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PARENTS, TEACHERS TAKE A LEAP OF FAITH

A CHARTER SCHOOL IS BORN: A world of worry surrounds a school's opening, but there's one main concern: Will it work?

PHOTO BY ANDREW CUTRARO Left without a chair during the first staff meeting, principal Doug Thaman propped up on a counter in a makeshift office to discuss goals for the new St. Louis Charter School.

By Matthew Franck

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

9/30/2000

When all else was stripped away, just one thing was really happening Tuesday in Mary George's kindergarten class at the St. Louis Charter School.

Seventeen 5-year-olds -- a few curled silent with fright, but most rendered hyper by nerves -- were being introduced to elementary school.

Forget that the school was making history on its inaugural day as one of the first charter schools in St. Louis. For pupil Elizabeth Ignatova, Tuesday was simply her first day of school.

Her anticipation was plain as she sprang up the sidewalk bearing a backpack large enough to carry her body weight. She had every item on the school supply list, plus one -- a bouquet of flowers for her teacher.

Elizabeth had met Ms. George only once before. But she hugged her teacher tightly around the neck when they met in the parking lot.

When classes started and her parents turned to go, there were no tears, no separation anxiety. Elizabeth looked to them only briefly, said "bye" and returned her attention to a toy.

But there was a subplot to the day's drama, and with it an unanswered question.

Will the school work?

The question was raised long before Elizabeth could walk and before anything like the St. Louis Charter School could legally open in Missouri.

Its answer will have consequences that reach outside this kindergarten class. The school's success or failure will impact many, including:

* A young lawyer, whose mild interest in charter schools has grown into a school that enrolls 524 children and makes him accountable for $3 million in state money.

* A Massachusetts company hired to operate the school, partly to test the notion that for-profit firms can make a better go of it than public school administrators.

* A principal and two dozen teachers who left the familiarity and tenure of more traditional schools for something untested.

* Hundreds of parents, like Elizabeth's, who have enrolled their children based on little more than promises, and have questioned the risk they took ever since.

Taking a risk

Elizabeth's parents have wrestled with the idea of charter schools since they saw the term in a newspaper in February.

They liked what they heard at an informational meeting in June, particularly from the school's principal. So they entered Elizabeth in an enrollment lottery. Days later, she was accepted.

Yet, they have always had doubts. Those seemed to peak on a Monday in July, the first time the Ignatovs visited the school.

It was a tattered and confusing time for the school. Crews had just begun to renovate the building, leased at the old Hawthorn State Hospital site at 5247 Fyler Avenue. Inside was a tangle of fallen ceiling tile and cable, outdated carpet and busted walls. There was no air conditioning, power or running water.

When Atanas Ignatov peered in a door, he saw no semblance of a school or any prospect of creating one within six weeks.

In an adjacent building, he and his wife, Elena, sat with principal Doug Thaman in a makeshift office with neon green shag carpet that would serve as the school's command post through the summer.

As a window air conditioner growled, but did not outpace the heat, the Ignatovs laid out their concerns. It was as if the newness of the school had just hit them -- the fact that teachers were still being hired, that the teachers hadn't even met each other yet, much less worked together.

"It takes time to form a team, " Atanas Ignatov said after the session. "Right now they are strangers."

The Ignatovs are immigrants from Bulgaria. In their homeland, they say, schools are more accelerated, classes are smaller, discipline is exact and expectations are high.

On a recent trip to Bulgaria, Elena Ignatova bought a series of primers that outline what children there need to know at each grade level. She uses the books for comparisons.

The couple has high expectations for Elizabeth. Both parents hold doctoral degrees in the sciences. Elena Ignatova conducts research for Washington University and Atanas Ignatov teaches and researches at St. Louis University. Neither can imagine Elizabeth without a postgraduate degree some day.

Over the past year they have shopped the city's magnet schools, but they have been disappointed. Before they heard of charter schools, they believed their only option was private school.

Elizabeth's parents are keeping a spot reserved at Washington University's kindergarten program. They would be willing to pay the $5,000-a-year tuition if the charter school doesn't measure up.

"But I'm willing to give charter schools a try, " Elena Ignatova said.

Breaking new ground

David Scott, the lawyer who founded the St. Louis Charter School, hears a description of the Ignatovs and grins.

They are the type of parents who will drive the school to excellence. Pleasing the Ignatovs, he says, will require creating a kindergarten class that outshines those in traditional public schools.

"If we don't do a good job, our kids will leave, " he said. "And I want them to leave if we don't do a good job."

In many respects, the team that runs the school bucks the image that many politicians and education reformers may have had when they crafted charter school laws.

Under that view, charter schools would be organized by parents and educators who have longed to try something different but have been stymied by bureaucracy.

