ST. LOUIS CHARTER SCHOOL LOOKS TO MOUNTAIN OF CHALLENGES AHEAD
PROMISES MADE TO PARENTS WILL TAKE SOME YEARS TO FULFILL, PRINCIPAL SAYS
PHOTO BY ANDREW CUTRARO Fourth Grade teacher Julie Frugo sits momentarily in her classroom between activities at the St. Louis Charter School recently. Many teachers at the school are realizing how tough the job will be after receiving test scores that show many of their students are behind the national average by two years.
By Matthew Franck
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
The test sheets hadn't even been handed out in Julie Frugo's fourth-grade class, but already it seemed apparent whose pencil would fill in the right bubbles and whose would not.
All of the children had spent 15 minutes being briefed on the basics of standardized testing. At Frugo's command they propped up folders on their desks to obscure answers from others. Some, including a girl who sat in the middle of the class, took further precautions. She assembled a circus tent of multicolored folders, with one on each side, one in front and another balanced across the top -- just in case a cheater were to hang suspended above her.
A few seats away, one of her classmates couldn't seem to keep a single folder on its edge. He took much of the class sharpening his pencil. At one point, he was so hyperactive he fell out of his chair.
This morning, the test was on math - most of it simple addition and multiplication. When things were in order, Frugo christened the testing session with a final, comforting instruction.
"We just expect you to do your best. If you don't finish it, that's OK, " she said. "This is just to find out the best way to help you this year."
It was late into the first month of the new St. Louis Charter School. Frugo's students - who had come from all corners of the city to test the region's latest experiment in education - had first formed a classroom 16 days ago.
And yet, this was where the work really began.
The charter school, among the first four in St. Louis, opened optimistically in September with an energized young staff and children willed there by their parents.
Like nearly all charter schools, the endeavor started from scratch. A few people had a dream of what a public school should be. They gained the approval required under state law, borrowed $2.4 million to renovate a building, enrolled 524 children and opened using state education money.
A simple concept has been at play.
The school is cut loose from much of the bureaucracy that encumbers other public schools. In turn, organizers commit to meet certain goals or be shut down.
But it isn't really that simple. Not after 16 weeks of class. Not after teachers have learned just how much may be required to meet those goals. "Realistically, it's going to take two or three years to make the kind of dent that we want to make, " Principal Doug Thaman said at a faculty meeting last month when test scores were released.
"You want to do better"
Teachers and parents had been sizing up the school right from the start.
Even at an October open house - an event designed to wow the parents and the community - the challenges were apparent.
Floors were buffed, rooms were decorated and teachers were at the threshold of each classroom greeting visitors. And yet, for some parents the school's initial luster had already faded somewhat.
Atanas Ignatov, a Bulgarian immigrant who is a researcher at St. Louis University, came to the open house still generally happy with his daughter Elizabeth's kindergarten class.
He trusts the teacher, Mary George, and believes Elizabeth is progressing nicely. But his daughter has also been the victim of minor bullying - something the family had not experienced at private preschools.
"It's different than what she was used to, " he said. "She is not accustomed to the hair pulling and things."
Ignatov said he would continue watching the discipline situation closely to determine if he would re-enroll Elizabeth as a first-grader.
He wasn't alone in his concern. Among the challenges the school has faced this fall - from getting buses to arrive on schedule to running a smooth lunch hour - behavioral issues top the list.
Since September, there have been 32 out-of-school suspensions. Discipline has become a full-time task for Assistant Principal Tracy Garrett, with a steady stream of students reporting to her office.
Teachers - most of whom came from suburban and parochial schools - have often said they are experiencing the most challenging class settings of their careers.
First-grade teacher Mario Cacioppo said he's never put in such long hours or invested so much of himself as he has at the new school.
"When I was at the parochial schools, I was out of there at 3:30 every afternoon, " he said. "But there's something about this school that makes you want to do better."
Thaman believes most of his teachers are dealing with the new environment well.
But he has also circled the halls and occasionally seen defeated faces on his faculty members. He fears that many are slowly relinquishing their authority in the class, sending children to the office when they should handle discipline matters themselves.
Thaman often reminds teachers of his simple doctrine on behavior: Students act up when they are behind academically.
Just how far behind the children were wouldn't be known until December, when test scores came in. Yet, several weeks into the school year, Thaman already knew the situation was critical.
"I would expect a majority to test below the (national average), " Thaman said in November. "Most are one grade level behind or more."
