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Good Reasons To Push Charter Schools

By Stan Simpson
February 2, 2005

It's the oldest trick in education: If you're not acing the tests, try establishing a rapport with the class brainiac. If that doesn't work, well, copying is always an option.

New York City has decided not to reinvent the wheel in figuring out how to improve test scores. It's just going to lift the strategies of the acclaimed Amistad Academy in New Haven and open three new Amistad charter schools in the fall.

Amistad has become a national model for its results in educating urban youth and narrowing the achievement gap between white students and their African American and Latino peers. Consistently, mastery test scores at the New Haven middle school exceed the state average in reading, writing and math and compare favorably with most of its well-heeled suburban neighbors.

Of course, the plan was for Connecticut - where the achievement gap is one of the widest in the country - to be the primary beneficiary of Amistad's expansion plans. The Amistad learning model features extended school days, structured, literacy-laced curriculum and a school culture that celebrates achievement.

But limited state funding and enrollment caps put a damper on things, though this year Amistad did open the Elm City College Preparatory School for 150 kindergarten, first- and fifth-graders.

New York countered with an offer that was too enticing to resist - up to $10,000 in per-pupil funding, free buildings and no enrollment caps.

I wrote about the possibility of New York orchestrating such a rug-pulling scenario last year. New York Schools Chancellor Joel Klein had launched his plan to create 50 new charter schools over the next several years. Shortly thereafter, quiet conversations were conducted with the Amistad folks.

Tuesday, in a packed legislative meeting room, lawmakers and charter school advocates talked about the need to increase Connecticut's investment in its 14 charter schools. Nothing like a little competition, huh?

House Speaker James Amann promised that there would be an increase in the number of charter schools next year and said that the legislature will make it a higher priority. Democratic and Republican leaders alike said Amistad is one of a number of successful state charter schools that should be rewarded for improving student achievement.

"We ought not be exporting any of that success to any other state," said Sen. Thomas Gaffey. "We ought to keep it right here in Connecticut. As a policy, we need to start investing in success."

The charters - publicly funded schools run independently and autonomously - are actually a victim of their success. Several years ago, charter school advocates boasted that they could run schools in a more efficient manner with less public money.

Well, many, including ones in Norwich and Bridgeport, have done just that. The reality, though, is they have overachieved to do more with less.

"The charter system needs to be brought to the world. It's very consistent, and it revolves around wanting to do [school] work," says Dunmark Allman, 16, a junior at the Bridge Academy charter school in Bridgeport. As an elementary school student, Allman was diagnosed as needing "special education." Now, he's on track to graduate on time and he plans to attend college.

"I don't know what I'd do if I couldn't have sent him to a charter school," said his stepmother, Mildred Jack, who attended Tuesday's meeting with her son. Last year, 100 percent of the Bridge Academy seniors were accepted to college.

That's the kind of success New York wants a piece of.

If Tuesday's coalition of lawmakers, business people, students and parents is any indication, Connecticut is going to assert itself more.

And it ought to.

Stan Simpson's column appears Wednesdays and Saturdays. He can be reached at ssimpson@courant.com.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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