NCREL's Policy Briefs

Charter Schools:
A New Breed of Public Schools

Report 2, 1993

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Reflections on the Nation's First Charter School

St. Paul City Academy, the nation's first charter school, is making a big impression for such a small school. With just 35 students, the school still finds itself in the national spotlight in the debate over Charter Schools.

Milo Cutter, who teaches English and social studies, cofounded City Academy with teacher Terry Kraabel. "I was educated as a teacher," says Cutter. "But most of my working years were spent in the business world. I returned to teaching four years ago, first in Puerto Rico and then in a St. Paul alternative school with Hispanic students who were not well served by the traditional classroom.

"After years of experience in a system that was substantially different from the structure of schools, I was intrigued by Minnesota's new Charter School law, which gave teachers a chance to create different kinds of schools.

"It became apparent to us that some other alternative should be explored," Cutter recalls. "We wanted to create something with a traditional curriculum, but not traditional delivery system and definitely not a large setting.

"The charter legislation seemed to suit the needs of these students and gave us a real opportunity to create a program specifically for them. So we proposed a Charter School aimed at unenrolled youth ages 16 to 21. We got the support of the city and the mayor as well as private industry and tried to pull in all the concerned people."

City Academy is very small, with four full-time teachers, a full-time clerical aide, one part-time teacher/aide, and a part-time psychologist. The Academy's 35 students represent a mix of African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, American Indians, and European-Americans. Most students are male, though the Academy is seeking more women. Many of its students haven't been in school for quite a while. All have experienced frustration with other systems, even though several are only a few credits short of graduation.

"Many of these young people feel alienated much of the time," notes Cutter. "But they are regular teenagers who simply seem to have stronger feelings. It is potential to be tapped. That has worked against them in other education circumstances. One of the things I like about our students is that they are not quiet. They are very active. They have very strong opinions. Their sense of what is fair and what is good is very clear, so that is good for us.

"There is a dramatic range of student abilities from second grade to college level," Cutter observes. "But I am amazed that students, whom some call elementary readers, when given encouragement from other students, do an excellent job. What they are willing to do is a whole lot better than where they tested in the past.

"We are learning a lot just watching how the students respond," Cutter says. "Because this is our first year, we are still experimenting. In our charter application, we outlined general curriculum we planned to use. But students helped develop our specific curriculum and the atmosphere for learning. They articulate the kinds of things in, say, consumer law that they want to learn. It is an exciting experience."

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Posted on March 6, 1995

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