Ms. Cutter, the co-founder of a St. Paul charter school for at-risk 16- to 21-year-olds, describes the charter school experience as "a powerful and life-altering one" for everyone concerned.
In 1991 another teacher and I took some time to consider why students were leaving a relatively small (80-100 students) alternative program. We came to the conclusion that students who fit the definitions of "at risk" found it increasingly difficult to remain in school as the size of the school increased.
With the support of the city of St. Paul and the Northern States Power Company, we developed a pilot program, the Power League, aimed at returning 16- to 21-year-olds to school. That program provided the foundation for what is now City Academy. The students involved in the Power League requested individual learning plans, an intimate learning community in which all the participants knew one another, and a sound rationale for the structure of the school. Many of the features of the Power League remain a part of City Academy today.
Students. Students range in age from 13 to 21, with the majority between the ages of 16 and 18. The only requirement is that students be unenrolled in regular school at the time they come to City Academy, and the reasons they are unenrolled are as varied as the number of students. The most common reasons are "I didn't think anyone cared" and "I was too far behind." The majority of students are residents of the East Side of St. Paul and are representative of the population of that part of the city, including Native Americans, Hispanics, African Americans, Asian Americans, and European Americans. Most of the families live at or below the poverty line.
Location. After reviewing the Census figures, we chose to locate in the East Side of St. Paul because of its high dropout rate, high incidence of poverty, and high unemployment rate. We sought an inviting and nonthreatening site. A recreation center met the criteria, and the mayor's office was enthusiastic about cooperating with us. Everyone saw the potential for the community to benefit. The low cost of using a recreation center - at the community nonprofit rate - allowed City Academy to focus the majority of its resources on program delivery rather than on facility expenditures. The use of a community recreation center also meant that our students gained in their awareness of the neighborhood's needs and concerns. It reinforced the students' sense of belonging to the community.
Every once in a while, a student will ask why we don't build our own building, and that gives us a chance to retell the story about why we chose a recreation center.
Learning. From the time the first student signed up for the Power League, we have worked with each individual wherever he or she is academically. If an 18-year-old is reading at the third-grade level, we begin at the third-grade level. Each student works to develop an individual postsecondary goal and to acquire the skills and knowledge to meet that goal. The local colleges and employers are our guides in establishing meaningful outcomes for students. We have created courses to meet the needs of the students enrolled and of local employers and colleges, and we evaluate the courses we offer every five weeks.
Learning takes place not only at the school but also in the community: at home,at work, in museums, and in theaters. Organizations that promote or are involved in music, drama, the trades, and the sciences become partners with the staff and students to provide community-based experiences and connections for lifelong learning. At least one day a week is devoted to community-based learning experiences, and there is an emphasis on mentored internships.
Classes are small - between two and 10 students - and the overall student-to-staff ratio of 6 to 1 provides students with the opportunity to ask questions, receive attention, and become involved members of the community. …