Magazine Feature

Equality by Design

Three charter schools try new approaches to integration

For veteran St. Paul educator Karen Rusthoven, the multicultural emphasis at Community of Peace Academy rests on a universal "ethic of caring."

Just a few years ago, after some 20 years of teaching in public schools, Anne Alpert sat alone in her South Norwalk, Conn., classroom one day and cried. One of her students, along with his family, had just been thrown out of his house and called on Alpert for help. The sudden death of another student's father created a financial and emotional crisis for that family. Alpert was trying to offer support, believing her students could not possibly learn without it. But she felt unable to tap the resources she needed from the school, which she perceived as primarily interested in its more fortunate students. Finally, she recalls: "I felt I just couldn't do it by myself anymore."

Shortly after, as luck had it, Alpert saw her opportunity. The minute she heard that the Connecticut legislature had passed a law permitting the formation of charter schools, she ran down the hall to colleague Sally Davids and suggested that they apply.

"She said yes and I said, 'Who else shall we get?'" recalls Alpert, now director of Side By Side Community School in South Norwalk. "We sat down and thought about it and called other teachers, and within a few days, they came to my house and we already knew what we wanted the school to be like."

At their respective schools, the five teachers who gathered in Alpert's living room had confronted what Davids, now the 3rd grade teacher at Side By Side, describes as an unwritten institutional rule: "Certain children will succeed, and you work with those children, and certain children -- typically, poor African American children -- will fail, and you pretty much keep them quiet and ignore them."

As the Connecticut teachers saw it, the persistence of this prejudice both demonstrated and helped to explain the failure of desegregation. In response, they set out to create a preK-6 charter school founded on the principle of "true integration," which they say insists upon a respect for differences; gives every student the support they need to succeed; and strives for not merely a diversity of students walking in the door but an equality of achievement when they walk out.

In 1991, Minnesota passed the first charter school plan. Since then, 34 states plus the District of Columbia have followed suit, and more than 1,000 such schools have been established. These charters, granted usually by local or state school boards, provide organizers with a significant amount of freedom from the central bureaucracy, even though the schools still receive public funding and are considered part of the public school system. In exchange for this freedom, the founders must accomplish the goals spelled out in their charter proposal. If they fail, their school will be closed down.

The charter school movement has grown faster than any other major school reform over the past 10 years. Yet it has done so amid significant controversy. Many observers have worried that these "designer" schools will attract the most privileged families and, thereby, further drain traditional public schools of both financial resources and some of their most accomplished students. However, proponents say charter schools give people from different racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds an alternative to mainstream programs that they say have failed to serve their children.

According to a 1998 study by the U.S. Department of Education, the student population in charter schools generally mirrored that of traditional public schools, with one exception: About one out of three charters targeted minority or low-income students. The question remains: Does this represent a step forward, backward or sideways? Some argue that targeting minority and low-income students, even out of the best of intentions, is tantamount to segregation, which the U.S. Supreme Court declared "inherently unequal" in 1954. Others say that such efforts are essential for fostering equality in academic achievement.

The Side by Side Community School in Connecticut and two of its counterparts, the Community of Peace Academy in St. Paul, Minn., and the Accelerated School in Los Angeles, are part of a "movement within a movement" -- charter schools that are re-envisioning "school integration" and, in the process, challenging stereotypes about charter schools themselves.


One Obstacle at a Time

In the early 1990s, California teachers Jonathan Williams and Kevin Sved were just 27 years old and already getting fed up with the system.

"I had read the statistics about African American and Latino youth who were dying and uneducated or undereducated, and I felt like it was a calling for someone like me who made it up from poverty to give back," said Williams, now co-director with Sved of The Accelerated School, a K-6 charter school in South Central Los Angeles. "But we were both very frustrated that instead of doing more for these kids, we were told to do less. We wanted to improve the quality of public education -- to have a new standard for public schools to abide by." So the next logical step, he said, was to break free and test their ideas through a school of their own.

Their plan was to target African American and Latino students who were living in high-crime, low-income neighborhoods -- and then expect the world of them. Employing the model of accelerated schools developed in the mid-1980s by Henry Levin at Stanford University, Williams and Sved vowed not to label any students "slow learners," not to relegate any to remediation classes, and not to slow the pace of classroom lessons to what is often referred to as "the lowest common denominator." Instead, they would teach at a faster pace, use richer material and raise expectations for all children.

When the two teachers talked about their vision, more than a few colleagues were quick to point out their relative youth and inexperience and the many challenges of running any school. But Williams and Sved simply set to work, taking on one obstacle at a time.

