National News

The Oregonian, July 25, 2008

Money available to help new charter schools get going


Citing Oregon's track record of holding charter schools accountable for results, the U.S. Department of Education gave Oregon a $9.5 million grant Thursday to help spawn more charter schools across the state.

Oregon is one of five states chosen in the latest round of federal grants to aid charter schools, which are public schools that are free to break the mold and offer distinctive programs under a contract, or charter, with their local school board.

Doug Mesecar, an assistant deputy secretary in the U.S. Department of Education, said the 88 charter schools are not a lot compared with other states, but Oregon stands out for holding charter schools accountable and getting strong test scores in most of them.

The schools range from back-to-basics elementary schools where students wear uniforms and drill on math and reading to "hippie"-style schools using open-ended, project-based approaches, says Kaaren Heikes, executive director of the Northwest Center for Educational Options, an Oregon nonprofit center that supports charter schools.

Most have long waiting lists of families who want in, she said. And nearly all of them meet or beat the test scores of traditional schools serving similar students, Heikes said.

But, unlike ordinary public schools, if they don't deliver, they can be closed, she said. If families don't choose to enroll or a school board ends the contract, the school goes out of business.

That's what happened in the high-profile case of Victory Middle School, which operated for three years inside the Blazers Boys & Girls Club in Northeast Portland. The state yanked its charter in 2006 after determining the school wasn't helping students make enough progress in reading or math.

Just a mile away from where Victory failed, another charter school that aims to serve African American middle schoolers in need of options -- SEI Academy, run by the youth-serving agency Self Enhancement Inc. -- is thriving.

The school, which serves 150 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, is headed into its fifth year. It met all its federal performance targets in reading and math. And, if a group of seventh-graders who attended Thursday's grant announcement can be believed, the teachers are so amazing that students can't wait for summer break to end so they can get back to school.

"You learn a lot more" than in a regular school, said Daytreiona Jackson. "They teach us through games and activities and trips. We look forward to it."

Omari Dorris found elementary school "boring" and admits he didn't always behave. "And I didn't always finish my homework and write enough," he said.

Coming to SEI Academy for sixth grade changed him profoundly and for the better, he says. The school is structured to help him behave and perform well, he says, and the expectations for writing -- always in complete sentences, summaries must be at least two paragraphs long -- are clearly laid out and always enforced.

His writing now lives up to those expectations almost automatically, he says. "You get used to doing it all the time," he said. "I start writing off the page."

The grant money headed to Oregon won't help SEI. It's destined for new charter schools, where it will be used mainly to pay charter school proponents to plan for new schools, then to buy books, train teachers, write curriculum and take other steps to get schools running.

A school can qualify for $50,000 in planning money, then as much as $450,000 for training, materials and other startup costs.

Nearly all the charter schools operating in Oregon have relied on similar federal grants.

SEI students say they're grateful that their school got help in the past and don't mind that the new millions won't come their way.

"A lot of other people should have options like this, too," said seventh-grader Tressina Eddinger.

Betsy Hammond: 503-294-7623; betsyhammond@

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