ST. LOUIS - Christie Huck not long ago was a mother trying to find a school for her 4-year-old.
Today, she leads the top-performing charter school in the city, with results in some areas on this year's state tests rivaling that of suburban districts.
City Garden Montessori, just north of Tower Grove Park, outperformed not only St. Louis Public Schools' overall passing rates in communications arts, but many districts in surrounding counties, as well as the state average. Its passing rates in math were on par with the state average, at about 55 percent.
"By traditional measures, we're getting strong outcomes," said Huck, executive director of the school.
While the school can be held up as a success story, it also illustrates the stark contrast in state test results at charter schools attended by more than 11,500 students last year in the city.
Charter schools were introduced to St. Louis more than a decade ago as independent public schools that would be an alternative to struggling city schools. And test scores from the Missouri Assessment Program released last week show that several of the charter school campuses are performing better than St. Louis Public Schools on math and communications arts - some by wide margins.
But almost as often, charter schools are falling short of city averages. In fact, at the worst-performing charter schools, students were at least three times less likely to pass 2012 state exams than their peers at St. Louis Public Schools.
Still, charter school advocates see grounds for optimism.
For starters, they point to the closure earlier this year of Imagine schools, a network of six campuses that attracted 3,800 children despite abysmal results on state tests.
For some, shutting down the schools was part of a renewal for the charter movement here. That's occurred as many of the city's original charter schools - often managed by large national firms - have closed, to be replaced by smaller schools backed by grass- roots organizations.
Several of the newer schools, such as City Garden Montessori and KIPP Academy, have opened as part of an effort by Mayor Francis Slay's office to support charter schools he believes can succeed.
Some of those new schools are showing promising test scores, even as others lag. Still, charter school advocates urge caution.
"We see some charter schools making great strides," said Doug Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Public Charter School Association. "But we also have to look at how we have a lot of kids coming into a school significantly below grade level."
If a student, for example, attended a poorly performing school from kindergarten through fifth grade, his sixth-grade scores on the state tests won't necessarily show the strength of academics at his new school.
Robbyn Wahby, the education liaison to Mayor Slay, said: "You can't say, 'Well, the charter schools aren't performing because they weren't able to get that child to the state standard in one year.' That's a ridiculous expectation."
Take South City Preparatory Academy, for example. In its first year, the school's internal tests show the students have averaged 1.9 years' worth of growth in reading and 1.7 years' worth in math, said Mike Malone, head of school. But even then, the progress was not enough to put some students at grade level in those areas on the state tests taken last spring.
He calls the results released this week a "gut check."
Parents are key
One thing is certain when it comes to charter schools in St. Louis: They have been popular with parents, even amid questions about their performance.
Some say that while parents may pay attention to state standardized tests scores, they're just one factor in picking a charter school. …