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Charter school strives for renewal

Buffalo's Stepping Stone Academy Charter School, which promised to transform a former Twin Fair store into an educational haven for city students, is fighting for its life.

Now in its fifth year at 909 E. Ferry St., the elementary school is seeking a renewal of its state license, hoping to be judged on what it describes as a promising future, not its troubled past.

Last year, a review commissioned by the State University of New York found dismal standardized test scores, administrative disarray, little individualized instruction, serious disciplinary problems, unchallenging classroom work and distracted and disengaged pupils. Much of the criticism was directed at Edison Schools, a national firm that manages Stepping Stone.

William Boatwright, hired as principal in January, acknowledges that the report was on target, but said problems are being resolved.

"A lot of times when schools aren't successful, there's a lot of finger-pointing," he said. "We're not going to do that. Historically, we haven't met our goals and been where we want to be. We recognize that, we apologize for that and -- most important -- we're doing something about it."

The quest for a SUNY license renewal is significant for several reasons:

* It will provide a strong local barometer of SUNY's stated intention of holding charter schools to high standards and judging them on academic results. Statewide, SUNY so far has shut down four charter schools because of poor performance and renewed the licenses of 13 others. But five of the 13 received two-year, rather than full five-year, renewals.

* The fate of 560 Stepping Stone pupils in grades kindergarten through eight -- most of them African-Americans from Buffalo -- is at stake. If the license is not renewed, they will have to find new schools next September.

Tapestry Charter School at 40 North St. recently received a five-year renewal from SUNY, which praised the school for outstanding academic results and strong leadership. The Charter School for Applied Technologies at 2302 Kenmore Ave. in the Town of Tonawanda is seeking a license renewal from the state Board of Regents, the other state agency that issues charters.

Stepping Stone officials already have been notified that "at best, they are eligible to make a case for short-term renewal," said James Merriman, executive director of SUNY's Charter Schools Institute, which issues recommendations to the full SUNY board.

To recommend a two-year renewal, he said, "I need to be able to tell the trustees with reasonable assurance, and with evidence, that with more time this is a bet they should take."

Representatives of the Charter Schools Institute will visit Stepping Stone for three days in November, and SUNY is expected to make a final decision by January, Merriman said.

Boatwright said that in the past nine months, Stepping Stone has beefed up staff development, hired two curriculum coordinators, tightened discipline and revamped procedures for arrival and dismissal, cafeteria operations and record-keeping.

He compared the reform effort to rebooting a computer. "We almost had to treat it like a new school," Boatwright said.

Deana Stevenson, academy director since June 1, said Stepping Stone has been transformed from a place where "the children were actually running the building," to an orderly, focused environment.

"It feels like a school," she said. "Kids are learning and seeking knowledge. That wasn't in place before."

Dolletha Holmes, a retired Buffalo Public Schools teacher who serves as president of Stepping Stone's board, said Boatwright and Stevenson are making a huge difference.

"We've made some great leaps in one year," she said. "We have a dynamic leadership team now."

Stepping Stone has school uniforms and offers an extended school day, 90-minute classes in both English and math, and Spanish language instruction beginning in kindergarten.

Yet in the 2003-04 school year, only 2 percent of its fourth-graders were proficient in language arts, and only 14 percent reached state standards in math.

The language arts passing rate improved to 20 percent in the last school year, and the success rate in math increased to 34 percent.

Math scores for the last school year, released last week, showed 25 percent of Stepping Stone's eighth-graders were proficient.

The school has had four principals since opening in 2001 and was on probation for seven months for failing to submit required financial information. SUNY lifted the probation in July after the reporting problems were corrected.

Sonseare Taggart, the Parent Advisory Council liaison with Stepping Stone administrators, said the school is showing dramatic improvement. She said she is moving to a portion of Amherst that lies in the Sweet Home School District, but her two school-age children will continue to attend Stepping Stone.

That kind of commitment, Boatwright said, is driving the improvement effort.

"People could have easily walked away from the situation, but they didn't," he said. "We made a promise to parents, and we have a commitment to deliver."

e-mail: psimon@buffnews.com

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