- The Washington Times - Friday, March 23, 2001

There is more than one way to skin a cat, as the saying goes. Likewise, there is more than one way to educate children. Yet in America's capital city, the word "voucher" is profane and charter schools the bane of the status quo.

Interestingly, the initial argument against charter schools that they would siphon-off the best and the brightest students has not happened. What has happened, though, is a ripple effect. Not only are charter schools popular with parents, but teachers and principals are as well. Each year scores of educators are realizing that the one-size-fits-all philosophy of public education does not necessarily support successful learning environments and that reflects on the teaching profession as a whole. Small wonder, then, there is a public school teacher shortage.

Charter schools and schools run by such national for-profits as Edison Schools Inc. ask educators to take the blinders off and a different approach. As a result, students in Edison and charter schools are doing better their than peers in traditional schools. Moreover, teachers like what they see.

"Overall, the academic climate of the Edison schools is positive and the classroom culture promotes learning," according to a recent study funded by the National Education Association and conducted by Columbia University's Teacher's College. "Most Edison schools are safe, orderly and energized."

That schools be conducive to learning should be a given. However, learning often takes a back seat to many other things as teachers busy themselves with more than lesson plans and chalk boards. In many D.C. schools, principals, themselves under pressure from central administrators, force unnecessary paperwork and bureaucratic chores on teachers that have little to do with helping Melissa read or teaching Johnny his multiplication tables.

Charter schools operate differently. Free from the usual bureaucratic mandates that overwhelm traditional public schools, charter schools spend their money on not just textbooks, but computers and other technologies that benefit students and teachers alike. Also, Edison "teachers appreciate the professional development opportunities they have at an Edison school," the NEA-Columbia study says. "The investment Edison makes in its professional staff is striking. This investment results in high morale."

It is not at all surprising to hear such accolades for "independent" schools being sung by the nation's largest union of teachers. Perhaps that is because many teachers at Edison schools and at other charter schools in the country are themselves former and exceptional public school teachers and principals who were simply fed up with demands on their time. Others were lured by the challenge to create a "safe, orderly and energized" school.

One such principal is Linette Adams, a former D.C. school principal and now founding principal of the Edison-Friendship Collegiate Academy-Woodson Campus in Northeast Washington. Located in a schoolhouse closed nearly two decades ago, it fell to Ms. Adams to oversee renovations, staffing and academic programs for the fall 2000 opening of the Woodson campus. Like other abandoned schools, Woodson was an eyesore and was frequented by druggies and the like. While Woodson is in an ideal location, across the street from a Metrorail station, bus junction and on a major corridor, D.C. school officials had no plans to use the building. Still they resisted turning it over for charter school use.

One of the reasons charter schools are able to flourish academically and open so quickly is because they often use old school buildings, which have the necessary infrastructure, labs, classrooms and office space already in place. Costs, however, can be high. Edison, for example, spent $33 million renovating Woodson and three other closed schools. By comparison, the cost of one new traditional high school can be as much as $50 million, according to DCPS consultants.

Mayor Williams likes what he sees in charter schools in general and in Edison schools in particular. He likes it so much he wants Edison to manage a handful of the city's worst-performing schools. (I think there should be five times that amount.) "We need to look at other ways," the mayor said in a recent meeting with editors and reporters of The Washington Times. Of course, he articulated far more than that. But those seven words "We need to look at other ways" get the important point across.

To be sure, those other ways include charter schools because at the rate public schools are converting to charter schools, somebody's got to look at the other ways fast.

Here's another reason why. A teacher at Wilson Elementary in Northeast doesn't understand why an unruly youngster remains in her schoolhouse. The teacher, who instructs second- and third-graders, complained on numerous occasions to her principal that the boy constantly disrupts the class. Fortunately, he hasn't brought a gun to school, or drawn up a hit list, or tried to douse his classmates with gasoline. Then again if he had, he would have been kicked out of school for breaking the law. Individual teachers, on the other hand, have no influence on policy. This particular teacher has only been on the payroll since last school year. Don't be surprised if she packs up her crayons and gets a job with Edison or another charter school.

Mr. Williams and other reform-minded folks know they are rubbing against D.C. tradition, because school officials say they can turn those troubled schools around themselves. But, hey, they've been saying that since I graduated from Anacostia High School.

However, they haven't turned them around yet, and there is little evidence to support their argument today. So, if D.C. school officials don't have a plan, the bottom line is Edison does. The children, their parents and the educators are willing. All that's missing is a schoolhouse.

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