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Last Updated: Thursday, 10 June, 2004, 09:20 GMT 10:20 UK
Small-scale school enthuses students
By Maggie Shiels
Novato, California

At the Marin School of Art and Technology in northern California things are done differently from most other establishments.

There is no bell. The class roll is checked off from a laptop computer.

Every student has access to a gleaming Apple Mac computer.

Classes last 90 minutes instead of the usual 45 minutes. They start and finish later. There are fewer holidays.

There are no more than 22 students in a classroom. And the teachers know the name of every single pupil.

Cesar
It's like, wow, I can't wait to do my homework because I get to use the computers
Cesar, 15
No doubt for some this sounds like hell, while for others it sounds like Nirvana.

Fortunately for the founders trying to get this charter school off the ground, enough parents and pupils believed in the latter to have enrolled.

The school, known as MSAT, is part of Envision Schools and based in Novato, 30 miles north of San Francisco.

Students do not pay to attend because each attracts funding from the state.

As a charter school, MSAT is an alternative to the public system. Its teaching approach focuses on project-based learning with art and technology at the very heart of everything that goes on in the classroom.

We believe the arts and technology are a great tool for engaging students' minds
Bob Lenz
school principal
Principal Bob Lenz, who has been teaching for 15 years, is one of MSAT's founders.

He told BBC News Online "We believe the arts and technology are a great tool for engaging students' minds for learning and investigating and for creating.

"The future depends on kids' knowing this stuff. Everyone needs to be facile with technology in the 21st century."

Presentation

Hi-tech gizmos are ubiquitous around the campus from laptops to Palm Pilots and from video cameras to eMac computers.

US CHARTER SCHOOLS
non-sectarian state schools freed from many of the regulations governing most schools
the charter is a performance contract
charter school laws differ from state to state
typical charter is for three to five years
total number of schools: about 2,700
students enrolled: about 685,000
Tony Harris is the lead teacher here. In his digital media class he outlines the next assignment, which is a fun end-of-year piece to tell next year's intake what MSAT is really like.

"I want a two to three-minute multimedia presentation of what ninth graders need to know.

"If you want to score well on this, you have to have a live interaction with the piece," he informs the class.

It is a far cry from pen and paper but Mr Harris says it is part of the brave new world.

Students such as 15-year-old Cesar certainly seem to embrace it with gusto.

"You actually want to work and it's like, wow, I can't wait to do my homework because I get to use the computers and stuff when I want."

Alan, who is 14, loves school so much he comes in early.

Alan
This school is a dream come true
Alan, 14
"This school is a dream come true," he said.

"I want to be in the school better than at home. Because we start at 9am I come in at 8."

Mr Harris says MSAT's alternative teaching approach engages students who would otherwise nod off in class.

"The idea is that you put control and the responsibility of learning in the students' hands.

"It's inquiry-based, so we basically pose the problem and then tell the kids to find the answer.

"When they ask how, that's when we step in and facilitate but we wait until the kids start asking the questions. This is active, hands-on learning."

friends Melanie and Shanndara
Personalised learning for friends Melanie and Shanndara
MSAT's mission to get to know its students is a lot easier to achieve with just 110 of them compared to the legions that swarm public school campuses. Envision plans to have a maximum of 400 pupils at all its schools.

"The learning environment is more personalised," agrees 16-year-old Shanndara.

"And rather than having hundreds and hundreds of kids, the teachers here can focus their attention on individual students."

Her best friend, 14-year-old Melanie, said: "I've been to public school and here they're more interested in how you are doing and if you are having trouble in class and how home life is going and that sort of stuff."

The quality of my daily life is amazing
Teacher Justin Wells
For newly-qualified English teacher Justin Wells, being at MSAT has been a great first-time teaching experience.

"The quality of my daily life is amazing. It's all about developing a rapport with students, and this is not about being a friend.

"It's a relationship of mutual caring where the student doesn't want to let you, the rest of the class and themselves down."

As MSAT chalks up its first year in business, charter schools remain controversial.

California leads the nation with nearly 500 catering for 170,000 students. Since 1993 there have been 30 closures and 20 have had their charters revoked.

Concerns

Critics of the system say charters have failed to live up to their hype and because they are generally freer from public school rules and regulations are often held less accountable than other public schools.

Mary Bergan, president of the California Federation of Teachers, said: "Students in charter schools are scoring significantly below public school pupils in basic reading and math skills.

"Based on these findings, policy makers should not expand charter school activities until more convincing evidence of their effectiveness or validity is presented. Charter schools need to be held accountable for their performance."

A leading critic of the charter system is Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the co-director of a research group called Policy Analysis for California Education.

There is a concern across the US that charter schools do sharpen racial segregation and class segregation
Prof Bruce Fuller
He said the system was in danger of creating real racial problems in communities.

"Our problem is one of 'creaming', where charters thrive in communities where parents are unhappy with garden variety public school systems.

"Novato is a place where there is a large Anglo middle class and upper middle class parents who are uneasy about schools dominated by Latino kids - and charter schools provide a safe haven through the eyes of these white parents.

"So there is a concern across the US that charter schools do sharpen racial segregation and class segregation for kids.

"Of course this is what private schools have done for a long time but now taxpayers are subsidising the increasing segregation of kids in some cases."

In August, Envision will open another charter school in San Francisco.

And thanks to a $3m grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, it aims to start another four in the Bay area by 2006.


SEE ALSO:
US company wins school contract
18 Jul 03  |  Essex


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