TRIALS BY FIRE
DEBORAH SPRINGPEACE didn't realize it, but in July 1996 she was beginning the wildest ride of her life. She had agreed to launch the Seven Hills Charter School (an Edison Project school) in a depressed section of Worcester, Massachusetts. Fortunately, this was not her first time on the education speedway. Certified in three states, Springpeace had taught English in a big inner-city high school, at a halfway house for juvenile offenders, at a Catholic school, and in suburban public schools. She had also been an assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction and served as a middle school principal for a decade. But nothing quite prepared her for Seven Hills.
The most pressing problem was opening the school three months before its building was ready. That meant spending the first quarter year in two temporary (and substandard) sites, while an ambitious $4.7 million renovation project proceeded at the school's permanent location, an abandoned, century-old school building. Organizational homelessness brought many woes, especially in student discipline, aggravating the fact that the school was flooded by children with special needs. To this day, parents insist that nearby schools waged a quiet campaign to "dump problem kids" on Seven Hills, even filling out charter applications for some troublesome youngsters to offload them. Meanwhile, the local district took its time in forwarding records of special-education children. (The day one of us visited Seven Hills in May 1998, the charter school received one child's "individual education plan," requested the previous September.)
Combine an inadequate facility and a lot of youngsters with severe behavior problems and disabilities and you have a real challenge. At first, Seven Hills teachers struggled just to maintain order. Children fought, bit, and kicked. Suspensions were many. This was not the oasis of learning that the school's founders had envisioned—and had promised the community.
Many lessons can be drawn from the birth trauma of Seven Hills, above all the fact that launching a charter school isn't easy. Yet Seven Hills was luckier than some. It is now thriving. Other charter schools have been