There could hardly have been a more glorious day for the Bronx
Preparatory Charter School.
Despite numbing December temperatures, the school's chorus sang
spiritedly as founder Kristin Kearns Jordan, shovel in hand, smiled
for the TV cameras and then turned over a chunk of soil in an empty
lot, making way for a new state-of-the-art home for her school.
This was not Bronx Prep's first moment in the limelight.
Educators, parents, and state officials had already thrilled to the
tale of the lively new charter school for low-income students that,
within a year, had its young charges sporting crisp uniforms,
playing violins in the school orchestra, and watching their math and
reading scores fly upward.
But in some respects, the groundbreaking serves as a symbol for
the charter-school movement as a whole. Having hit the 10-year mark
in 2002, the movement is putting down roots and making plans to
Across the country, a number of charters are outgrowing their
original settings in church basements or storefronts and redefining
themselves as established schools in more traditional school
For the moment, such clear-cut examples of forward motion remain
the exception rather than the rule.
But despite a wide variety in charter schools' degrees of
success, some experts say the changes they'll make to public
education in the long run may be far more dramatic than can yet be
Successes and failures
The nation's first charter school - a public school that accepts
greater freedom from bureaucracy in exchange for a promise to
perform at or above local standards - opened its doors in Minnesota
Since then, the movement has spawned some exciting success
stories. Particularly in urban areas - where such stories were badly
needed - high-profile charters moved into low-income neighborhoods
and proved that they could take the same kids and, with less public
money, produce better results.
In suburban and more affluent areas, some newly opened charters
have made less of a dent in standardized test scores, but they have
still achieved major gains in terms of parental satisfaction.
Yet, at the same time, the movement's failures have been making
plenty of headlines of their own. Some schools have been poorly run,
while others have been denounced as out-and-out frauds. There have
been tales of charters that abruptly shut midterm after breaking
every promise they had made.
Equally discouraging have been reports such as the one released
this September by the Brookings Institution's Brown Center on
American Education in Washington. A survey of 376 charter schools in
10 states looked at standardized test scores and found that the
charters in four states were performing worse than the traditional
public schools surrounding them. In the remaining six states, their
performance was "indistinguishable" from the average.
The real truth, say some observers, is that as yet there are no
absolute truths about the charter-school movement.
"I've been in tens of charters that have clear instructional
intention, that communicate wonderfully with parents, and that have
a real sense of what they're about," says Paul Hill, director of the
Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of
Washington in Seattle. "And I've been in some that are absolutely
Some charter schools are conservative, back-to-basics academies,
heavy on discipline, character education, and learning by drill.
Others are arts- focused instructional centers designed to appeal to
creative teens who prefer a potter's wheel to an algebra textbook.
Still others adopt a theme curriculum, such as an Afrocentric blend
of Swahili and drumming alongside spelling and multiplication.
Bronx Prep (which started off in 2000 in a church rectory) relies
heavily on spending more time on academics and on raising