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Charter schools build on a decade of experimentation

Ten years later, what have we learned?

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There could hardly have been a more glorious day for the Bronx Preparatory Charter School.

Despite numbing December temperatures, the school's chorus sang spiritedly as founder Kristin Kearns Jordan, shovel in hand, smiled for the TV cameras and then turned over a chunk of soil in an empty lot, making way for a new state-of-the-art home for her school.

This was not Bronx Prep's first moment in the limelight. Educators, parents, and state officials had already thrilled to the tale of the lively new charter school for low-income students that, within a year, had its young charges sporting crisp uniforms, playing violins in the school orchestra, and watching their math and reading scores fly upward.

But in some respects, the groundbreaking serves as a symbol for the charter-school movement as a whole. Having hit the 10-year mark in 2002, the movement is putting down roots and making plans to stay.

Across the country, a number of charters are outgrowing their original settings in church basements or storefronts and redefining themselves as established schools in more traditional school buildings.

For the moment, such clear-cut examples of forward motion remain the exception rather than the rule.

But despite a wide variety in charter schools' degrees of success, some experts say the changes they'll make to public education in the long run may be far more dramatic than can yet be imagined.

Successes and failures

The nation's first charter school - a public school that accepts greater freedom from bureaucracy in exchange for a promise to perform at or above local standards - opened its doors in Minnesota in 1992.

Since then, the movement has spawned some exciting success stories. Particularly in urban areas - where such stories were badly needed - high-profile charters moved into low-income neighborhoods and proved that they could take the same kids and, with less public money, produce better results.

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