"We walked door-to-door to tell parents about the school. And people saw this Black guy, me, and this White guy, Kevin, walking in their community -- wearing suits and ties and talking through iron doors -- and met us with great skepticism," recalls Williams. "They thought, 'What's wrong with my kid?' They wondered if we were the FBI, the CIA or the sheriff. When we let them know that we were public school teachers starting a charter school and that we wanted to invite them to an orientation -- after a sigh of relief -- they were like, 'Wow, we've never had teachers come to us before.'"

Six months later, Williams and Sved had their first class of 50 students and a waiting list of 200 but no building of their own. So they taught in the borrowed Sunday School classrooms of a church whose parishioners had moved out of the community, returning only for weekend services. That meant the teachers had to pack up their classrooms every Friday and unpack them again every Monday, which they did week in and week out, until fashion designer Carol Little donated her $6.8 million corporate headquarters to their effort.

Then in 1998 came more good news: Students at The Accelerated School exceeded the district average on standardized tests in both math and reading. Fourth-grade students, for example, scored 13 points higher than the district average of 27 points in math and 22 points higher than the district average of 23 in reading.

The results, Williams says, attest to the value of raising expectations. While some observers may conclude that the Accelerated School's focus on inner city students perpetuates racial/ethnic segregation, Sved and Williams point out that the targeted populations are those that have been neglected in the traditional public school system.

Furthermore, any "resegregation," Williams emphasizes, is a beginning, not an end. "We believe that if kids have a strong foundation about who they are -- if they can be satisfied with themselves -- then bringing other people in is less of an issue."

Sharing Williams' and Sved's concern for children of color was Karen Rusthoven, a White educator in St. Paul, Minn., who has taught for more than 30 years. The mother of two African American children, Rusthoven says she first realized how poor their prospects were for learning while she was a teacher at a new magnet school.

"As I looked at that school and the way African American families were disregarded -- weren't important, just weren't important -- I remember thinking very certainly 'I don't want my children in a place like that,'" recalls Rusthoven, now principal of the K-7 Community of Peace Academy in St. Paul.

After six years in the public school system, Rusthoven accepted a position as a family-school liaison at a Catholic school, where she discovered a very different atmosphere. "What I noticed was that everyone was equally esteemed -- it had nothing to do with race or economic status -- and I think that had a huge impact on the children," she says.

Rusthoven became convinced that the Catholic school model offered something of value that could be emulated in public education: the practice of holding everyone to a high ethical standard in the way they treat other human beings.

The Community of Peace Academy, co-founded by Rusthoven in 1995, is the outcome of that belief. Its mission is to teach a principle of ethics and caring for others that, Rusthoven argues, is universal to all religions and offers a unique opportunity to transcend differences of all types. The school serves 90 percent students of color: 60 percent Hmong, 27 percent African Americans and 3 percent recent African immigrants.

"From a Eurocentric standpoint," Rusthoven says, "[many people] think that diversity means mixing White people and people of color. But you can have a school that is 100 percent children of color, and it can be very diverse," she says.

In Rusthoven's view, however, the defining emphasis at The Community of Peace is on "ethical" rather than "multicultural" education. "What we try to do here," she says, "is teach an ethic of caring and an ethic of community and an ethic of conflict prevention that is kind of universal."


Children First, Subject Matter Second

Back in Connecticut, on a recent Thursday morning, Anne Alpert arrives at Side by Side shortly before nine. The school's low-income neighborhood is paradoxically located in one of the wealthiest counties in the nation. Alpert comes up the back stairs, laden with bags, and already looking weary from a late-night meeting with parents. But fatigue from 12-hour work days is not enough to dampen the enthusiasm of a director alive with the chance to run a school just the way she and her co-founders believe is right.

Within two minutes after dropping her bags in her office, Alpert accepts a flower from a student for Mother's Day. She gives the girl a hug and finds a vase, apparently forgetting that the flower also needs water. The whirlwind begins.

By 11 o'clock, Alpert's roles have ranged from administrator to nurse to grant writer. Now it's time to teach 5th grade social studies. She tiptoes through a maze of children painting in the second-floor hallway and enters Room 204. Calling the class to the meeting area -- a blue rug -- she asks the 16 children to settle down, asks again, then picks up where yesterday's class left off -- with a discussion of the religious beliefs of a local Native American tribe, the Wampanoag.

One of the students, she recalls, had cleverly hypothesized that because the Wampanoag bury tools with their dead, they may believe that their afterlife will be similar to their current life. But, Alpert suggests, since that was only an educated guess, the students may want to ask about the custom when they take their class trip to a Wampanoag reservation.

"There will be real Indians there?" an African American boy named Roger says in a slightly agitated voice.

