Can Mt. Airy's Isaac Ewell turn a $4 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation into a successful network of success-driven charter schools in low-income urban black communities?
In February and December 1999 a group of 167 concerned black educators and professionals gathered first at Marquette University in Milwaukee for an educational symposium, and later in a breakout session at Washington, D.C.'s Mayflower hotel to address that question. The events, which were facilitated by then-Milwaukee school superintendent Howard Fuller, eventually led to the formation of BAEO.
"The only thing we had in common was that we were all black and had a very serious posture about what we needed to do about the crisis in education," recalls Lawrence Patrick, 30, current BAEO president and an attendee at both gatherings. "We were all having a really direct conversation about what we can do that's radical, not this sort of gradual cross-your-fingers-and-hope-it-gets-better-type talk."
In August 2000, after appointing 29 members of the group to its national board, BAEO set up local chapters in 10 cities, including Milwaukee, Detroit, Denver and Philadelphia. Board members here included state House Rep. Dwight Evans, state Sen. Anthony Williams and president of the Philadelphia Workforce Development Corporation Ernest Jones. (In March the Philadelphia chapter, led by area CEO Keisha Jordan, will host BAEO's sixth annual national symposium on educational options for African-Americans.)
The group's stated mission is "to increase quality educational options and to empower families to meet their children's needs." But even with a multipronged, progressive approach that includes educating parents, hosting leadership institutes and providing scholarships for students, it's their support of school choice that draws the most vehement criticism. Because the issue is embraced most enthusiastically by political conservatives, any form of educational reform that has children leaving public schools can conjure up collusion with the political right.
"There's a whole argument that you're screwing the current system if you take students out," says Dr. Nathan Smith, a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. "But if the current system is screwing the kids, it's hard to argue you shouldn't provide an alternative. It's kind of a straw-man attack."
BAEO president Patrick is quick to refute any claims that the group is selling out to conservative causes. "We want it to be clear to black people we're not gonna be sneaking around. We have to be in control and in the lead of figuring out the solution to our community. We can't wait around for white people, whether liberal or conservative, to come up with solutions for us."
In 2003 BAEO's efforts to do just that were jumpstarted by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant. Part of a $31 million alternative school initiative from the world's largest private charitable organization, the grant calls for BAEO to fund the opening of small project-based institutions where students learn subjects like English and math in a more traditional manner but carry out most of their coursework in self- and group-directed work. Because the schools receive their charters from public districts around the country, they must meet the local, state and national testing and graduation standards.
"We were really excited about BAEO's mission and focus on serving kids in need," says Jim Shelton, program director for education at the Gates Foundation. "Their efforts to create high-quality schools set an example for the country."
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In the case of its Gates-funded schools, BAEO accepts applications from those who want charters. Then, after an intensive screening process-which includes submitting both a proposal and feasibility studies-approved organizers get approximately $150,000 to set up the school. They also receive per-pupil funding directly from the local municipality or the state, along with any support they can garner from private companies and financiers. The main BAEO caveat is that potential school operators must remain involved in the institution once it opens.
Even with quality controls in place, entrenched learning models that emphasize learning from texts and teaching to the test puts pressure on such newfound alternative charter schools to prove their effectiveness.
"There's a fundamental question that's existed in education for a very long time," says Penn's Nathan Smith, who's served as a consultant to both local districts and charter schools. "Are you supposed to learn itemized pieces and then put them together before going out into the real world to apply them? Or should you show up at the table with certain knowledge, dive into a project and learn because of what you applied while you were doing it?"
To ensure the criteria for excellence is continually met in each of its sites, BAEO provides shared resources and talent, and sponsors year-round professional development for its instructors. Their hope is to function as a decentralized school system.
"They have to get their basic funding just like any other school," says BAEO's Patrick. "We're basically going in and blazing them out with a little bit extra on top. We want black parents to have the power to choose, but we don't want to look up in 20 years and realize all the schools they had to choose from were terrible."
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"We're like a daycare center in here," says Ewell as he picks a foam building block off the floor next to a pair of Jumparoo baby seats in his Victorian-style East Mt. Airy home. "We have two of everything."
It's past 10 o'clock on a Friday night, and Isaac and his wife Anika are trying to put their 15-month-old identical twins Che and Marley down after a family car trip.