Many of the more than 2,000 charter schools that have opened nationally fit that description. They are smaller schools, often called "Ma and Pa" operations. In many cases, they target specific students, such as dropouts or students with special needs. They may experiment with unusual curricula or teaching techniques.

The St. Louis Charter School is something else.

For starters, the school is large by charter school standards, with 524 students in kindergarten through the sixth grade. Rather than trying to fill a niche in education, it simply promises to be better than St. Louis Public Schools.

Scott often talks about the good that improved public schools can do for the city's redevelopment effort, as well as for children.

He got involved with charter schools out of a concern for the future of the city. Initially, Scott's involvement was limited to reviewing legislation when he was asked in 1996 to provide legal help for charter school activists.

But as his interest grew, so did his realization that the law passed in 1998 would allow anyone to form a school -- including him.

Scott met executives from Beacon Education Management, a company that operates charter schools nationwide and had been eyeing St. Louis for years.

Scott's decision to team up with Beacon would -- more than anything -- determine the climate of the school. Beacon would hire staff, set the curriculum and train teachers -- essentially doing everything a school district does for a traditional public school. In exchange, the company receives 10 percent of the school's operating budget, or about $324,000 this year at St. Louis Charter School.

The school's board, meanwhile, has largely acquiesced to Beacon's educational experience, stepping in only to pass significant policy or manage finances. Some board members have little involvement at the school, besides attending monthly meetings and appearing on the school's letterhead. None has school-age children.

The benefits of aligning with Beacon paid off mightily during construction. Other "Ma and Pa" charter schools -- like the small Lift For Life Academy that opened last week downtown -- have struggled to renovate classrooms with little construction money and thin lines of credit.

But when Scott took hold of the sledgehammer during a humble ceremony to begin the renovation of his school, he had the confidence of $2.4 million in Beacon-secured loans behind him.

Standing in front of the first wall children would see when they entered the school, he lifted the hammer, swung and landed it in the plaster board.

No one clapped as he stared at the small black circle he made. He ended the ceremony with this: "I think we are on our way."

A chance to shape a school

If there was a moment when the endeavor first took on the feel of a school, it was Aug. 1, when a group of strangers were introduced to each other as the new teaching staff.

They sat in a circle over the green glow of the makeshift office's carpet. There was no chair left for Thaman, so he propped himself up on a table.

Such informality fits him. Thaman rarely wears shoes in his office. In all his dealings with his crew, he uses only first names -- calling one teacher Mike II rather than using his surname.

It was the first day of the teacher's work contract and Thaman began his training with a question meant as a warning.

"Are you ready for a busy month?"

Twenty-six educators were in the circle. All but four were women and only a few had been out of college for more than five years. It looked, at first glance, like a sorority had gathered.

One by one, they introduced themselves by explaining why they applied for the job and what they hoped the school would become. Few mentioned the term charter school. Later that day, many -- including kindergarten teacher Mary George -- admitted to being hazy on what a charter school is.

Instead, nearly everyone in the circle touted the newness of the school, and they shared the idealism that comes with a fresh start.

"We'll never have this opportunity again to start up a school, " said Julie Frugo, a fourth-grade teacher.

Thaman had been assembling the staff for months, even before he left his past job as principal of Point Elementary School in the Mehlville district.

Five teachers -- including one that serves as his assistant principal -- followed him from that school. Others responded to classified advertisements and were interviewed over Thaman's kitchen table.

He would have preferred a more diverse team. Only a few on the staff are minority members. But on the whole, this was the energetic and idealistic staff he has dreamed of.

The teachers needed that enthusiasm as they launched five weeks of 14-hour days. In conferences and retreats, they learned the basics of "core knowledge, " an instructional approach that preaches a common set of facts and skills that every child should know at each grade level. The teachers learned to weave those concepts into Missouri's learning standards.

By the end of August, the teachers were ready to share what the school had become with parents. They did so in individual conferences.

In order to enroll, parents participated in what the school refers to as an "Individual Learning Plan." The sessions are a glorified form of a parent-teacher conference that carry a hint of Beacon's marketing approach.

Each child is to have three learning goals based on his or her needs, with a specific strategy for their completion. Parent, child and teachers sign the document like a contract. And they will do so five times throughout the year.

Most parents had scheduled appointments to meet teachers at a nearby Holiday Inn. But some lacked transportation, so teachers went to them.

On one such visit, fourth-grade teachers Julie Frugo and Jake Lampert drove several miles to a small house near Calvary Cemetery. As they stood on the front porch they looked as if they were proselytizing for the school.

