LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
City Academy High School in St. Paul Minnesota opened its doors in 1992. Its founders, all veteran public school teachers, had tried but failed to create new programs for struggling students in their own schools. They were convinced these kids would thrive in a small school with rigorous instruction and caring educators. As the nation's first publically funded, privately run charter school, City Academy helped launch an extraordinary movement that has grown to 5,600 charter schools. NPR's Claudio Sanchez has the second of two reports.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: When Melinda Gonzales enrolled in City Academy, she remembers walking down a tree-lined street in east St. Paul past a public park and a row of homes, looking for the school, and then not knowing what to make of the bunker-like building it was in when she finally found it.
MELINDA GONZALES: It's not a school. It's a rec center - a lot of folding tables and folding chairs. There weren't, you know, big computer labs. And I kind of wasn't sure how it was going to work.
SANCHEZ: That was 20 years ago. Melinda was 15. Her mother had died a few years earlier. Her father wasn't around. So, Melinda had moved in with her older sister. Life was tough.
GONZALES: I had issues attending school 'cause of we moved a lot, and I just couldn't keep up with what was going on in school. And really, nobody seemed to notice when I wasn't there.
SANCHEZ: City Academy was different.
GONZALES: There was just kind of this sense of like, yeah, we're here to help you, not to kind of hold you down. We're here to show you that you can do all this on your own.
SANCHEZ: For years, Melinda says she felt held down. No one at her old school had ever talked to her about college or a career. At City Academy, that's all teachers talked about.
GONZALES: That just was amazing to me, that you could, you know, learn something in a book and then, you know, say, oh yeah, we're going to go there and we're going to look at an example of that or you're going to touch it or you're going to be a part of that or you're going to meet someone who does that for a living. And for me who grew up on the east side of St. Paul in a very just kind of, very small box of life, just going out to art institutes and the capital and history centers, it was like, yeah, this is learning.
SANCHEZ: Melinda went on to get a degree in education. City Academy these days takes in teenagers who are still being talked out of college, kids who've repeatedly failed Minnesota's basic skills test and are so far behind, they're unlikely to graduate. Some have been incarcerated. But that doesn't matter to the school's founder, a veteran high school teacher with a soft spot for troubled kids.
MILO CUTTER: My name is Milo Cutter and right now I'm, and have been for the last 20 years, teaching director at City Academy.
SANCHEZ: Cutter, a tall, intense woman with a mop of white hair, had grown frustrated at her old school where kids dropped out in droves. It was around that time, the late 1980s, that a group in Minneapolis-St. Paul called The Citizens League had published an influential report calling for major school reforms. It supported a push by state lawmakers to create so-called outcome-based schools, later called charter schools. Cutter saw an opportunity. She would open a school for kids who were lost, abandoned, forgotten.
CUTTER: They were older students and, as most people are aware, that's not a high-priority group. These were totally out-of-school students - some left by choice, some were actively encouraged, and some were forbidden to cross the threshold ever again.
SANCHEZ: Opponents argued that a publically funded, privately run charter school like City Academy would take money away from traditional public schools. Cutter had no problem with that.
CUTTER: That was not the district's money. The taxpayers put in that money to educate students. The money belongs to the student.
SANCHEZ: City Academy opened with a tiny budget and 53 students. Twenty years later, it has twice as many kids, almost all low income. Most are Mong, Latino and black. After a year or two, the pride in what they've accomplished, says Cutter, is priceless.
CUTTER: You can see it physically on the faces of students when it's their choice. This is your school and you chose it. And that gives power.
SANCHEZ: Their education, says Cutter, now has a purpose. That was the idea says Ember Reichgott Junge. She's the former Minnesota state senator who authored the first charter school law in the country.
EMBER REICHGOTT JUNGE: What chartering did was make the public school system more responsive to parents and children and families because they allowed someone other than the district school system to deliver public education. They could take their customers for granted, and I think that's why Milo was finding that they weren't really open to doing new things because they didn't have to.
SANCHEZ: Although the nation's second largest teachers union had come out in favor of charters as early as 1988, Junge says unions in Minnesota were totally opposed, warning that charter schools would turn kids into guinea pigs.
JUNGE: I remember back in '91, the Minnesota Education Association used that very word - guinea pigs. I was so offended by that, that anyone would think that providing an opportunity for a child was somehow a bad thing or that they were being experimented upon.
SANCHEZ: A lot has changed in 20 years. This fall, charter schools in Minnesota will enroll about 38,000 students - 5 percent of the state's total K through 12 population. Union opposition has faded, in part because teachers in traditional public schools aren't happy with the status quo either. Louise Sundin is former president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers.
LOUISE SUNDIN: We're finding a lot of very talented teachers who are so frustrated that they feel they're not really teaching anymore.
SANCHEZ: Sundin helped create the Minnesota Guild of Public Charter Schools, the nation's first union-funded group with the power to authorize charters.
SUNDIN: I can see such a charter school movement that embraces teachers as professionals, not as cogs in a wheel or as expendable employees, places where teachers are in charge.
SANCHEZ: At least in Minnesota, says Sundin, most teachers have realized charters - like city academy - can empower them too. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.