A Class of Their Own

When you're standing face to face with a herd of wild buffalo, there are a few things you don't want to hear. Like, for example, what Ranger Kevin says now. “They're stressed out, all right,” he says. “You see how their tails are raised? That means they are a bit agitated by our presence.” Not the news you need when you're walking in front of a line of fifth and sixth graders snaking down through the slushy Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park.

We're going to keep a safe distance, says Ranger Kevin, tall, dressed in government — issue tan, and with a side — parted whoosh of blond hair. To illustrate, he starts back along the line of kids to the other end, leaving me at the head of the class with nothing but 20 yards of open meadow between us and some very pointy — looking horns. I contemplate taking a picture to use as evidence for the impending lawsuit, but then remember what Kevin's pal Ranger Hobie said earlier at our orientation: that camera flashes often provoke bison to charge.

When Kathleen Sullivan, an English teacher at South Boston Harbor Academy, invited me to be a chaperone on the school's trip to Yellowstone, I pictured a long weekend of hot chocolate and hikes along fir — lined trails — not an episode of Crocodile Hunter. When we finally get back to the road, someone asks Ranger Kevin what would have happened if all of the buffalo had charged at once. “You'd be hurt,” he says. I can't imagine what's going through the minds of the students right now. Most have never been out of Dorchester or South Boston, never mind to the Montana wilderness. The girl seated next to me on the plane says she lives in the “projects,” quickly adding, “It's a place to live, not a way of life.” She tells me this is only the second time she's been on a plane. Other students come from similar backgrounds. “The only wildlife I've ever seen is, like, pigeons,” says curly — haired Camille. “The farthest I walked was Broadway,” says Sydney, a raven — haired girl with a pronounced Southie accent. “I don't think I walked for more than an hour and a half in my entire life.”

It's almost inconceivable to imagine an average public school in Boston, never mind one sandwiched between a power plant and a building supply company, offering experiences like these to its students. But South Boston Harbor Academy is a charter school, one of about 50 schools in the state that get public funding but are given the freedom to design their own curricula. Unlike the city's exam schools, they also don't require that students pass a test to get in: Attendance is determined by a random lottery.

In a time of severe budget cuts for public schools (“What Are We Doing to Our Kids,” page 112), charter schools are a source of hot debate in public education. In Boston, parents and teachers protest what they say is the siphoning off of money from public schools, and public officials statewide have bitterly opposed new charter schools in their districts. Amid the mudslinging, however, one thing gets lost: the innovations that these schools are bringing to educating the poorest kids in our society.

The trip to Yellowstone is just the icing on the cake for the students at South Boston Harbor Academy, which enrolls 345 students in grades 5 through 12. At the front door is a sign in cut — out construction paper reading, “Our goal is to get you into college” — a lofty ambition, considering that only one out of every four of these students has a college — educated parent. Everything at this school is dedicated to reversing that trend. College brochures and pennants hang in the hallways. Each homeroom is named after the teacher's alma mater, students are routinely addressed as “doctor,” and college counseling starts in fifth grade. “We want to infuse these kids with college,” says the school's executive director, Brett Peiser. “One of our requirements for graduation is [a college] acceptance letter.” Even the Yellowstone trip was used as a lesson in college prep: Students competed for spaces by filling out applications explaining why they should go and providing two references from parents or teachers.

At six feet two, Peiser towers over the crowds of kids in blue polo shirts and khakis who flood the hallway when the bell rings. He began his career teaching in a large public high school in New York, where he was frustrated by the demands of trying to baby — sit 35 students long enough to actually teach them. “If we set up the whole system again, it wouldn't be like that,” he says. To remedy low rates of homework completion, South Boston Harbor Academy instituted a hotline for parents to check up on their kids at night. If students still don't turn in their assignments, they have to stay after school for “homework club.” And if they're failing, they are required to attend a half — day Saturday school, which last year cut the number of failing students in half. To counter discipline problems, the school set up a system of merits in which homerooms score points based on their discipline and participation for each class. They compete against one another for higher scores and turn in points for pizza parties or trips to Six Flags.

Since the school has existed for only five years, its inaugural class will graduate this year, meaning this will be the first test of whether it achieves its goal of getting all of its students into college. There are, however, other measures of success: Of the more than 50 non — exam schools in Boston, South Boston Harbor Academy ranked first in MCAS scores for 6th — and 8th — grade math and second for 8th — grade history and 10th — grade math and English. Ranking first in those categories was another charter school: Hyde Park's Academy of the Pacific Rim.

Test scores go only so far, however, charter school critics say. The real issue is not the schools' success, or lack thereof, but the resources that they drain from other public schools. “They've funded the expansion of charter schools at a time when class size funding is cut, full — day kindergarten is gone,” state Senator Marc Pacheco has said. “That has very little to do with common sense, and much more to do with ideology.”

