Magna Charter

Right in the middle of the Gulfton Ghetto, one school is putting on a grand experiment.

She put on the belt, the black one with her initial on the buckle. She made gang signs. "I just did like symbols with my hands." She talked back to teachers, didn't work in class and hated math with a passion.

Her cousin, who'd been in a gang, was in prison now for drugs "and some other things," she says, her voice trailing off.

She was in sixth grade, 12 years old, and on track to become just another Gulfton Ghetto lost child, one of hundreds of Hispanic kids who never quite get enough of anything to leave the neighborhood filled with old apartments, where the office for many men is the corner where they wait for any day work they can catch.

It's Spanish one week, English the next for kindergarten students Paola Lopez and  Jonathan Alfaro at SER-Niños, the dual-l­anguage charter school in the Gulfton neighborhood.
Margaret Downing
It's Spanish one week, English the next for kindergarten students Paola Lopez and Jonathan Alfaro at SER-Niños, the dual-l­anguage charter school in the Gulfton neighborhood.

As it turns out, she wasn't actually in a gang, just a wannabe playing a dangerous game. She'd mimicked the gear and the gestures because she thought it would be cool, and she'd have friends, and they'd do fun stuff.

Joanna Aquino, now 13 and in seventh grade at SER-Niños Charter School, sits dressed in her school uniform, waiting carefully for her next question. Thoughtful and funny, she seems, at this moment, miles away from the girl both she and her teachers describe from last year.

"I got in a lot of trouble with my mom, my family and the school," she says. It didn't matter that she wasn't actually in a gang. They were outraged that she was acting out this way.

Her cousin, the one in prison, told her gangs were just bad. "He told me, 'Don't ever be in one. They just give you bad stuff, and then you will die just for nothing.'"

"My mom told me if I didn't behave in school and do better, she'd put me in another school until I am 21, where I'll stay forever until I'm 21, and then I'll just go away," she says, flicking one hand into the air.

And her school? From Principal Charmaine Constantine on down, its personnel battled to keep Joanna in school and out of trouble, and to get her back on course.

SER-Niños, a pre-K-to-eighth-grade facility in the heart of Gulfton, is one of those charter schools that pushes back hard on every preconception opponents to charter schools may have.

It is neither elitist — kids get in randomly through a lottery system, not high test scores or perfect behavior marks — nor academically dreadful. Its self-described "frugal" principal keeps a tight watch on the numbers to make sure it doesn't fall into the black hole of debt that has consumed other charters in Texas.

At the same time, it's clear there's been no bonanza of riches in operating this school. It gets a state allotment for each student, but nothing for buildings. It depends on philanthropy to do more.

But by the time students reach middle school, SER-Niños's test scores are way above those of the closest surrounding schools with similar student bodies. It has 600 students enrolled and had to wait-list 250 more this year for space reasons. And it is a Recognized School in the Texas Education Agency rankings — a designation many schools with more funding and resources would love to have.

And, as Joanna's case proves, SER-Niños doesn't take the easy way out and rid itself of troubled kids at the drop of a hat.

"When the charter law was passed in 1995, the fear was they would become elitist schools," says Debbie Ratcliffe, spokeswoman for the TEA.

"Instead, they've become the opposite, schools with at-risk kids, with a high population of minority students."

Founded in the first generation of charter schools in 1996, SER-Niños hasn't ever gained the attention given to its better and nationally known peers, KIPP Academy and Yes Prep. For one thing, it hasn't advertised itself — it only appointed a public relations and marketing person this year, and that person, Christopher Strane, teaches social studies in the afternoon.

As it progressed from rented rooms in the Bellaire Christian Church to its own building on Alder, and then expanded to fifth grade and then middle school classes, its business started to come from word of mouth among people in the neighborhood. It is a public school, not connected to HISD, responsible directly to the state, and costs nothing to attend. Like most of the better charters, it offers its students longer hours and more days of school a year, complete with after-school tutorials and a summer session in June.

Unlike other charter schools, it operates a program inextricably woven into its particular neighborhood, which goes beyond its offering of adult classes in ESL, computers, nutrition and the like. SER-Niños is a dual-language school, which is not a bilingual program (with its graduated system adding more and more instruction in English each year) but a 50-50 approach to language and learning.

Most students start in pre-K, and there is little turnover. Vice Principal Elodia Villarreal says there were only three openings in kindergarten this year. The only preference given is to siblings of already admitted students.

Each student has at least two teachers. One week, all instruction is in English, the next in Spanish. The exception is the daily two-hour reading slot in the student's dominant language. Students are mostly of Salvadoran and Mexican descent, and 80 percent qualify as economically disadvantaged.

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