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By Matthew Franck

St. Louis Post-Dispatch


A school year that started in September by tossing two dozen teachers, 500 students and a new education concept into a freshly renovated building ended quietly Friday with a half-day of classes.

It was the eve of summer vacation, and students at the new St. Louis Charter School spent it like most schoolchildren. They ate pizza, played games, watched movies and left school untethered from their cares. Attendance was high, teachers were upbeat and parents vowed to return their children this fall to the experimental school at 5279 Fyler Avenue.

"I think for the first year of a school this was a remarkable year, " said Principal Doug Thaman.

While classes wound down without a glitch, St. Louis' introduction to charter schools this year could hardly be described as smooth. The city's first four charter schools opened this year with mixed success.

Across town, for example, the Thurgood Marshall Academy, 4300 Goodfellow Boulevard, has had three principals, 16 faculty departures, at least two run-ins with state law, and three meetings that pitted enraged parents against board members and security guards.

The strife culminated last month when the school's sponsor, the University of Missouri at St. Louis, demanded the resignation of the school's founder and an overhaul of the board, on the threat of closure.

Yet, charter school advocates say that even with the lumps, the charter school experiment here has been a success.

"I think we have proven this can work, " said Dave Camden, head of the Missouri Charter School Information Center in Clayton. The nonprofit group played a key role in helping the city's charter schools to organize.

Charter school advocates like Camden acknowledge that test scores plotting the performance of the schools won't be available for months. And it could take years to build enough data to truly compare the schools to traditional public schools.

But in the meantime, charter supporters are celebrating the fact that more than 80 percent of parents at most schools plan to enroll their children again next year. Even the Thurgood Marshall school predicts that two-thirds of its students will return.

And school organizers say they have accomplished something more fundamental. In a single year, they have offered an alternative to public school that didn't exist in St. Louis, and they have served nearly 1,400 students.

Charter Inc.

This school year has marked the first time that public schools have operated in the city outside the control of the St. Louis School Board. Like all charter schools, the new schools here are publicly funded but governed by private boards.

Missouri law allows charter schools to operate only in St. Louis and Kansas City.

The charter school concept isn't new. If anything, charter schools are late coming to St. Louis. Nationally, there are more than 2,000 of the schools. But the city's introduction to charter schools is at the cutting edge of this educational reform in several ways.

Across the country, charter school observers are monitoring two trends: the emergence of larger charter schools and an increase in schools run by for-profit corporations.

Both trends are evident in St. Louis. The Thurgood Marshall school and the St. Louis Charter School, for example, are more than twice the size of the nation's average charter school.

And with the exception of the tiny Lift for Life Academy -- with its mere 60 students -- all of the city's charter schools are operated by Beacon Educational Management, a for-profit Massachusetts company.

So in some respects, St. Louis' charter school experiment has been Beacon's experiment. And this has been the company's biggest gamble.

Never had Beacon opened three schools in one city at once. The endeavor was a tactical feat, with $6 million in renovations packed into a single summer. Meanwhile, the company had to recruit about 1,300 pupils, hire dozens of teachers and train them how to run a new kind of school.

"To go into a community and create three schools in less than 12 weeks, given the complexity of that task, I think is a terrific accomplishment, " said Beacon President Mike Ronin.

For its troubles, Beacon collects roughly 10 percent of each school's revenue. The schools must also repay the company for its construction debt, with interest.

When the company came to town, many feared it would bring a cookie-cutter approach to education and offer little of the innovation that charter school supporters promise. The three schools' charter applications, for example, were virtual carbon copies of each other.

But the struggles at Thurgood Marshall and the relative calm at the other three schools illustrate that not all were cast from the same mold.

Sharing the blame

The last day of school at each of the charter schools bore out the contrast.

While the other two Beacon schools had strong attendance late into last month, the Thurgood Marshall school was virtually empty.

On the final day of the school's extended summer program, teacher Freddie Varner stood in the hallway during lunch period contemplating the year's embarrassing conclusion.

Just three of her students had showed up to class that day.

Many parents stopped bringing their children to the school early last month, when the regular school year ended. Some parents who were upset with the school joined a boycott of the extended year program.

"It's hard to do your job when you are in the middle of a political situation, " Varner said.

Just a day earlier, the University of Missouri at St. Louis -- which is responsible for monitoring the school -- had placed the Thurgood Marshall Academy on probation.

The action was taken largely because the school has fallen short of teacher certification laws. At one point, fewer than half of teachers had the required licenses. The school also was guilty of enrolling a handful of ineligible pupils.

Ronin said his company was part of the problem: "There was a failure on our part to catch it soon enough."

But critics of the school say sloppy administration and poor communication caused the breakdown. Teachers struggled to get supplies. Many parents were in the dark on the school's problems. And board meetings devolved into chaos.

Ronin said the success of the company's other two St. Louis schools suggests that Beacon wasn't the main culprit for the disorder.

At the other schools, teachers and parents are neutral, if not complimentary of the company.

"In the first year there were some kinks to work out, but it's been much better than a regular public school, " said Kelly Harmon, a special education teacher at the Ethel Hedgeman Lyle Academy, a Beacon school.

Camden said the variable between the Beacon schools is the people running them.

"When all is said and done, the management company is really just the principal and faculty that it hired, " Camden said.

As a teacher, Varner blames the school's administration for much of the confusion. She's also upset with the school's board, which she said has acted out personal agendas at the expense of the school. "I think the board wasn't ready to be a board, " she said.

Camden said the board's dysfunction ranks as the biggest disappointment of the year.

The governance of charter schools should be transparent, he said. Parents should be able to attend a meeting and feel they can participate in all the school's decisions.

But Camden said the Thurgood Marshall board often behaved as poorly as the worst public school boards, with back-room deals and a failure to bring parents to the table.

An appetite for choice

Camden said that on one level, Thurgood Marshall's woes have been good for the charter school movement here.

He said the disciplinary action taken against the school shows that charter schools are even more accountable to the public than traditional public schools.

And if the Thurgood Marshall Academy can turn around next year, it will prove that the charter school concept might be the most effective way to whip urban education as a whole into shape, he said.

Even Bill Monroe, the Thurgood Marshall board chairman who was forced from his post by UMSL, agrees with that assessment.

"The city school district has been in the business of education for more than 100 years and they still don't have it right, " he said. By that comparison, he said, the young charter school hasn't done so poorly.

In the meantime, the school's struggles appear to have done little to dampen the city's appetite for more charter schools.

All four existing charter schools have waiting lists, and three are adding new grades. This fall, Beacon schools will take in as many as 1,900 students in St. Louis, including at the new Garden School, which plans to open under the company's management.

Two other groups, meanwhile, have gained approval for charter schools through an avenue that would have seemed impossible just a year ago.

The St. Louis School Board -- which once sued to stop charter schools -- has teamed with Associated General Contractors to open a vocational charter school this fall. A second partnership is slated for the following school year for a middle school modeled after two successful efforts in New York and Texas.

"I think we have convinced our worst opponents that this is a viable alternative, " Camden said. "And in that respect, (this year) has been a success."

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