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Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 27, 2004

A Good Curriculum, Teachers with Passion Add Up to Smart Kids

By GREGORY ROBERTS, Seattle Post-Intelligencer Reporter

TUALATIN, OR — Karen Irving describes her oldest child as dreamy and quiet, a bright kid who wasn't getting the attention he needed in his neighborhood elementary school. She thought about homeschooling him. Then she heard about a charter school opening nearby, one that promised small classes and a carefully structured curriculum. "I went, 'Yay!' " Irving said recently at that school, the M.I.T.C.H. Charter School.

Irving's oldest now is in his third year at M.I.T.C.H., in the fifth grade, and two younger siblings are enrolled in grades one and two. Irving herself is a parent volunteer involved with the school's Core Knowledge curriculum. "I love that my husband and I have a say in the direction the school is taking," she said.

M.I.T.C.H. is the creation of Debi Lorence, 39, a former public and private school teacher who serves as the school's director, or principal. She had talked with a childhood friend about opening a private school, but when Oregon authorized public charter schools in 1999, Lorence grabbed that opportunity. Her friend, who was named Michelle, died of cancer in 1998, and Lorence applied her nickname to the school. The acronym stands for Multi-sensory Instruction Teaching Children Hands-on.

The school opened in a church in fall 2001, with 20 students each in grades K-3. M.I.T.C.H. now counts 162 students in grades K-8 and occupies a former elementary school in the suburban Tigard-Tualatin School District south of Portland, where average elementary class sizes approach 28 students. There's a waiting list for enrollment in most grades at M.I.T.C.H..

The school day runs 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, with art, drama, and music lessons offered on Fridays for a fee. The school collects about $3,500 per pupil in state aid, plus whatever it can attract in government and private grants and contributions.

M.I.T.C.H. students generally outdo their district peers on standardized state assessments. In both reading and math, every single M.I.T.C.H. third-grader met or exceeded standards in 03-04, a record unmatched by any of the district's nine other, bigger elementary schools. The charter school's fourth-graders registered a similar result in reading, while their 95 percent success rate in math trailed only one regular district school.

Oregon doesn't provide statewide statistics on charter school performance, and many of the schools are too new for their standardized tests scores to show up in the 02-03 data, the most recent available from the state Education Department. Of the five schools chartered by the Portland School District and now open, for example, only the K-12 Trillium Charter School is included in the 02-03 report. The school's English and math test scores were higher than the district average.

Asked why M.I.T.C.H. students fare so well, Lorence answered: "It's the curriculum. The curriculum is good because the teachers are passionate about it. Kids are empowered here to be smart because you give them knowledge."

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