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.

"That's how simple it was," says Jordan, noting that some choices have been made on a somewhat intuitive basis.

Her choices on staffing the school have required some more- complex considerations. She and Marina Bernard Damiba, her principal, spend a lot of time - sometimes up to 20 hours - observing prospective teachers before hiring. For now, they won't consider first-year teachers. They carefully assess the candidate's ability to operate in a low-performing district like the South Bronx.

She adds that they're looking for a certain spirit of commitment. As Jordan put it, "ask not what your school can do for you, but rather what you can do for your school...."

What Jordan brings to the table is a varied professional background and top-flight academic qualifications.

For five years before becoming interested in the charter-school movement, she worked at the Student/Sponsor Partnership (SSP) in New York, matching eighth-graders graduating from New York City public schools with sponsors willing both to mentor the students and pay their tuition at parochial schools.

Jordan says the broad exposure to what works and what doesn't, in both public and parochial school systems, that she gained at SSP has proved invaluable as she has drawn up plans for Bronx Prep. She sees no contradiction between the charter and voucher movements. "They're really the same approach," she insists. "They both bring freedom to the system."

Changing the system is an idea that has intrigued Jordan since her youth. She describes her family roots as "libertarian New Hampshire." But it was as an undergraduate at Brown University in Providence, R.I., she recollects, that "the libertarian side of me met up with the idea of social justice."

Working at SSP added expertise in finance and fund-raising to her set of skills, she says, but she found the work there failed to fill her emotional needs. "I missed the kids," she says. "I wanted to see the same group of kids every day, to know their smaller ups and downs, their victories and challenges."

Perhaps the biggest gap on her rsum is the fact that she has never worked as a classroom teacher. "I do feel insecure about that," she admits. "But less so now that [school principal Ms. Damiba] is on board."

Damiba and Jordan envision a partnership that will allow Jordan to focus on management while Damiba draws on her years as a teacher. Most recently, Damiba was a founding teacher at Kipp Academy in New York, a charter school, and so brings a realistic perspective as to what's involved.

Jordan will serve as a substitute teacher at the school whenever possible, both to help keep costs down and to give herself a chance to learn about life in the classroom.

But some believe the fact that Jordan arrived at Bronx Prep by a route other than the classroom will prove a strength.

"You're talking about the kind of people who would have chosen other career paths - law, medicine - now going into public education," says Jane Martnez, executive director at SSP and a member of the board of trustees of Bronx Prep, of some of those she now sees becoming involved with the charter-school movement.

That's due to the reform element, says Anne Kim, director of the Patron's Program in New York and also a member of the board at Bronx Prep. "[Jordan's] interest in the school comes from an interest in change, in wanting to find a solution to problems."

Jordan's ability to effectively implement change at Bronx Prep remains to be proven. But as she fields questions in both Spanish and English at the afternoon session for parents, her audience seems sufficiently impressed.

One mother who began the meeting by announcing she didn't want her child in a public school of any kind, is now eagerly asking how she can get an application for Bronx Prep.

"It sounds really great," says Monica Acevedo, another mother who rapidly filled out an application. Her nine-year-old son is currently in the neighborhood public school, but she says she's far from satisfied with his experience there.

"I just want what every mother wants," she says. "I want something better for my child."

That's where Jordan says her concern lies. She gets impatient with esoteric debates on educational philosophy. "This school is about the kids, and not about proving a point. Sometimes that gets lost in all the discussion."

But Jordan knows that the degree to which the school succeeds in offering its students a solid education will become clear only with the passage of time.

"Come see me in a year," she says to one well-wisher with a smile. "Then we'll see how I'm doing."

*E-mail marjorie@csmonitor.com (c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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