Opponents consider charter schools part of a wider assault on public education by right — wing political groups that also back such things as voucher programs and school choice. That perception is reinforced in Massachusetts by the fact that a conservative think tank, the Pioneer Institute, has been behind the majority of recent charter school applications, in places like East Boston, North Adams, and Salem. Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Teachers Association has called for a moratorium on new charter schools until the budget crisis is over. Teachers at charter schools are nonunion, frequently recruited from the ranks of Timberland — wearing alumni of City Year programs, meaning they are inexperienced but idealistic, with a penchant for working long hours, often for lower pay than their union counterparts.

“Schools are never going to be successful if we clock in at 8 and clock out at 3,” counters Peiser, who himself worked 16 — hour days when South Boston Harbor Academy first opened. “Nothing happens without hard work. The reward of seeing the kids do well is worth every minute we spend here.” As for the argument that charter schools take money away from other public schools, Peiser points out that while charter schools receive exactly the same amount in per — pupil operating costs as other public schools (in Boston, $9,506 for each student), charter schools don't get any money for their facilities — including leasing costs — which they are forced to fund through private grants and donations. Of the school's $3.6 million budget this year, Peiser expects to raise $300,000 from public and private grants. “We're not taking money from public schools,” he says. “We are public schools.”

Visiting the Academy of the Pacific Rim, in Hyde Park, you can see right away how the lack of facility money translates. The school is housed in a former carriage factory that now partially serves as a warehouse, and visitors on their way upstairs to the school pass die casts and propane tanks and burly men with goggles operating heavy machinery. The office is there, squeezed behind the “cafetorium,” which provides a place for both morning assemblies and lunch.

Inside the school's hallways, however, it's a different scene. Classrooms with exposed brick walls and newly refinished hardwood floors convey the feel of loft apartments. All over the walls are Chinese scrolls and Buddha figurines, many of them selected by the students themselves: Instead of traveling to Yellowstone, 10 high school students every year at Pacific Rim take a trip to China. All of the students are required to take Mandarin, too, on the assumption that knowledge of Chinese culture will be a key to success in the next decade. But, says director Spencer Blasdale, learning the language has had the unintended consequence of adding to the self — esteem of the students who learn it. “They go home to work on their Mandarin homework, and no one is there to help. It just makes them feel smart.”

Where South Boston Harbor Academy's goal is to get kids into college, the Academy of the Pacific Rim's is to fuse Eastern and Western forms of education. Discipline is strict here, with students standing up before each class to welcome their teachers and those in middle school receiving automatic demerits for failure to do homework. As in Asia, long hours are mandatory: The school year is 210 days, not 180, and students are ordinarily required to stay at school every day until past 4 p.m.

“My first year, I couldn't deal. I was, like, What do you mean I'm still going to school in July?” says Elisa Sequeira, a senior who gives me a tour of the school. “But I'm glad they forced me to stay. Otherwise, I would have been going to one of those horrible schools in Roxbury.” Sequeira is now interning at the Boston Center for the Arts, while her friend Suzie McLellan is heading to China for a year abroad program this year. For McLellan, the decision to stay at the academy was reinforced by a school field trip to a nearby non — charter public high school. “We were shocked by the environment,” she says. “The kids could do whatever they wanted. We felt so much more mature.”

It's this kind of tough love that makes charter schools so interesting. “The structure and discipline absolutely allow for caring, love, and creativity,” says Blasdale, who personally greets each of the students with a handshake when they decamp from the bus every morning. From there, all middle school students attend a daily morning assembly, where a different student is honored each day for exhibiting the spirit of gambatte, a Japanese word that roughly translates to “success through perseverance.”

For Blasdale, this spirit transcends the political battleground where charter school battles are fought. “The loudest voices about charter schools tend to be conservative Republicans, but if you take a step down to the school level, 99 percent of people I work with are liberal or progressive,” says Blasdale. “I look at it from a democratic, with a small 'd,' point of view. Parents have a voice. They can vote with their feet and take their dollars away from schools that don't succeed.”

Advocates are quick to point out that charter schools are not a panacea. But who knows that breathing fresh Montana air or witnessing a bustling Beijing market square won't mean the difference for a student between dropping out and going on to college? After all, if a 12 — year — old who's never been on a plane before can venture into the wilderness and stare down a herd of agitated bison, college should be no sweat. “Every parent I spoke to said this was the most incredible experience their child has ever had,” says Peiser, who is planning more such trips.

I remember my own sixth — grade field trips at a suburban public junior high as montages of crude jokes and young crushes; I certainly can't remember learning anything. But these students spend whole days hiking and snowshoeing, testing the pH at geysers, and identifying animal tracks. Then they sit on blue mats until 10 p.m. learning about food webs and memorizing vocabulary terms like “abiotic” and “chionophila” while their teachers nod off next to them. (A good way to quiet kids down, teachers find, is to tell them that “Mr. Blanding is trying to sleep.”)

Not every public school is able to sponsor a trip like this. But many of the reforms at these schools-college pennants, homework clubs, gambatte ceremonies-don't cost a cent. All they take is the space to step back and look again at what works. Other public schools might find a better way to fight the charter schools in their midst-by adopting some of their practices.