star telegram

             Posted Wednesaday, October 12, 2007             By BOB RAY SANDERS


    Copying this work wouldn’t be cheating


    Forget what you think you know about public schools, and definitely through out most of those negative thoughts about state-supported charter schools.
    As for those stereotypes about schools with children from low-income families or children of recent immigrants with little or no English language skills, let’s also dispel some of those myths.


    I have long been against the charter school movement in Texas because I have seen it as a scheme to siphon money form the traditional public school system.


    Of course, a few charter schools have had success, but many others have been monumental failures.  But let’s focus on one charter school in Fort Worth, which until my recent visit, I thought was private.


    The East Fort Worth Montessori Academy, on a campus that once housed the White Lake Hills School, did begin as a private elementary 14 years ago.  For the past eight years, however, it has been a public institution – in more ways than one.


    In addition to successfully serving elementary students (3-year-old pre-kindergartners through fifth grade), the school has become a community center that provides services to the students’ parents as well as neighborhood residents with special needs.


    Joyce Brown, who started the school with eight students, last week showed me around the expanding campus, which sits on 5.2 wooded acres less than 10 minutes from downtown.


    The east Fort Worth academy, which has been at its new location only four years, is about at capacity with a multicultural student body of 252 pupils, 85 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced lunches.


    “We have students who come to us with very little English or no English, and they are able to pass TAKS {[Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills] in the third grade,” Brown said.


    She was quick to add, “Passing the TAKS is great, but even greater is the kids are developing a love for learning.”


    They are so gung-ho on education, she said, that many come to the end of the year and don’t want to leave for summer vacation.


    Based on that mandated standardized testing, the Texas Education Agency has ranked the school as “recognized,” the state’s second-highest rating.  It missed receiving the “exemplary” status by 1.8 percent – basically the performance of one student, Brown said.


    Because many of the students are children of Mexican immigrants and Somali refugees, the academy offers programs in the evening for parents who need help in learning English and other assistance.


    In addition, the school provides care for some infants and toddlers of parents and staff members.


    And when it comes to nourishing food, the students at this school may be among the luckiest in Tarrant County:  There’s a full-time chef on duty to prepare the daily breakfast and lunch menus.


    In partnership with the Tarrant Food Bank, the chef also oversees a training program for adult students who have been recommended by the Texas Workforce Commission.  Thirteen students are enrolled in the chef-training class, which includes on-hands instruction in the fully equipped, commercial-size kitchen.


    The campus has a greenhouse and is adorned with several intriguing landscape features, including Zen, butterfly and rose gardens.  In the spring, the students also grow vegetables and herbs, Brown said, and the master chef uses some of that produce in recipes for lunch.


    “Most of the food is fresh,” Brown emphasized.  “The chef is anti-can food.  He even bakes the bread.”


    Under construction is a handicapped-accessible garden that will be wheelchair-friendly and open to the community, as many elderly people live in the neighborhood.


    Since the 9-11 attacks, Brown said, the school has made a special effort to help foster more understanding between Christian students and their parents and the growing number of Muslim families whose children attend the academy.


    All the students took photos of their family and culture, made journals and then exchanged them with their classmates form other cultures.  That one project broke down a lot of barriers, Brown said.


    Because of the $1.1 million budgeted by the state simply doesn’t cover all the schools’ costs, Brown said, the academy is constantly fundraising, and she has become an avid grant writer.


    And although she has received support form some area groups and foundations, she is saddened that most people in the area still don’t know about a school that is drawing students from all over the county.


    Not only should more people know about this school, but more folk should be studying it and trying to copy its success.