- unlike charters -- are required to provide union salaries and benefits, and their teachers retain tenure rights within the Boston schools.

At Mission Hill, located in Boston's Roxbury section, that concept took off.

There are about 20 pupils per class, and each classroom has both a teacher and a teacher-in-training. Test results are de-emphasized, and students are broadly exposed to responsible behavior and decision-making that may be lacking in their homes and neighborhoods.

Serena Shapiro said her daughter, Margalit, would be in a private school were it not for Mission Hill.

"It's an incredible school," she said. "My daughter is thriving here."

To charter-school advocates, that's the ideal progression.

Charter schools shake up the existing system. That competition sparks improvement, new ideas and fresh thinking in all schools. Ideas and experiences are shared.

But for the most part, charter schools and traditional public schools would rather fight than switch.

And they have plenty to fight about.

When a pupil leaves a public school to enroll in a charter school, the funding the state provides for that student's education shifts to the charter school.

For public schools, that often means losing revenue, but not being able to cut expenses.

"Taking one child from a class doesn't mean you can reduce the teaching staff, and taking several children from a school doesn't mean you don't have to pay the electric bill," said Alison Hyde, vice president of the New York State School Boards Association. "It's not a fair competition."

Large school districts such as Buffalo's could lose millions of dollars in state aid as a result of students' transferring to publicly funded charter schools, she said.

In addition, local schools will have to put together their 2000-01 budgets before they know how many pupils will transfer to charter schools, Stoddart said.

"How do you estimate that?" he said. "I don't have the foggiest. Year one will be a real shot in the dark."

The loss of funds could prompt districts to trim top-heavy bureaucracies and wasteful spending, said Linda Brown, director of the Massachusetts Charter School Resource Center.

"There should be something that pinches the district and says, this is not an employment center, this is an educational center," she said.

Charter schools feel shortchanged as well. Unlike existing public schools, they must secure, fix up and pay for school buildings without financial assistance from the public school district.

About 18 percent of the Boston Renaissance Charter School's $10 million budget is spent on its downtown building and related debt. If it were a traditional public school, those costs would be covered by the district.

"It's incredibly hard to get and maintain facilities," said Dan French, executive director of the Center for Collaborative Education, which coordinates Boston's pilot school network. "That's been a huge burden."

In Western New York, the Buffalo Niagara Partnership's Charter Schools Initiative is seeking to persuade local banks to offer charter schools long-term loans at reduced interest rates, said Patricia Pitts, executive director of the initiative.

Buffalo's Tapestry School plans to lease a facility, because it does not have the funds to make a down payment.

Controversy also swirls around "cherry picking" -- the allegation that charter schools seek to attract bright, cooperative students and discourage the enrollment of special-education pupils or those with academic, language or behavior problems.

Federal civil rights officials in 1997 found the Boston Renaissance Charter School discriminated against a special-education kindergarten pupil by shortening his school day, suspending him, placing him with a teacher not trained in special education and finally forcing his mother to withdraw him from school.

The school re-enrolled the pupil, reimbursed his mother $4,200 for child care, tutoring and therapy costs, and agreed to comply with several federal demands.

In New York, some fear that charter schools will mold their student bodies along ethnic, racial or economic lines by requiring parent participation, by encouraging voluntary financial contributions from families, and through decisions on where to locate schools.

"I think there are very subtle ways of charter schools being selective," Hyde said. "I have a grave concern about the children in our community not being educated together."

Hyde said the Seneca Charter School, which would emphasize Native American history and culture and be located on the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation, could encourage segregated learning environments. That school was not recommended by the state to open in September, but is free to refile its application and seek a later opening.

In Massachusetts, the enrollment in charter schools tends to be slightly more white and middle-class than it is at traditional public schools.

But enrollment trends cut both ways, said Roger F. Harris, headmaster of the Renaissance School, where 14 percent of the pupils have special needs and 88 percent are minorities.

Many Massachusetts charter schools, he said, have become attractive alternatives for needy or troubled children who struggled in traditional public schools.

Pupils doing well at their existing schools, he said, tend to be satisfied and less likely to switch. And it is not just middle-class families who are tuned in to new opportunities.

"Word of mouth spreads through the housing projects, too," Harris said. " 'This public school is terrible, but there's a new charter school opening up. All you have to do is put your name in the hat and your kid is born again.' "

In addition, Harris said, traditional public schools are known to encourage difficult students to give charter schools a try.

"It's a joke with the principals: 'You've got a couple of mine. Good luck,' " he said.

In other cases, families do their own cherry picking -- between schools.

"There's no cost for signing your kid up with the charter school, seeing how it goes, and then sending him back to the public school," said Dennie Wolf, a faculty member at Harvard University's graduate school of education. "These are families trying to figure out a situation that is going to work."

Tuesday: For-profit schools coming to Buffalo.

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