Public schools. Standardized testing. These are subjects that stir strong emotions and heated debate. But what if parents could chose a public school that tailored the curriculum to meet each student’s individual needs? What if schools used standardized test scores to assess ways to improve the curriculum rather than to determine which schools are failing? MERYL FEINER reports on two public charter schools in Brooklyn that are trying to do just that. Housed in a former Pfizer headquarters in Williamsburg, the Beginning with Children School opened its doors in 1992 and converted to charter status in September 2001. The school now serves 450 students from kindergarten through eighth grade. In Fort Greene, the Community Partnership Charter School (CPC) was established in September 2000 and this year, it will have 200 students in kindergarten through third grade.
As charter schools, these schools receive lower per pupil funding than traditional public schools, and are supported largely by private funds. They are not under the jurisdiction of the city but receive some city school services, including school busses and hot lunches. Charter schools have their own Boards of Trustees and report directly to the State Department of Education.
“Supporters of charter schools are advocates for public education that sets a standard and holds people accountable,” says Mimi Corcoran, executive director of the Manhattan-based Beginning With Children Foundation (BWC), which runs the Brooklyn schools. Corcoran explains that charter schools are continuously monitored to ensure they are following their stated mandate.
Following a mandate, however, does not rule out change. “The curriculum at BWC is under constant review,” says Sonia Ortiz-Gulardo, principal of the Beginning with Children School. “We stress to the staff that they have to be very flexible because we tailor the curriculum to the needs of the children.”
Ortiz-Gulardo explains that the school uses standardized test scores “to diagnose strengths and weaknesses,” and adds: “We don’t teach to the test; we use the test results to guide what we teach.”
A visitor to BWC, which is located in District 14, sees immediately why parents enter a lottery to enroll their children. The old Pfizer building is not your typical city school structure. While the school has neither gym nor auditorium, the classrooms are bright and airy, and there are a modern, well-stocked library, an art room and two science labs. The hallways are adorned with kindergartners’ Family Books and student poetry and artwork.
“It’s an environment where kids want to be,” says Ortiz-Gulardo. “It’s comfortable, attractive and engaging.”
And the children are engaged. On one particular day, a visitor saw kindergartners observing earthworms on paper plates, a class of fifth-graders working on Civil War journals from both the northern and southern perspectives, and a group of fourth graders learning about the digestive system
Since students are accepted through random lottery, the population is varied in terms of background and abilities. At BWC, 15 percent of the students have special needs, according to Ortiz-Gulardo.
As is often the case with charter schools, the idea for forming the Community Partnership Charter School originated about four years ago with a group of parents dissatisfied with their existing options. According to Kenya Jiu, one of the parents involved in the founding of CPC, the first step was to reach out to the community to determine the level of interest. To do this, parents held “charter school initiative meetings” in churches and local community centers.
“After we determined there was significant interest, we approached local politicians,” Jiu says, adding that after about a year, the group got the Beginning With Children Foundation involved. “We chose them because they were already working with the school in Williamsburg.”
CPC principal Ellen Rice says the school takes a community-integrated approach, “We learn as much from each other as with each other. We teach children to see how everything relates to the larger world,” she says.
The community approach extends to the parent body. The school has a Parent-Teacher Community Cooperative that, Rice says, “is much more involved than the typical PTA.” On a tour of the school, parents can be found helping out in the lunchroom and lending a hand in the classroom. Each Friday the school invites parents into their children’s classrooms for family reading time.
Since the CPC School is still in its infancy, there is much work to be done setting up the curriculum. “We have a curriculum working group,” says Rice. “Parents, teachers and students are creating together.”
Parents seem to appreciate Rice’s open-door policy and her willingness to work with individual families. “She [Rice] looks at whoever is affecting the child and brings them in so the child feels safe,” says Jiu.
Corcoran says opponents of charter schools feel these schools are taking funds away from traditional public schools. She argues that if public schools are failing, “What’s to harm?” Charter schools, she adds, “set the bar a little differently. Educators have to think imaginatively and be willing to make changes. The system cannot be punitive if something is not working.”
The BWC Foundation was founded by Carol Reich, a Ph.D. in developmental psychology, and Joseph Reich, an investment banker, in 1989. The couple had sponsored a group of children through college in connection with the I Have a Dream Foundation, according to Corcoran.
“They saw they could make a difference,” she continues, “but they wanted to get kids as early as possible to do the most good.” The Reichs partnered with Pfizer and the late Board of Education to form the Beginning With Children School.
Today the foundation takes on most of the business management and fundraising for the schools, says Corcoran. As for the continuous assessment and reporting required under the State charter laws, she adds: “We are their back office. We have an enormous R&D department that provides the statistics the schools need.”