For Small Schools, an Identity Crisis

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Three years after starting a school-within-a-school at Chicago's William Rainey Harper High School, Michelle Smith and Sarah G. Howard knew the time had come to declare their independence.

At first, the two young teachers had set their sights on winning approval as a separate school in the city system. But when the district declared a moratorium on creating new small schools in 1996, an alternative they had avoided thinking about became impossible to ignore.

"We had been approached by several people in the reform community who had asked whether we were interested in applying for a charter," Ms. Smith recalled. "We said, 'No, we're not.' We believe strongly in public education and didn't want to participate at all in its demise."

In many respects, people such as Ms. Smith and Ms. Howard--educators steeped in the ethos of the urban small-schools movement--are among the most logical candidates to become their cities' charter school pioneers.

Often chafing under the constraints of big-city bureaucracies, these educational mavericks typically crave greater autonomy. That is just what charter schools, which receive public money but operate independently of the district structure, seem to offer in spades.

Yet as small and charter schools evolve and overlap--not only in Chicago, but also in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and elsewhere--neither veterans nor newcomers to the small-schools movement are entirely sure what to make of the new kid on the block.

Some see charter schools as allies, some see them as threats, and some see them as a little of both. "The question is, are they part of an attempt to reform the schools or are they part of an attempt to undermine public education?" said William C. Ayers, a professor of education at University of Illinois at Chicago and a founder of the city's Small Schools Workshop. "I'm willing to say let's try charter schools, but I'm also skeptical."

Despite their initial opposition, Ms. Smith and Ms. Howard eventually reached a similar conclusion. They grew convinced that becoming a charter school would not mean abandoning public education or the small-schools movement that had nurtured them.

They also believed they could address concerns that Chicago's first charter schools could become part of an elitist effort to shut out the neediest children. So they took the plunge, and last fall opened the Academy of Communications and Technology Charter School on the city's west side.

"I think it was our fear of what charter schools may become that led us to go ahead and do it," Ms. Smith said.

Autonomy's Inherent Appeal

As the sense of urgency surrounding urban education has intensified, the sheer size of many city schools has begun to be seen as a formidable obstacle to success.

While the typical big-city school still enrolls many hundreds and often thousands of students, scores of urban small schools have sprung up over the past decade through the breakup of existing schools and the establishment of new ones. Their aim is to create school communities in which teachers work closely with students and know them well, and where like-minded teachers are encouraged to innovate.

But relations between small schools and the systems to which they belong are rarely easy. On the contrary, they are typified by struggles by the schools for greater autonomy and counterpressure from district officials to adhere to standard accountability measures and otherwise play by the rules.

It is only natural then that the advent of charter schools would be seen by many advocates of small schools as an answer to their prayers. Opting out of the bureaucracy has inherent appeal for those who see it as a hindrance to doing right by their students.

"In my mind, the charter school is the end of the spectrum of the small-schools movement," said Seymour Fliegel, a former subdistrict superintendent in New York City who now works with small schools as a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank.

But many others aren't so sure. For reasons related to both policy and politics--and that vary from city to city--many proponents of small schools are eyeing charter schools with suspicion.

Political Agenda

In some cases, that wariness stems from a sense that charters are a stalking-horse for private school vouchers and for-profit management of public schools. The most ardent charter school proponents in some states are conservatives who advocate both vouchers and privatization.

To left-leaning small-schools advocates, such associations can be distasteful, even though many Democratic politicians from President Clinton on down profess support for at least some sorts of charter schools. For others, reservations about charters stem from a determination to stimulate change within their school systems. Thus, some in the small-schools community see charter status as a form of selling out.

"The key question for the small-schools movement is how can you best be a significant player in creating change in large urban school districts across the country," said Daniel V. French, the executive director of the Center for Collaborative Education in Boston. The center represents a network of small "pilot schools" within that city's school system created as an alternative to the charter schools authorized by a 1993 state law.

