Magna Charter

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

With a business degree from the University of Houston, Constantine was working at the Harris County Courthouse when she got her alternative teaching certification. She taught at a couple of elementaries in HISD before going to the Rice School.

"I was in HISD for ten years. It's hard to maneuver. I was working at the Rice School when this opportunity came. It was everything the Rice School said it was going to be."

SER-Niños takes its students on college field trips in middle school. In seventh and eighth grade, they all take French. Everyone has to take three years of a musical instrument and learn the keyboard.

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.

Things that don't work at SER-­Niños are modified or discarded. At first the students switched languages every day, but that proved too chaotic, and they finally settled on a weekly change.

School administrators don't have to go through a central authority for approval to change things, but decisions aren't made by the principal acting alone. A teacher makes a proposal, and everyone votes on it.

Of course, it is this lack of oversight by a local central office that's allowed so many charters to go notoriously astray — ­either offering poorly thought-out courses with ill-equipped teachers, or just generally misusing the funding they're given.

Most charters that have closed have done so because of financial problems — as TEA's Ratcliffe puts it, that's easier to prove than lousy teaching.

But TEA is starting to see schools close after multiple years of poor academic performance, Ratcliffe says, adding that usually the schools close themselves before the state shuts them down. But the process that precedes such a step can stretch out to seven years.

"In the Texas experience, we've found it's critical to closely scrutinize charter applications," Ratcliffe says. "Because if you give a charter to people who are unprepared to run a school, who don't know how to keep financial records, follow federal law or how to implement curriculum, then you spend years with them."

When Joanna Aquino says, "This year, I want to be a good girl, not having problems," it is almost heartbreaking. After making some improvements last year, she's trying to stay out of trouble.

Last year, Constantine taught Joanna's math class. "We worked hard every day. Joanna, she hated it. Every day she would say, 'I hate math.' I told her, 'I understand that you hate it, but you have to pass this test, and let's get over the hate part and work work work work work.'"

The light dawned sometime in March, Constantine says, and Joanna caught on to all she'd been missing. She became one of the first students to finish math tests, with a minimum of errors.

Students aren't the only ones who have to abide by rules at the school. Parents must sign homework assignments and agenda books each day. They must come in for parent-teacher conferences. If homework arrives incomplete or unsigned, the school calls the parents and asks them to come in.

Students fail at SER-Niños, Constantine says, because they don't want to keep up with the work anymore and/or because their parents no longer want to keep up with the extra transportation to Saturday classes and the daily signing requirements.

The school doesn't lose many kids each year. Most are families moving to the suburbs or out of the area, Strane says. Last year to this year, 25 students left.

Because applications still so far exceed departures, SER-Niños is looking at building another elementary nearby in three years. Actually, Strane says, they could build school after school and never serve all the kids who live in the density that is Gulfton.

SER-Niños doesn't track its students; it hasn't figured out a way to do that yet. It knows who goes on to area high schools each year, but beyond that, unless students come back to visit or the school hears from younger siblings or parents, it doesn't know what the ultimate outcome was.

Professor Matusow thinks the tracking factor is important in trying to determine if the SER-Niños approach works long term.

"It would be interesting to find out if we really do give them a foundation that later on delivers the goods for them," he says.

The most common complaints from students about SER-Niños are: The school uniforms are lame, there are too many rules and could they please get better, healthier food in the cafeteria? How about a sushi bar?

All of which sounds like the complaints of any private school student at any prep school in America.

That's it. No gangs in the schools or fights in the halls. No inner-city screening devices to pass through on the way to class. They're all going to college, no exceptions allowed, that's their mantra.

The Gulfton Ghetto has become their launch pad, not their prison. Gulfton is a part of them, but it is not the all of them. It does not define them. If nothing else, SER-Niños has taught its students that.

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