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Charter Schools Touted for 'Community Building' Role

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New York

Until now, much of the talk about charter schools has centered on their ability to free teachers and administrators from red tape.

But some experts believe that's not enough--that educators must involve a much broader slice of the community in the creation of such schools if they are to succeed.

Starting with that thesis, a group of legislators, educators, and activists gathered here recently to contemplate a charter school law for New York state.

The participants, collectively known as the Charter Schools Working Group, met at Teachers College, Columbia University, June 6-7 to hear experts from around the country. After listening to the presentations, participants drafted a document they hope will lay the groundwork for a charter school law.

Twenty-two states now have legislation that allows the formation of public schools that operate free from many state and local regulations.

"We believe that charter schools represent an opportunity for system reform, which should be brought about by public discourse based on community-building," said Frank L. Smith Jr., a Teachers College professor who helped write the document.

Peter M. Comeau, the project director of school-choice initiatives at Teachers College, agreed. "There's a lot of talk going on outside of education about how people want to participate in community life. What everybody's describing is people feeling disconnected."

The charter school effort represents a way to merge a desire for community involvement with the need for better schools, added Mr. Comeau, who organized the conference.

One participant, Robert Baird Paterson, a member of the Myrtle Avenue Merchants Association in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, said he hopes to create a maritime science and technology-learning center at the former Brooklyn Navy Yard.

By launching the learning center as a community-centered charter school, he said, he hopes to avoid what he termed the "egg crate" mold of traditional public schools.

Susan Goodwin, the chairwoman of the secondary education committee at the Rochester (N.Y.) Teachers Association, expressed skepticism about charter schools if they are put forth as a "desperate response" to problems in the education system.

"Unless this activity is really looking at collaborations between groups of people, as opposed to individuals, we'll just reproduce what we already have," she said.

After the presentations on charter school theory, the participants rolled up their sleeves to tackle the issues involved in drafting a charter law, such as which regulations a school would be exempt from, and which it would have to follow.

Getting to Details

Joseph V. Doria, the Democratic leader of the New Jersey Assembly, discussed the extensive negotiations and compromises that took place before Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, a Republican, signed his state's charter school legislation in January.

"We didn't slip the bill through," said Mr. Doria, who worked closely with New Jersey teachers' unions in crafting the legislation, "but the end result is that we were able to pass it on a bipartisan basis."

Mr. Doria also showed that prospective charter school leaders would need to do their share of work. He distributed sample copies of his state's charter school application and instruction package, which, in draft form, numbers 56 pages.

Participants also discussed the many issues facing school leaders as a charter school gets off the ground.

"Once a school is up and running, there are dozens of decisions to be made each day," said Joe Nathan, the director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. New school leaders most commonly neglect to decide who will be in charge of the minor, day-to-day decisionmaking, he said.

Jeff Salaway, a parent from Bridgehampton, N.Y., who is starting a private school with other parents in his community, said he attended to ensure that his group was "doing enough right so that they were not learning at the expense of the kids."

The school is scheduled to open in September for about 45 students ages 3 to 13. It will offer scholarships for students with help from local contributions.

Mr. Salaway said his group's community-driven vision for the school might fit more closely with the public charter school model than with a private school model.

But, he added, his group worried that a New York charter school law could be a long time coming. "We're not willing to wait."

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