Once inside, Frugo sat cross-legged on the floor. Her student, an 11-year-old girl, knelt near her on the floor. The student was asked to write on a paper what she was good at, but the pen remained still and she was silent.

Finally, with the help of a relative, she said, "Math." But she was either too shy or unable to write the word, so Frugo wrote it for her.

An hour later they have worked up three goals: improving reading, gaining confidence and making at least one friend.

Frugo ruminated over the visit on the drive back to the charter school. She summed up the work that lay ahead, holding a mental yardstick to the girl's skill level.

"I know she's low, " she said. "And I know she is going to need a lot of extra work."

An idea nears reality

Two weeks before classes started, the school -- at least what had been patched together so far -- was ready to show itself off.

For the first time, all parents and students had been invited to a single event, billed as a bulb planting at which each child would plant a flower.

In truth, the 200 students who showed up were greeted with packs of annuals that looked too tender to outlast the fall. But everything else was perfect. The gentle, pre-twilight sun set the top of each child's head aglow as they joined their teachers in the planting.

Scott stood back and took in the scene. He knew there may be struggles ahead, but that day it was as if nothing could go wrong. "This is the greatest moment of my charter school career, " he said.

Families were encouraged to stroll through the school, which in the last 72 hours had just begun to make sense. Walls were up and painted, the ceiling was hung, and, almost everywhere, the flooring was in place.

Every classroom looked the same. All were empty, white and cleanly tiled.

Families circled the school -- sometimes more than once -- to see the exact rooms that their children were assigned.

Parent Laura Covert liked what she saw. But for her, the school would only be as good as its discipline, and she needed more proof before she will feel comfortable. She said her verdict wouldn't come for at least a month.

She vowed to visit the school again for a sort of white-glove inspection.

"Wait a month and walk through the school, " she advised. "If you hear teachers teaching, it's a good school. If all you hear are kids out of control, something is wrong."

Allaying fears

The Ignatovs were not at the bulb planting, but they met with Mary George later that week at a kindergarten screening at the Holiday Inn.

As Elizabeth was tested for hearing, balance and speech, they were still questioning whether this was the school for them.

Their session with the teacher began well. George pulled out a floppy stuffed dog and asked Elizabeth to suggest a name for it. On the first day, George explained, the class will pick from the list.

Elizabeth offered the name Corey, that of her friend, and appeared captivated by the suspense of waiting to see if her name wins.

George gave the parents time to spell out their hopes for Elizabeth. Their goals were modest and they did not portray their daughter as gifted or accelerated.

They said they want her to start reading books with simple words, to begin addition and subtraction and to work on physical dexterity.

By the time they left the hotel, the parents were sold on the teacher. "I really like her, " Elena Ignatova said. "She is just what we are looking for."

In just one hour, their decision to test out the charter school appeared to solidify.

At last, opening day

The Ignatov family was among the first to arrive on the first day of school. Virtually every teacher was on the school's front sidewalk to greet children.

The staff had spent Labor Day weekend pushing aside construction dust and decorating classrooms. Still, there were some loose ends.

Interior doors lacked doorknobs, the cafeteria was unfinished, as was the computer lab. And as predicted, there were morning transportation glitches, including late buses and a clogged parking lot.

All that passed, however, and within the school's first hour, teachers like George began the work of setting classroom rules and trying to get squirming children to comply.

The Ignatovs stayed long enough to get a feel for the school, which they were seeing assembled for the first time. They were impressed.

Elena Ignatova liked everything, the building, the way the morning light hit her daughter's classroom, "and of course, Ms. George."

For the first time since she first heard of the charter school, she seemed thoroughly optimistic about the idea.

"It is lovely, " she said. "And I think it will get better and better."

Making adjustments

The morning's transportation glitches proved trivial compared to the busing problems of the first afternoon.

At 6:15 p.m. -- two hours after classes had ended -- about a third of the children were still at school, lined up in hallways waiting to call their parents. Some of them would not get home until nearly 8 p.m.

Parents who could not get through on the school's busy phone lines came to the school, panicked and angry.

As things calmed down, Thaman huddled his staff in the lounge. His instructions were simple. They would spend the evening on customer service.

Each teacher was to call every parent, whether their children were on buses or not, and check in with them.

The next morning, Thaman was in the parking lot early. He fashioned a makeshift student drop-off lane using folding chairs as a barricade.

But at 8:30 a.m. -- 25 minutes before class starts -- no parents were in sight.

"Yesterday at this time the parking lot was full, " he said. "Maybe they aren't coming back after the busing problems."

Slowly, cars began to pull up. Some entered in the wrong direction, but Thaman redirected them.

He greeted each student one by one until buses arrived and he could no longer keep up.

It was day two, and in minutes the school would be full again.

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