"There will be real Wampanoag, yes," says Alpert.

"If they try to kill me, I'll run," Roger declares.

Alpert asks if everyone heard what he said, then asks why Roger might have said that.

A White student says, "Well, if I did something wrong, like steal something, they might come after me."

"Why would you go to a reservation thinking you might steal something?" Alpert asks. Then she turns to the class and prods: Why do they think Native Americans might come after them? Why do people talk like that about Native Americans?

"Because they're frightened," a girl offers.

"Why do you think they're frightened?" Alpert continues, and, suddenly, the class is propelled into an unplanned 20-minute discussion about television images of Native Americans; the meaning of "prejudice"; and the impossibility of making accurate generalizations about groups.

There is, in truth, little novelty in Alpert's methods or the content of the class discussion. Many teachers, after all, are sensitive to prejudices and apt to deconstruct them with their students. So what makes this charter school unusual? Among the reasons is that all the teachers here share the same frame of philosophy about teaching and approach instances of disrespect with more or less the same level of conviction.

Whenever a disrespectful comment is made, says kindergarten teacher Amy Olver, "It's like, 'Stop everything! This is important. Let's really talk about how we're interacting here.'"

This insistence on respect for all differences -- and the right of all students to succeed -- came to a happy fruition in Carole Oddie's 5th grade class on a recent afternoon when her students gathered to listen to Alan, who is autistic, recite a fairy tale.

Taking a seat in front, Alan looked at two paper puppets on his lap and began: "This is the story of 'The Tortoise and the Hare.' The tortoise was a friendly fellow," he said, lifting the tortoise puppet, dropping his voice very low and narrating slowly, "Hel-lo."

"The hare," he continued in a rapid high voice, "was a busy fellow: Buzz. Zip. 'Hey tortoise, how are you doing?' Beee-oooo," he added in a perfect rendition of a cartoon rabbit scurrying on its way.

For the next five minutes, Alan -- who only two years ago barely spoke to his classmates -- sang and hummed in an easy rhythm, displaying a mastery of inflection that actors might train years to achieve. His classmates' delight in both the story and the storyteller certified the teachers' belief that helping each student succeed -- in this case, through a combination of one-on-one instruction, classroom participation and Oddie's gentle lessons in respect for developmental differences -- can also benefit others.

It was this kind of outcome that the five founding teachers dreamt of when they first met in Alpert's living room. They also wanted a school in the progressive tradition that would consider children first and subject matter second. Assignments, they agreed, should not require children to tap resources at home, which can vary from plentiful to nonexistent. Rather, the school should provide all students with the same materials and in-class support.

Among the most important questions was how to make their school a viable option for low-income working parents who could ill afford choosing between paying for child care and leaving work early. Their solution was to keep their doors open to students from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and charge parents who dropped their children off early just $1 a day. To make ends meet, Alpert says, they simply planned a strategy of "writing grants up the gazoo."

In contrast to The Accelerated School and The Community of Peace Academy, Side by Side's founders chose to actively recruit a more racially as well as socioeconomically diverse student population than existed in most surrounding schools. Their goal was to fill 60 percent of the approximately 175 seats with students of color. Further, 60 percent of the total seats would be distributed among students from low-income families.


An Enthusiastic Community Response

With their plan hammered out, the teachers next promoted their vision in all the communities they wanted to attract, giving talks in African American churches in South Norwalk, the local community center and the public libraries of predominantly White suburbs. Their pitch, among other things, was that students of color and students from low-income backgrounds deserved a better educational experience than they were getting, and that White students deserved a good education in an environment that reflected -- and respected -- the diversity of the real world.

The response was overwhelming. In 1997-98, there were 456 lottery applicants for the first 140 places. In 1998-99, there were 357 applicants for just 33 new spots.

Julie Sharp drives 20 minutes from the wealthy and largely White suburb of Westport to send her son, Isaac, to Side By Side. "I knew that being in a diverse environment was a valuable experience and that my kids were certainly not getting that experience in Westport," she says.

The obvious embrace of differences also encourages parents like Maria Gomez, an immigrant from Colombia, to get more involved in her sons' school. "When my children were in another school, I never participated in anything because I don't speak good English and I was scared," she says. "Here I know almost every parent."

At this point, it is still too soon to judge where the efforts being made in these three schools are headed: whether they will succeed or fail in achieving academic excellence and "true integration," and whether they, along with others, will inspire changes in more schools or be changed by the pressures of keeping their own schools open. But in each case, the founders remain boldly optimistic and ambitious.

"What we want here is the society we've always dreamed about," Anne Alpert says. "We know we can't have it today, and we may never actually get there. But the process is evolving."

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