And that's a world away from what the St. Louis Charter School has promised its parents.
A decision to expand
In a 75-page document, or charter, the school spells out an ambitious list of academic goals that it promises to meet, or else be shut down.
The four goals each carry a common theme: All students, not just a majority, will test at their grade level in subjects such as math, science and reading. And all will show at least a one-year gain in skill levels each school year.
Under state law, it's up to charter school sponsors to make sure those goals are being met. Sponsors can be public colleges or universities or the local school board. The University of Missouri at St. Louis sponsors the St. Louis Charter School.
The law gives sponsors wide latitude in revoking charters for academic failure, mismanagement or other problems.
Technically, the schools can be shut down anytime. So after a year or two, St. Louis Charter School could be in peril if student performance languishes.
But in practice, oversight of the school probably will not be so rigid.
By early November, for example, Thaman could not name a single official at UMSL in charge of monitoring his school. It wasn't until later that month that anyone from the university had stepped foot on campus.
That visit, from John Hylton of UMSL's office of academic affairs, lasted just over 25 minutes.
Hylton and Thaman circled the school briefly together, but for much of that time the two met in the principal's office. Both talked of partnering to provide field trips for students and perhaps bringing student teachers into the classroom.
They settled on just one thing: Neither believed the university's role should involve much more than occasional visits to make sure state law was being satisfied.
"The day-to-day running of the school, that's your business, " Hylton s aid. On his way out the door, he said he expected to return, but probably not more than once a year.
That's not to say that the charter school is largely off the hook in terms of government oversight. On the contrary, the school must constantly report to the state such things as attendance figures and details of its finances. Failing to do so would mean a discontinuation of state money, the school's lifeblood.
But the biggest hammer hanging over the young school is held by parents, who can transfer their children to other schools at any time.
At times this fall, Thaman has described parents as a private school might, as customers, rather than residents of the neighborhood.
It's an attitude that's apparent when teachers and parents gather for conferences, which are held several times a year. Rather than just looking at a report card, parents are offered a detailed - even cumbersome - list of how their child stacks up against each of Missouri's many standards.
Each session ends with a sort of contract, containing goals to be completed by the next session. So far, the school appears to be retaining its clients. Of the 524 original students, 34 have left - but most of those are believed to have moved from the city. A smaller percentage, Thaman said, has left because of the school's strict discipline requirements.
Meanwhile, 94 percent of parents attended a round of conferences in November. That's phenomenal in a district where most schools don't even see 50 percent of parents show up for conferences.
A parent advisory group formed in September now has several committees and often draws more than 50 at meetings. The group has raised more than $10,000 for a school library and playground, both of which the school lacks.
But the strongest evidence of the school's permanency was evident at a Nov. 21 board meeting.
For weeks, parents of sixth-graders had been asking whether the school would expand next year and create a seventh, and eventually, an eighth grade. The expansion would be a tremendous undertaking, involving the renovation of an adjacent building and, as a result, more debt.
But the decision process was remarkably uncomplicated. No bond had to be passed, no election needed to take place, and no distant administrator had to go along with the idea. In a vote that was over as soon as it started, the four board members signed off on expansion to a light applause.
"This is an important moment for the school, " said board President David Scott.
The mountain ahead
The tone was less optimistic last month, when teachers huddled for a detailed look at September's test results. Compared with similar gatherings earlier in the year, the mood was somber.
Thaman stood in front of an overhead projector that displayed the results of September's standardized exams. The numbers plotted the exact altitude of the mountain they must all climb. And they drew a picture of a deep valley where most students now reside.
"These scores are low, low, low, low, low, " Thaman said. "But that shouldn't surprise us, because parents wouldn't have sent their kids here if they were flying high somewhere else."
The results showed that in some cases students lag their national peers by two years. By another measurement, they are performing at just half the national average in nearly all subjects.
Thaman shared a long list of concerns. Among them is a fear that parents of high-performing children will be scared off by schoolwide results, believing teachers will focus only on remedial instruction.
If there was solace in the moment, it was in the fact that the scores are a reflection not of the charter school, but of the public and parochial schools students have left behind.
Still, the principal didn't mince words when he warned that he did not want anyone on his faculty who lowers expectations because of low scores. Nor, he said, would he tolerate teachers nostalgic for the suburbs - who believe that parents are most to blame and who use that as an excuse.
"If you really feel that way, then you have got to rethink whether this is the kind of kid environment for you, " he said. "Because this is going to be an intense place for years."
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