One of the criticisms of charter schools is that they cater to a specialized class of students who are not representative of the student body of a typical public school. Based on that notion, the argument is often heard that charter schools extract the best and the brightest from the public schools, while leaving at-risk students to fend for themselves and fail for themselves.
A recent visit to North Park High School revealed how wrong that impression is. This jewel of a school is by no means ensconced in a suburban setting. The students are not dropped off by upper-income parents driving BMWs or Mercedes Benz SUVs. They are classic, inner-city students. They are almost all minorities.
In the case of North Park High, located in the midst of Opa Locka, the student body is 98% African-American. They are also, by definition, at-risk students, which means basically that they were not performing at the required level in the public school where they were previously enrolled.
In effect, the students at North Park High are there by personal choice. No one forces them to change schools. They are not disciplinary transfers, mandated to attend an alternative school. Instead, they are the beneficiaries of a new, semi-private, semi-public experiment in education that is catching fire throughout the nation.
As soon as one walks into North Park High, there is an ambience of quiet, technological learning. The hallways are so quiet that they resemble something akin to the intensive care unit in a hospital.
But it is more than that. And that becomes evident when we are allowed into a classroom.
What you see on entering a classroom is students at individual work stations, totally absorbed in the learning process. The teacher is not in the front facing an audience of students; this is more like a laboratory, in which each student is individually experimenting in learning, while the teacher walks from work station to work station monitoring, suggesting, correcting, encouraging, mentoring.
Everything is done in whispering tones. Perhaps because of this, there is no evidence of any student being distracted from his or her work. The interaction between teacher and student reminds me of what happens in my household when I myself can't figure out my personal computer and my wife (herself a public school teacher) or one of my kids stands behind me and coaches me through my difficulty.
While at North Park High, we were introduced to one student who exemplifies extraordinary success. She is scoring well into the 90% range in a battery of exams already taken in her very first semester at North Park.
As she showed us her scores, the pride of being an "A" student was evident in her beaming face. She reminded me of an actress in the movie Stand and Deliver, who achieves academic success against all odds, including poverty and the chaos of life in her East L.A. neighborhood.
I am told that each morning the teachers and administrators, led by the principal (who reminds me of Edward James Olmos in the mentioned movie), line up on both sides of the hallway and greet each student by name, as they head to their respective classrooms in what becomes an inspirational parade. The psychological boost thus imparted seems to proclaim: "We are with you; we know you can succeed; we are here to make sure that you do!"
At the end of our impromptu visit, we huddled with the principal and consultants to the school, as well as the director of security. The group was quite representative of the diversity that is our county. And they seem to all be imbued with an entrepreneurial spirit -- almost as if the advancement of the school they operate was directly linked to their compensation.
Perhaps it is.
All that I know is that this school is special. It represents the culmination of state-of-the-art technology, combined with the human touch -- the teacher as mentor, the Internet as the chosen medium for interactive learning and the student as the center of the academic universe.
As I leave North Park High, it strikes me that I have seen no sign and heard no mention of extra-curricular activities. I cannot help but conclude that in this particular kind of charter school, it is the curriculum that counts.