Philadelphia saw its first four charter schools open last fall. But educators who are active in the district's drive to split large schools into "small learning communities" are not necessarily ready to follow suit.

Among them is James Lytle, the principal of University City High School, a 2,000-student school divided into 10 learning communities of 165 to 240 students each. He said the hard time many charter schools have had with finding and paying for facilities, as well as affording seasoned staff members, has convinced him charter status is no panacea.

"I think charter schools will be exceedingly successful over time," Mr. Lytle said. "But the virtues of converting are not as obvious as people would like to imagine."

In Chicago, Kimberlie S. Day, the co-founder of a small school that became one of the city's first seven charter schools last year, calls her problems with facilities "huge." But she said they are not as big as the bureaucratic struggles she faced trying to operate within the system.

"I'd rather fight the battle of trying to find a place, than to fight a battle to do right by students and being told you can't do that because of some policy or red tape," said Ms. Day, the co-director of the 120-student Perspective Charter School. But she worries that the advent of charter schools in her city may have an unfortunate consequence, given the current administration's emphasis on systemwide accountability.

"I can see the board saying that if somebody wants to break the mold, they should go be charters," she said. "I think it's possible that it could undermine the effort of the small schools to transform the system. I hope that it doesn't happen."

N.Y.C. Eyes Charters

In New York, small schools do not have a choice on whether to seek charter status because the state has yet to join the 32 others that have authorized the creation of charter schools.

That may change this year, however. Gov. George E. Pataki, a Republican, is renewing a push for charter legislation following his unsuccessful effort last year. Interest in the issue is high as educators, interest groups, and elected officials maneuver to influence any law that may emerge.

Mary Butz, the principal of the 5-year-old Manhattan Village Academy, a 320-student high school in New York City's Chelsea section, said she would welcome the chance to slip the administrative bonds of the 1.1 million-student district.

After fighting many a wearying battle with the system's legendary school bureaucracy, Ms. Butz said, "I'd break my legs to become a charter school."

A few blocks away at the 500-student School of the Future in Gramercy Park, director Kathy Rhefield-Pelles is also intrigued by the possibilities. "I'd love to do it for this school," she said of winning charter status. "But the downside is it wouldn't help reform the system."

Learning From Experience

Mr. Zucker said he expects any charter school law in the state to limit authority for awarding charters to city and state officials, without including such potential granting agents as universities or reform groups. Requirements imposed by the city or the state "would leave us in the same mess we're in right now," he predicted.

At a recent conference in a restructured South Bronx high school, Schools Chancellor Rudy F. Crew said the list of chartering agents should indeed be short: the city's central school administration and possibly the state education department.

"I don't want us to get a charter movement going here that allows multiple granting agencies," he said last month after addressing a gathering to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Center for Collaborative Education in New York. "You can't just let a thousand flowers bloom."

At the same time, Mr. Crew and members of his administration say they are not threatened by the prospect of charter schools. Instead, they stress that their experience with the city's small schools has given them a leg up.

Small schools in New York have grown in both number and prominence in recent years. The movement got a boost in 1995 when a coalition of four reform groups landed a five-year, $25 million Annenberg Foundation challenge grant to develop networks of small, high-quality schools. Since then, membership in those networks has swelled from 80 to 140.

As the district strives to institutionalize a process for starting and sustaining small schools, a host of issues remains on the table. Among them are how schools will be held accountable for meeting state and city standards, what testing and curricular requirements they will have to meet, and how they go about selecting students for admission.

Yet after a year of severely strained relations, both camps say they are making progress. And school leaders expect that struggle to inform their eventual relationship with charter schools if and when the state opens the door.

"We're much more ready for charter schools than we were five years ago because of our experience with small schools," said Margaret R. Harrington, the district's chief executive for school programs and support services.

However events unfold, small-schools advocates expect their relationship with charter schools to continue to evolve.

Charter schools "are part of our family," said Michael Klonsky, the co-director with Mr. Ayers of Chicago's Small Schools Workshop. "They're kind of an ugly stepchild, but they're still part of our family."

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