- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 24, 2000

Enrollment in the District of Columbia's charter schools has grown sharply this year, a phenomenon advocates cite as evidence of a "revitalization" of education in the city.

The number of students in the experimental, publicly funded schools rose roughly 40 percent this year to 9,828 students. Traditional public schools in the District lost 1,784 students again this fall, according to the Friends of Choice in Urban Schools (FOCUS).

Supporters of the movement believe the decentralized control encourages students, parents, teachers and principals to create better schools.

"There is a deep well of demand by parents for better education," said Robert Cane, executive director of FOCUS. "Significant numbers of kids are coming in. Charters are beginning to transform public education in the District."

Mr. Cane said about 13 percent of the District's school population is enrolled in charter schools, which have the freedom to structure their curriculum and programs with minimal oversight or interference by central administrators.

Critics of the charter movement contend the schools siphon off students and resources from public schools, but D.C. Schools Superintendent Paul Vance said yesterday that he doesn't view the charters as a threat.

"These are public charter schools, and public is the important word," said Mr. Vance, who has been described by charter advocates as "more friendly" toward charters than his predecessor, Arlene Ackerman.

"As long as they are public education charters, I don't feel an overt threat. I see parents as sending us a message that they are desperate to find acceptable ways to educate their children. That is a serious challenge for us," he said.

Since three D.C. charter schools first opened four years ago, 30 more have followed, including six in September. Six more are expected to open next fall.

The curriculum varies from school to school, with some focusing on liberal arts, others on math, technology or the arts.

So far, there are few statistics on exactly where the students who attend charters are coming from. According to Nelson Smith of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, more than 70 percent of charter enrollees came from D.C. schools. The rest are a combination of students from private and parochial schools, other jurisdictions and dropouts. The organization is currently performing their second enrollment audit to try to determine this information.

"The overall enrollment gains are exciting," said Mr. Smith. "It shows that there is a growing confidence, that there is an alternative model that really works. And they can be part of the revitalization of public schools in the District."

Others say the movement away from public schools is evidence the District still has to work to do to improve the performance and the image of its schools.

"We were in a crisis situation with plummeting test scores and horrific school repairs," said school spokeswoman Denise Tann. "We have a reputation we have to overcome. But we are transforming and that, along with the word getting out about our good programs, will probably lead to enrollment rising."

Erika Landberg of D.C. Voice, an education advocacy group, said the proliferation of charters illustrates another important fact: that a number of parents are involved in their children's education.

"People are looking for new, and they hope, better education opportunities for their children," she said. "That's why they are choosing charters, even without knowing much about them."

But she cautioned that, "we don't know yet how well charters are doing. As we learn more in the next year or two, that will affect their growth rates. The jury is still out on whether they are doing well or not."

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