Page last updated at 00:09 GMT, Wednesday, 14 April 2010 01:09 UK

Charter schools: Winning tickets?

MATCH School, Boston
School places are decided at the charter school by a public lottery

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education correspondent, Boston

Charter schools are growing in popularity in the United States - and are attracting interest in the UK. What are they offering that's different?

The classrooms are in a converted car dealership on a main road in Boston. Where Lincoln automobiles once stood in the glass showroom, hundreds of parents are crowded, waiting anxiously for a lottery draw that they fervently believe could change their children's lives.

"Tonight, if you win this lottery, treat that as if your life depends on it - because it does," says the school's director.

Parent: Education should not "depend on the flip of a coin"

This is a public lottery - where parents find out immediately, in front of everyone else, if their child has got a place at the high school.

The lottery is being held at the MATCH School - one of a growing number of charter schools across the US.

They are supported by public money - receiving the local authority's per student funding - but operate outside the local state school system, with their own independent approach to admissions and teaching.

There are no fees, no catchment areas, no interviews. Apart from places for siblings, the admissions process begins and ends with this single lottery. And with high results and a good reputation, they are in demand.

The parents, almost all black or Hispanic, many from the tougher parts of the city, have been given a guided tour around the school earlier in the evening.

'We've got to win'

There has been an almost evangelical mood about the welcome.

Parent in Gloucester

Parents are told unequivocally that if their children get a place at the MATCH School, they would get a place at college - no small promise to families where no one had been to higher education before.

In every corner of the building there are posters, announcements and quotations selling the message of achievement - with a banner on the staircase calling for "Courage, discipline, and perseverance".

There is an ethos of hard work, long hours and good behaviour, promoting a "no excuses" culture.

"There are a lot of rules and a lot of love," says director Alan Safran.

Charter schools make a virtue of innovation. Individual tuition, on top of group classes, is part of the school day.

This is made possible by the assistance of 45 bright young tutors, the MATCH Corps, who live in accommodation above the school.

These are idealistic graduates who spend a year teaching here, working 60-hour weeks for only expenses. The school can pick and choose high-flyers from elite universities, because the school has 2,500 graduates applying.

High expectations

These tutors say they might talk on the phone to parents twice a week to keep them up to date with their child's progress.

Parent at the MATCH school
Teachers at the school "work tirelessly" for students, says a parent

The pupils are also on a motivational high.

An articulate 17-year-old, Brenda Peralta, says her ambition to go to a top university is a direct result of the culture of achievement at the school and the sense of community.

"The school places high expectations on every single student here... if you give up, there is someone to push you forward."

She says that her father says that if he gets rich he'll donate money to the school to show how much it meant to his family.

A parent who already has a child at the school says the teachers "work tirelessly" for the students and she likes the sense of a "safe environment".

The school's deputy director, Mike Larsson, says this is about giving choice to parents with few options.

"They can't afford to go to private school, they can't afford to move out of the neighbourhood, they can't move to another town with a stronger school system - and charter schools were created to give them another option."

"We have a very long, very structured school day - and we come down hard on things like gum chewing, shirts untucked and swearing, because we believe there is no time to waste.

"We've got high expectations, we truly believe that every kid who walks through the door can get a college degree. But we're under no false impressions that it's easy."


It's not easy for the parents either.

Student at Match
The school has high expectations, says Brenda Peralta

"There's this anxiousness. After everything we've heard, we think this is the right place - and if he doesn't get picked it's like starting again," says a mother at the lottery draw with her son.

"It's not just in Boston, it's in New York too. There's this thing - we've got to win this lottery. You want to downplay this, but it's in the back of your head."

When it comes to deciding this by lottery, she says: "Why are we put in the situation of the education of your child depending on the flip of a coin?"

A top table of school officials begin the process of drawing and reading out the 70 names that will get places - and then the rest who will form a waiting list.

It's in public because it's meant to visibly show there are no special cases, no favours, no back doors. Anyone can apply, everyone has the same chance of a place.

When the names are drawn there are shouts of delight and some long silences. For every 10 applicants - nine are disappointed. They'll see the door opened for a better chance for their child and then slammed shut.

Quality schools

A mother who has been lucky in the lottery says: "I feel ecstatic, happy, relieved. I feel blessed."

President Obama supports the charter school movement

But she says how sorry she feels for those other families who missed out.

"I know what they're feeling. Your options get smaller and smaller and smaller. And it's your kid's education. It's a question of quality, what they're not going to get access to."

For an outsider, particularly for anyone used to the labyrinthine admissions systems in England, it's a strange and intense evening to observe. People's life chances are being decided by a sponsor pulling out a name at random.

You can't blame a project like the MATCH School for being so popular - and having so many more applicants than places. But it's difficult not to think that a community shouldn't depend on luck for a chance of a decent education.

A boy who has come here on his own and sat through the entire draw is going back into the night with no good news to take back. The teachers talk to him about waiting lists.

"All I want is a little hope," he says.

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