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Worksite Charter Schools Take the Edge Off Commuting

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The after-school scene here is a sprinkling of parents in white uniforms or green hospital scrubs amid a sea of suits and bluejeans.

Clutching a beeper, one medically garbed mother bolts through the school's front hallway and heads straight for the parent courtesy phone on the wall.

It's a common sight here at the Medical Center Charter School, which sits at the edge of what many in Houston call a city within a city. The school was designed to educate the children of some of the 50,000 employees who work nearby in the 675-acre Texas Medical Center.

The sprawling, high-rise complex includes hospitals, specialty clinics, and medical schools. Emergency helicopters come and go from the tower roofs, barely noticed by the teachers and students in their classrooms below.

Charter enthusiasts point to schools like this one and another in Dallas when they predict that the innovative schools may help redefine the concept of neighborhood public schools.

The community around which many of the people here build their lives is the medical center and their work, not the scattered neighborhoods where they live. So it makes sense for their children to go to school here as well, especially given the vast commuting distances of a large metropolitan area and the hectic schedules typical of working parents.

Lillian King, a patient-care assistant at St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital, one of several in the complex, sends her 7-year-old daughter, Courtney, here even though they live across town. Ms. King, a single mother, said it just made sense--St. Luke's is a five-minute walk away.

"Having her close by makes me a lot less nervous," she said.

Some charter school watchers predict more worksite charter schools like Houston's will sprout up across the country.

Added Comfort

The idea itself is not new. At least 30 public schools serving the children of employees at the workplace dot the nation. But overall, some charter proponents and employers say, public schools are not adapting quickly enough to the real needs of working parents.

"It's clear we need more schools that are flexible," said Sherry M. Wilson, whose job as a work/life coordinator for the neighboring University of Texas Houston Health Science Center is to help employees balance the competing demands of work and home.

"In Houston, you could literally work 50 miles from your child's school," she said. The charter school "gives employees a great deal of comfort to know their children are nearby."

The 129-student, K-5 school opened in the fall of 1996 in a terra-cotta-tiled building on a quiet dead-end street. Its founders, Margot T. Heard and James L. McKey, wanted to take the strategies honed in their private St. Nicholas School--a Montessori-influenced program with emphasis on foreign languages, technology, and basic skills--into the public realm.

St. Nicholas and the charter students share the building, but are in separate classrooms. And the nonprofit charter school has its own governing board.

The founders pride themselves on having created a school that is family-friendly.

Parents can stop by to check on their children through classroom video monitors. Some spend their lunch hours with their children at the school. For a fee, the school offers private child care from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. There's summer school and camp. And, for $45 a day, a "TLC classroom" for sick children whose parents can't take off work.

"There's not much parents can't get here," said Mr. McKey, a lawyer by training.

The demand for such a school was clear early on, added Ms. Heard, a mother of four who has worked in private education for 30 years.

Diversity at Work

Although the school is not formally linked with the Texas Medical Center, Ms. Heard and Mr. McKey carried letters of support from some of the center's institutions when they petitioned the state school board for a charter.

Like many open-enrollment Texas charter schools, this one defines the attendance area from which it may draw students by ZIP code. The difference is that Medical Center Charter is open to students whose parents live--or work--in the 77030 ZIP code that covers the massive medical center. Few people actually live within those boundaries, which explains why the school draws students from at least eight school districts.

So far, the concept hasn't needed much selling. The school boasts rising test scores and a hefty wait list.

"It takes two parents to work to survive, and it's taking the public schools forever to realize that and adapt," said Rosa Estrada, who works as an administrative assistant at St. Luke's Hospital. Her 8-year-old son, Erin Michael Breen, commutes with his mom from a suburb 45 minutes away.

"When we first went to the state for our charter, there was concern that this would be all doctors' kids," Ms. Heard said. "But the medical center has all kinds of people, from residents to clerical staff."

The charter school is 84 percent minority, 63 percent of whom are African-American. About one-third of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals.

And the Houston school's experience is not atypical, according to Mary Anne Ward, the president of Corporate Family Schools, a division of the Nashville, Tenn.-based Corporate Family Solutions Inc. Ms. Ward helps the publicly traded company develop and track worksite schools nationwide.

"The CEO's kids go to school with the janitor's kids at these schools," Ms. Ward said. That diversity, which cuts across economic and racial lines, is often greater where people work than where they live, she added.

Legislative Hurdles

As the number of charters grows, some experts predict that more of these independent public schools will mirror the "partnership" public schools that are extensions of an employer's workplace and educate primarily the employees' children. Schools serving the Miami International Airport, 3M in Minneapolis, and Hewlett-Packard Co. in Santa Rosa, Calif., are a few examples.

Typically, the employer pays for the school facility, utilities, and maintenance. The district provides the teachers, curriculum, and books. Through such arrangements, districts can promote parent involvement, relieve overcrowding, and save on transportation and facilities costs. Companies can enjoy greater productivity and offer the school as an employee benefit.

"Once people get over this archaic notion of schools being driven by where we live, I think this kind of school will really explode," said Brooks Flemister, the Texas Education Agency's charter school director.

But there are some legislative hurdles, which Arizona and Florida are working to fix. Under many state charter laws, it is difficult, if not impossible, to explicitly limit enrollment or grant preferential admission to, say, the children of one company's workers. And most businesses are less willing to invest in a worksite school if they cannot ensure that their employees will have first dibs, said Tracey Bailey, the director of the Florida education department office of public school choice.

In Dallas, the Pegasus Charter School offers a different slice of the worksite school pie. The school occupies a suite in a downtown office building whose neighbors include Armadillo Bail Bonds and Western Union.

Part of the school's mission is to serve the children of parents who work downtown, where public schools are scarce. And the school's founders see it as part of a larger downtown-revitalization effort.

Student Commuters

The school is bare-bones by design. Students use resources already available in the city--libraries, parks, museums, and community colleges; the school is intended to function as a headquarters of sorts for the 100 students in grades 7-9.

The notion made sense to Virginia Lannen, a lawyer, mother of two, and a founder of the Pegasus School. Before it opened last fall, her son, John Bucy, traveled to a magnet school 45 minutes away from her workplace. Now, rather than go home to an empty house after school, the 8th grader walks the eight blocks to his mom's office.

"I don't have to worry about him being home alone," Ms. Lannen said. "And I can supervise his homework and still be able to function here at work."

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