Charter School Plan A Call For Open Minds

By Angela Carella

As a long-ago member of the Board of Education, Michael Guroian was intrigued to learn about a proposal to open a charter elementary school in Stamford.

If approved by the state, the Stamford Charter School for Excellence would be the city's first for elementary students, and it would target those who underperform just as they enter the system -- the critical time for ensuring educational success.

Guroian read the charter school's state application on the Board of Education website. He learned it would be modeled on one of the best elementary charter schools in the nation, the Bronx Charter School for Excellence, so Guroian visited that website, too.

"I did quite a bit of research," Guroian said. "There was a lot of fascinating information about how students are performing in Stamford, in Connecticut, and in the country. This school had found a way to do in a handful of years what Stamford has been trying to do for more than 30 years.

"They virtually eliminated the achievement gap" that leaves behind minority, low-income and non-English speaking students, he said.

So he decided to attend a public hearing on the charter school proposal Tuesday night at city hall, where students, parents and staff from the Bronx Charter School for Excellence discussed the model.

What he heard shocked him, Guroian said.

"The first 20 or so speakers were the superintendent, the central staff people, the school board members and the heads of the parent councils," Guroian said. "They started to take on a tone. They were defensive. Sometimes it got nasty. Not everyone did it, but they seemed to be sending a message. It was, `You don't know what you're talking about because you don't understand our district.' It was, `You don't belong here.'

"They didn't want to hear about the charter school. They wanted to give them a spanking and send them back to the Bronx."

Guroian said he "was impressed by the tolerance of the people from the charter school. The best remarks were made by their school custodian. He put out his arm. He said, `My hand is shaking because of the tone in here. We have kids in this room. We are not enemies.' It was that harsh. I was shaking, too."

He felt for the custodian because he'd once been in his shoes, Guroian said. In 1980, Guroian was 27 and the youngest person ever elected to the Stamford Board of Education.

"Thirty years ago I got the same treatment," Guroian said. "It happened when the superintendent was presenting the budget to the board. I ran on a platform of spending wisely and people knew I was going to propose cuts. I was not against spending money on schools. I was against wasting money.

"But I had to research the budget on my own. Central staff was told not to help me. I earmarked places where there appeared to be waste, and I prepared my proposals. When I started to present them during the meeting, all these school administrators marched in. While I was talking they started to stamp their feet on the floor to drown out what I was saying.

"Nothing ever came of my proposals," Guroian said. "I felt a lot like that custodian. It was like a time warp. I didn't expect it but I recognized it immediately."