Two Buffalo groups received permission Tuesday to open the region's first charter schools later this year, giving them unprecedented opportunity to show that year-round schooling and for-profit school management can improve student learning here.
But the proposed Tapestry School -- a third Buffalo finalist -- failed to receive approval from State University of New York trustees, apparently quashing that group's plan to open in September.
The King Center Charter School and the South Buffalo Charter School -- the two groups that received a green light from the state -- will initially enroll a total of only 300 pupils, all in elementary grades.
But because of the pioneering nature of those schools, their success -- or failure -- will be closely scrutinized and will begin to provide local answers to some of the key issues facing education.
While firm conclusions are probably years away, the questions are clear:
Can the King Center make a difference in the lives of inner-city pupils with the area's first year-round school calendar and heavy doses of personal attention? If so, will conventional public schools seek ways to emulate that approach?
Can the South Buffalo facility provide enhanced opportunities for pupils by contracting with Beacon Education Management -- a Boston-based for-profit firm -- to run the school? And does the arrival of
Beacon signal the start of widespread privatization in local publicly funded schools?
"We're going to get a lot of attention, which is great," said Bill Phillips, Beacon's regional business development director. "If you want to be involved in charter schools, that comes with the territory. All you can ask for is the opportunity."
The SUNY trustees originally received 90 applications from around the state and last month named 17 finalists. They granted charters to just 11 of those finalists Tuesday.
In the Buffalo area, just two of 12 initial charter school applicants received approval to open. Three of them still have applications pending before the state Board of Regents, which can also grant charters.
"Clearly, SUNY has taken a conservative approach to this and has chosen to award charters very incrementally," said Christopher Jacobs, a spokesman for the South Buffalo Charter School.
The Buffalo Niagara Partnership's Charter Schools Initiative, which has worked closely with many of the organizing groups, earlier set a goal of opening five charter schools in the Buffalo area next year.
"We're disappointed," Patricia Pitts, executive director of the Charter Schools Initiative, said Tuesday. "There's a lot of demand for charter schools here in Buffalo, but they'll at first be affecting just .005 percent of the city's total student population."
Charter schools receive public funding but have widespread autonomy in terms of scheduling, hiring, pay scales and curriculum.
The King Center Charter School will be located in the former St. Mary of Sorrows Church on Genesee Street, where it now operates as an annex of School 90, a Buffalo early-childhood center.
Organizers decided to break away from School 90 to create the area's first year-round school.
Summer break will be cut to five weeks, and other two-week vacations will be interspersed throughout the school year. Enrichment and tutorial sessions will be offered during breaks in an effort to reduce summer learning loss.
"There's a great void in the life of inner-city children when school is in recess for that long," said Claity P. Massey, a Houghton College professor who will be director of the school.
Massey said organizers will use partnerships with four area colleges to keep close tabs on the progress of the school's 80 elementary school pupils and realize that the school will be under similar public scrutiny when it opens in July.
"At this point, the schools that are granted charters just have to be successful," she said. "We will be watched very carefully."
Beacon Education Management will receive about 10 percent of the South Buffalo Charter School's public funding in return for financial, legal and facilities management services, as well as for hiring a principal and teachers, establishing curriculum and training staff.
That represents the first time a for-profit group has been put in charge of instruction in a local public school.
"We have a high level of confidence because we have a partner to help us through the roadblocks along the way," Jacobs said.
But critics say the school is in for trouble, because for-profit firms will eventually put profits above the interests of children.
"I think once we're up and running and people see the quality of the school and the quality of the product, that will dissipate," Jacobs said.
"I've talked to 30, 40, 50 parents on my own, and they don't seem to be that concerned with it. They're more concerned with the plight of their children and the availability of other choices."
Six finalists -- including the Tapestry School -- failed to gain approval on Tuesday.
That leaves them in the position of seeking approval to open in 2001, scrapping their applications or attempting to seek approval instead from the Board of Regents.
Steven H. Polowitz, an organizer for the Tapestry School, said Tuesday it was too early to make that decision.
"The information is so recent we haven't even had a chance to debrief," he said.
Local schools with applications pending before the Regents are:
The Community Charter School, a proposed elementary school in Buffalo's Kensington-Bailey area.
The Erie Frontier Technical Charter School, a Tonawanda-area school that would emphasize instruction in manufacturing trades.
The Information Technology School, an Orchard Park facility that plans to stress computer technology and job readiness.