A School of Her Own ; Luring a New Breed of Educator to a Troubled School System Is What Policymakers Hoped for When They Created Charter Schools

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It would be easy to see Kristin Kearns Jordan making a name for herself at a high-powered law firm or a dotcom venture.

But you won't find this Ivy League-educated entrepreneur commuting each day to a brand-name address. Instead, she puts in long hours at a church rectory in the South Bronx, amid well-worn desks and classrooms with white walls. It's there, in the fall, that she'll open and direct the Bronx Preparatory Charter School, one of a handful of new public charter schools in New York City, and one that makes its home in a district where only about a quarter of students perform at grade level.

What's even more eye-catching is her role model: Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H., Ms. Jordan's alma mater and one of the most competitive preparatory schools in the United States.

But Jordan notes that New York state law requires her to accept all students who apply through a lottery-style drawing.

"We're not an exclusive prep school," she says.

The unlikely match of someone of Jordan's background with a career in a troubled school system is exactly what policymakers hoped for with the creation of charter schools.

Though just getting under way in New York, they have operated for a number of years in many states, offering families publicly funded schools that take a different approach to everything from course selection to the length of the school day. They have met with opposition from those who dislike the fact that they operate with less oversight than regular public schools, and take a share of public school funding.

Yet the idea was to lure energetic innovators into the public school arena by putting aside some more-onerous regulations and opening the door to change.

In Jordan's case, it appears to have worked. She is pouring her energies into everything from choosing uniforms to worrying about distribution mechanisms and looking through stacks of rsums as she anticipates the school's opening in the fall. But despite the challenges, she says she's found "the perfect job."

But what Jordan has taken on will be anything but easy. Bronx Prep will begin with 100 fifth- and sixth-grade students, adding one grade a year until the school grows to accommodate Grades 5 to 12. The group will be located in a set of sparsely furnished classrooms in the rectory of Our Lady of Victory church.

Students will receive 50 percent more instructional time than children in a traditional public school. Classes at Bronx Prep will run from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and some will take a seminar-style approach, something Jordan is borrowing from Exeter. The school will have a 210-day calendar year. Most students will report for school in mid-August, but those who test below a certain level will be required to attend a special four-week session in July.

Jordan knows this will be a big change for many of the families interested in sending their children to the school. "Take a deep breath and get used to it," she tells a group of parents who have assembled one afternoon to learn about her school. "We'll all be working hard, harder than we ever have before." The academic program at Bronx Prep will be highly challenging, she reiterates.

But her audience is unfazed. "That's OK, it's worth it," murmurs one father.

The school's curriculum will be somewhat eclectic, an amalgam of all that Jordan believes works best in education. She says she loves the educational tradition she herself came out of at Exeter, which she describes as "the best of progressive tradition with a focus on basis skills."

That's why the program at Bronx Prep will be largely standards- driven, but will take detours for special pursuits like use of the Junior Great Books curriculum. In order to hammer on basics, students will have two periods of math and English every day.

Jordan says she opted for the Sadlier math program, after sitting next to someone at a conference who mentioned that he had been impressed by the math skills of students using that method. …