Charter schools are coming to Western New York. In September, two new schools plan to open their doors to this experiment in education.
The process started last year, after a new state law, passed in December 1998, encouraged groups of concerned parents, educators, business persons and community activists to develop charter school proposals. A dozen applications were prepared and forwarded to chartering agencies -- most often, to the State University of New York on an assumption by applicants that the governor's appointees there would be more receptive than the Board of Regents.
Local experts expected this area to wind up with five approved charter schools, at most. But only three proposals made it through the first round of SUNY screenings, and only two won university system charters. Another three still await Regents decisions.
Awarded charters Tuesday were the King Center Charter School and South Buffalo Charter School. Other applications, including several from school groups outside Buffalo, were sent back with a promise that detailed critiques will follow; they may be resubmitted to other chartering agencies or in a future review round, but still will face tough competition.
Here's how the "winners" shape up:
King Center Charter School, which builds on a highly successful effort to preserve and reuse a former Catholic Church on the East Side, will use the center's experience in providing affiliated services to Buffalo's Early Childhood Center School 90.
The effort would involve about 80 pupils from kindergarten through third grade, and its key element is a move toward year-round schooling -- a move some consider vital for inner-city kids, but difficult to achieve under teacher union contracts. Organizers have forged partnerships with four local colleges and universities.
South Buffalo Charter School would incorporate social services into its school community, providing education for about 235 kindergarten through fourth-grade pupils and adding housing, employment, literacy and counseling services for their families. Character development initiatives and a longer school day and year were also proposed, and the organizing group wants to lease a South Buffalo building.
The project would mark the first time a for-profit education company will run a local public school; for both teaching and administration, organizers will rely on one of the national for-profit corporations -- in this case, Beacon Education Management -- that have ventured into the charter school field.
Still under review
Three charter proposals remain before the Board of Regents, which has not scheduled decisions:
Erie Frontier Technical Charter School would define itself by vocation-based instruction in traditional manufacturing trades. Based in the Tonawandas, it would seek to enroll 900 pupils in kindergarten through eighth grade.
The Information Technology School is envisioned as a 900-pupil, kindergarten through eighth-grade school that will emphasize job readiness and computer skills and integrate computer technology throughout the elementary school curriculum. Based in Orchard Park, it could eventually expand to include a high school.
Community Charter School organizers withdrew a SUNY application to seek permission from Regents. The Bailey-Kensington area school would require parents to volunteer about eight hours a month and would offer instruction in Spanish, music and art from kindergarten through fifth grade. Pupils would stay with the same teacher from year to year.
Among the local ideas that have failed, at least so far, to win university trustee approval:
Tapestry Charter School was the only other proposal to survive the first cut but failed to win a charter last week. The proposal envisions allowing 100 pupils to develop their own learning styles and learn at their own pace. Located in Buffalo, Tapestry would encompass kindergarten through fourth grade, with 20-pupil class sizes and instruction in Spanish, art, dance and music. The organizing impetus comes from parents dissatisfied with the Buffalo public school system -- even though most were involved with School 64, considered among the best of the city's elementary schools.
ASPIRE Charter School has been planned as a small, 100-pupil West Side school for immigrant or refugee children in grades 3 through 7. A defining feature would be three or four periods of daily English language instruction, as a step toward easing their entrance into city schools.
Seneca Charter School was proposed to bring a new emphasis on Native American history and culture to part of the former Thomas Indian School, a Cattaraugus Indian Reservation structure that once provided compulsory mainstream public education for children taken from their families and traditions. In partnership with St. Bonaventure University, the state's first Native American charter school would serve 150 pupils from kindergarten through third grade.
Niagara Arts and Technology Charter School, in a charter partnership with Niagara University, would seek to enroll nearly 250 pupils -- the cutoff for district teacher contract compliance -- in Niagara Falls. It would include kindergarten through fifth grade.
Buffalo Charter School envisioned 550 pupils in kindergarten through fifth grade, in a downtown or Main-LaSalle school that would serve as a centerpiece for neighborhood revitalization.
Bailey Charter School Academy, a bit farther south in the Lovejoy District, is a "back-to-basics" school concept. It would include kindergarten through fifth grade, and seek 228 pupils.
Academy of Buffalo Charter School sought to enroll about 400 pupils in kindergarten through sixth grade.