July 23, 2008

Pinnacle of Success in Education

By Donn Esmonde

On Monday morning, Shauntia invited a visitor to play a board game she created. Each player rolls the dice, moves a marker to a space and takes a question card. The visitor's card read: Harriet Tubman.

"Tell me what Harriet Tubman did?" asked Shauntia, a friendly kid with a wide smile.

The visitor mentioned civil rights.

"She led people to freedom," explained Shauntia, "on the Underground Railroad."

Not every day is about board games in Kevin Doucet's seventh- grade social studies class. But Shauntia and some 460 other kids at Pinnacle Charter School, on the edge of downtown near the Kensington Expressway, are used to different ways of learning.

The argument over whether it works is over.

Pinnacle and the city's 11 other charter schools, on average, outperformed Buffalo's traditional public schools in recent state testing. It was more evidence that charter schools, when run by the right people, give kids like Shauntia a better shot at success.

Charters are free of the rules and regulations that tie teachers' hands in traditional public schools. At Pinnacle, that means everything from a longer school day to smaller class sizes. It means school uniforms -- khakis and polo shirts -- to cut clothes-related distractions. It means regular doses of art, music, gym and foreign language. It means an in-house nurse, special-ed teachers and reading instructors. It means teaching everything from sewing to deciphering cell phone bills. Instead of one-size-fits-all, lessons are shaped to fit each kid.

In a school where nearly nine of every 10 kids are poor enough to get free lunches, in a place where many first-day kindergartners do not know the names of colors, every teacher needs a full box of tools. At Pinnacle and other charter schools, they get it.

"None of our kids falls through the cracks," said Heidi Rotella, Pinnacle's principal and co-founder.

Rotella, 37, is a can-do mass of eagerness who greets kids by name in the hallway while dropping terms like "flexible grouping" and "data-driven instruction." She left an administrative job in Lancaster schools for the chance to change the lives of inner-city kids. It is the same reason why one-quarter of Pinnacle's teachers traded tenured jobs at traditional schools for Pinnacle's one-year contracts.

"We give teachers the flexibility they want," said Rotella, "and the tools that they need."

Teachers in the city need every tool they can get. Like many urban areas, Buffalo is the regional warehouse for the poor. It is filled with parents who cannot afford private schools or a move to the suburbs. It is stuffed with kids who live on streets that many of us would not even drive down. A lot of these kids grow up with no books in the house and with TV as a surrogate parent. It is like lining up for a race 50 yards behind the starting line.

Charter schools were created largely to reach kids who need massive doses of help. Teachers have to pull out all of the stops to bring them up to speed. Charter schools, freed of the bureaucracy that straitjackets teachers in traditional schools, are hothouses of innovation.

It is no coincidence that the reforms creeping into traditional public schools -- school uniforms, in-school social workers, corporate partnerships -- started at charter schools. Competition from charters pressured traditional public schools to change. James Williams, Buffalo's superintendent, is pushing for a longer school year. Pinnacle and other charters already have it.

The changes are a good thing, for kids who need help the most.

Just ask Shauntia, and the 460 other kids at Pinnacle. Then check their test scores.

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Originally published by NEWS STAFF REPORTER.

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