By DAVID HUNN, ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
ST. LOUIS — Every day, Madame Chou Chou escorts a lunch delivery crew down the hall of the new St. Louis Language Immersion Schools on Papin Street, just south of the Central West End.
Out front, the crew may joke and gab. But as the men pass the front desk with food for the school's 180 students, their lips must zip.
Lunch lady Elizabeth McGowan, or Madame Chou Chou as she is known in The French School there, has carefully explained that English is simply not tolerated past the entry hall.
Only French is spoken in The French School. And Spanish in The Spanish School. Even e-mails and phone calls among staffers must follow the rule.
St. Louis Language Immersion Schools opened last week, one of three new charter schools in St. Louis this year, and an example of a new kind of creativity arriving in the city in recent years.
A Montessori charter. A community school with just 15 students in each class. A work-study school for dropouts. And an academy that keeps kids in class until dark, teaches math through chants, and brings students back on Saturdays.
Together, the schools signal a new era for the St. Louis charter school movement.
And maybe the fulfilling of a decade-old promise.
"We're seeing some very, very creative ideas entering the charter world," said Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota, who is a national expert on innovation in public schools. "We're seeing some really fundamentally new approaches to organizing teaching and learning."
Ten years ago, advocates said independently run charter schools would be classroom test-kitchens, teacher laboratories, experiments for public education. Unencumbered by union contracts, long-standing district bureaucracy and many of the rules most schools must follow, they could try things that had never been done.
And, in some places, innovation happened. But, here, that vision has been but partly realized.
Charter schools have boomed in St. Louis, growing from four campuses in 2000 to 21 this year. By last year, about 10,000 students had enrolled, or more than one-fourth of the city's total public school population.
Yet for all of their popularity, few really broke from traditional models.
Jocelyn Strand, the state's director of charter schools, said there have been "pockets of innovation," but little widespread creativity in charters.
She pointed to Académie Lafayette in Kansas City, a language immersion program that has long been considered one of the best schools in the state, and even helped St. Louis' program get off its feet. And she highlighted the Construction Careers Center here, which opened in 2001 and trains students in traditional subjects as well as in hands-on, workshop-based construction trades.
But suddenly, this year, St. Louis has a few unique schools — with signs of more to come.
Three years ago, those who worked on the charter school movement here were growing tired of troubles in the schools — known mostly for a few cases of corruption, leader infighting and standardized test scores far below state averages.
Charter association leaders and the St. Louis mayor's office joined to create a new application process, run through the mayor's office, to attract better schools.
At the same time, such groups and others were massaging interest among education and community leaders, urging some to start promising schools.
Last year, City Garden Montessori Charter School opened just north of Tower Grove Park. It brought the century-old Montessori model, focusing on small lessons, self-directed students and hands-on activities. Parents loved it, and the school grew from 50 pupils last year to 80 this year.
KIPP Inspire Academy opened this summer, after more than a year of fanfare, in a former Catholic school next to St. Francis de Sales on Gravois Avenue in Fox Park.
By late July, fifth-graders already had settled into the long-hours, no-excuses Knowledge Is Power Program, chanting and gesticulating in precise routines meant to boost math memory, among other things. School leader Jeremy Esposito plans to add a grade each year until he has 340 fifth- through eighth-graders.
And the Northside Community School opens today, with four classes, six teachers, about 60 kindergartners and first-graders, and a board president who doubles as janitor. The school, at North Kingshighway and Natural Bridge Avenue, plans to enroll no more than 270 through fifth grade — and only students from the neighborhood around it.
But this is just the beginning. Plans are well-developed for three schools next year.
One — Shearwater Education Foundation — is targeting pregnant mothers, homeless teens and emancipated foster care youth, among others. Founder Stephanie Krauss has said she hopes the school will encourage academic experimentation, research and innovation.
Nelson Smith, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, warned, however, that simply being different doesn't constitute success.
"The first thing to remember," he said, "is giving kids an excellent education in a neighborhood where they haven't had one may be the best innovation of all."
Even so, charter school advocates, including Smith, hope charter innovation will force traditional public schools to improve, too.
There are signs that it's already happening in pockets across the country.
School districts have mimicked charter leadership, spawning "pilot schools" in Los Angeles, Chicago and, this year, St. Louis, that offer independence and autonomy to principals.
Districts all over are talking about lengthening school days after watching KIPP's success.
And here, schools such as St. Louis Language Immersion offer a hope that's largely eluded the city for years:
That schools would be so good, they'd attract families from the suburbs.
"So when you talk about the promise charters can provide, we have families who want to send their kids to public schools in the city of St. Louis," said Robbyn Wahby, the mayor's education aide. "That's what we want to hear."
Jael Lippert, a mother from Kirkwood, carefully tracked the immersion school's progress after she heard this winter it would open, and then enrolled her son Zane as soon as she possibly could. "I love everything French!" she said. "I was so excited!"
Her husband was hesitant at first, she said, worried about the utter exclusion of English from the school day.
But, last week, teachers said children already were picking up words.
One day, a boy in a white dress shirt and short tie bolted for the front door — shoeless.
A teacher called down the hall after him:
"Tes chaussures! Tes chaussures!"
The boy didn't notice, at first.
The teacher kept calling.
Then, finally understanding the words were meant for him, the boy turned.
And there stood the teacher, one foot raised, pointing at his shoe.