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CHARTERS PUT PRIDE IN SCHOOL

He sat off to the side, watching. Five kids, none older than 10, sat in a circle, pulling bows across violins. It wasn't the Philharmonic, but there was a huge smile on Charles Allen's face.

He just retired after decades of working for General Motors. He wore his tan, one-piece workingman overalls. His hands are callused and creased. He worked to get what's best for his boy. He finally thinks he is.

He is getting it at the King Center Charter School on Genesee Street, in the heart of Buffalo's inner city. There are 80 kids, kindergarten through third grade, in the building, a restored old church. Charles Allen's third-grader is one of them.

"It's a godsend," said Allen. "It's like a private school."

Charter schools are public schools minus the bureaucracy. Two more recently were approved in Buffalo to open in September. The King Center opened late last summer. It was started, like many charter schools, by educators who are tired of the follies of traditional urban public schools and who think they can do better.

Charles Allen thinks they can. His son used to go to School 17. There were too many kids in the class, too much acting up and not enough teacher time with kids.

At King, his son can't wait to do homework, and his behavior has straightened out.

"Somebody else gets 100 on a test," said Allen, "he comes home and says he wants to get 100. I didn't hear that before."

There are people, some of them running traditional public schools, who don't like charter schools. They say charters -- which get about two-thirds the money per student that traditional schools do -- siphon dollars from a school district.

I think it's nonsense. There are plenty of parents unhappy about paying taxes for mediocre schools. At least with charters, those dollars buy them a choice.

Those parents with enough bucks, of course, can pay for private school. A lot of inner-city parents don't have that option. Most kids in Buffalo public schools are poor enough for the free-lunch program. Private school is a dream.

"I can't afford private school," said Frederick Young, a retired security guard whose two boys are at King Center. "I have to take what they were giving me (in regular public schools) and help them myself at home."

Few things are more frightening than a bureaucracy with a monopoly. Time and again, the Buffalo school district has shown why.

The district has six schools on the state's academic "critical" list. Teachers defied state law with a strike at the start of this school year. A clerical foul-up last year delayed nearly $9 million in state aid. A woman with an embezzlement conviction was promoted to a job overseeing finances. Year after year, the hits kept coming.

"It seems," said Allen, "like they always think of the kids last."

Things may be getting better, with a new superintendent and a less-divided School Board. And many Buffalo teachers (of whom my wife is one) routinely make the most of what they get. But for years there was a steady stream of administrative follies and foul-ups. Plenty of parents were stuck with it.

Charles Allen is stuck no more.

"It's like a private school," Allen said of the King Center. "The discipline is great. My boy gets violin lessons. He does his homework first thing when he gets home."

Frederick Young also likes what he has seen. He took his two boys out of School 61 and put them in King Center.

"They weren't being challenged (at School 61)," said Young. "Now my second-grader is reading maps. My third-grader is doing three-digit multiplication."

There's a longer school day (and year) at the charter school. No class has more than 20 students. There is more teacher attention -- and more discipline -- than in a regular public school. It's run by Claity Massey, an expert in early childhood education.

Before this, no matter how many bad hires and late filings, no matter how many kids didn't learn in public schools, nothing changed. If parents didn't like it, they could go somewhere else. If they could afford to.

That's not what Charles Allen worked all his life for. That's not what his son deserved.

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