Next week, students wearing plaid jumpers and dark slacks will start classes in two public charter schools within blocks of each other in Hempstead Village. It's the first time a suburban community in New York State will become home to more than one such school.
Both the Academy Charter School and the Evergreen Charter School will initially be housed in rented church schools on Hempstead's Fulton Avenue, with combined enrollments of about 265 pupils. Evergreen will start with grades K-1 and Academy with K-2. Both schools plan to eventually serve grades K-5.
The near-simultaneous openings are the latest sign that the state's charter movement - still largely confined to cities - is solidifying on Long Island as well. While some school district officials still have reservations, a growing number of parents and national advocates of educational change praise charter schools for their personal attention to students, discipline and focus on academics.
Tuition-free charter schools operate independently of regular school systems, with public financing based on the number of students they attract.
"Two new schools on Long Island - that's never happened before simultaneously," said Peter Murphy, policy director for the New York Charter Schools Association, an Albany-based school advocacy group. "It takes a lot of guts to step up and propose a charter school, because there's always district opposition, and opposition rings louder in smaller suburban communities."
So far, the Island's charter schools have drawn students largely from communities sharing many of the same problems as inner cities: pockets of poverty and complaints from some parents, especially blacks and Hispanics, that their children get short shrift in traditional schools.
Five miles south of Hempstead, the Roosevelt Children's Academy Charter School, which opened in 2000, is completing a 12,000-square-foot annex that will more than double the size of its main building. The school boasts some of the highest test scores among charter schools statewide.
Farther east, the Riverhead Charter School, which opened in 2001 and faced threatened closure in 2007, has recently improved test scores and finances and won a five-year renewal of its state operating permit.
Money from school districts
Leaders of nearby school districts often view charter schools as a financial drain. Riverhead officials say their district paid out $1.57 million last year in charter-school tuition, or more than 1 percent of their budget. This year, Hempstead officials say they expect to pay out at least $7.5 million in charter tuition, or 4.7 percent of their budget.
Charles Renfroe, president of Hempstead's school board, admits competition from charter schools can be beneficial, to a point. But he says placing two charter schools within his 6,000-student district amounts to overkill by the two state boards that made the decisions. "At least, they could have put one in another town," he said.
Parents, on the other hand, often voice regret that their children must be placed on waiting lists, because space in the Island's charter schools is so limited. Another frequent complaint is that no Island charter schools offer classes in grades 9 to 12, where analysts say the need for alternatives is especially pressing. However, a proposal to open a charter high school in Brentwood focused on science and serving grades 7-12 is now under review by the State Education Department.
Amanda Guilty sees the need firsthand. For the past seven years, her son, Rajuan Barr, has attended Roosevelt Children's Academy. Now 15, Rajuan must transfer to a public high school in Uniondale.
"He was doing so well," said his mother, adding that her son never raised his hand in class until he transferred to Roosevelt Children's Academy. "Now he reads better, he writes better, he participates. The school is good, and I was sad he couldn't go on."
Statewide, 142 charter schools either operate or are due to open within the next two years - 99 of them in New York City alone. Eleven schools have shut down, or failed to open on schedule. That leaves 47 charters still to be awarded, before the state hits a 200-school cap authorized by lawmakers.
Last year, about 1 percent of the state's 2.6 million public-school students attended charter schools, according to the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based advocacy group. That was about the same proportion as in Illinois, but less than Massachusetts' 2 percent, Minnesota's 3 percent and California's 5 percent.
Long Island's five charter schools enroll an even smaller proportion of the region's students - less than one-tenth of 1 percent.
Debate over school caps
Charter school critics, including many school board leaders, say caps are needed to maintain charter-school quality. Advocates of educational change counter that caps are more likely to stifle ideas for improvement than to encourage them. President Barack Obama's administration opposes caps, though it acknowledges some states have been lax in allowing poor-performing charter schools to continue operating.
Joe Nathan, a University of Minnesota research director who helped write the nation's first charter-school law for his state, makes the argument against caps: "That is really un-American to say, 'Limit the number of people who are going to be allowed to propose new ideas.' "
Nathan also said that, within his own Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area, more charter schools now operate in suburbs and exurbs than in the Twin Cities themselves.
In Hempstead, organizers of the two new schools reflect the diversity of the movement.
The Academy School's sponsors include leaders of Calvary Tabernacle, a local evangelical church. Instruction will be entirely secular, however, and students will be encouraged to participate in community-service projects. The school's rented quarters include a full-sized gym - a rarity among charter schools, which often face space shortages.
The Evergreen School's organizers include leaders of Circulo de la Hispanidad, a Hispanic social-services agency. The curriculum will include daily Spanish lessons, but other instruction will be entirely in English. The school plans to emphasize environmental topics, in addition to basic academic subjects.
Sarah Brewster, Evergreen's lead sponsor, says she will strive to cooperate with Hempstead district administrators to provide quality education for local children. And she sees the nearby presence of the Academy School as a potential plus.
"They're going to have a school on the same street as us, so people are going to have a lot of choices," Brewster said.