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Forty blocks north and a world away from the abandoned remains of Techworld, it is midmorning on the quiet streets of Miami Shores. In an unassuming corner of the intersection of NW Second Avenue and 114th Street sits a collection of nine white portable classrooms. The Miami Shores/Barry University Charter School is tucked behind the gymnasium and fields of Barry University. Red paw prints are painted on the asphalt between the buildings. This is one of the places where the intent of the charter-school law is being realized. It is one of the more successful charters in the county, in no small measure owing to the financial and educational proximity of the private Catholic university.
The middle school is in its fourth year of operation and has consistently ranked among Miami-Dade's top public schools. Last year the school received the second-highest FCAT scores of any middle school in the county. Executive director Fred Damianos, a former principal with 31 years in the Miami-Dade school system, has the scores stapled proudly to his office wall, along with a rendering of a permanent building the school plans to construct across the street. He attributes the success of the school to its smallness -- just 180 students, 9 teachers, and 6 assistant teachers. A third of the students are in gifted classes. The school also receives the attention of several of Barry University's teaching programs. "We have nine counselors who will have their master's degrees in a year," Damianos says. "It's a luxury. Where I came from in the public sector, there were 435 children to one counselor."
The smallness of most charter schools is the main reason why so many parents and their kids are filling them as fast as they can be opened. Davine Scarlett, a tall brown-skinned girl with gold hoop earrings, is in Deedee Conte's eighth-grade gifted class. "I came from a big school," she says. "I thought, They're going to put me in portables?! But once I got here ... you know everybody, and everybody knows you. Here you learn relationships like in the real world."
Damianos smiles as he thinks about how fast the education world that he knew as a high school principal is changing. And despite the mistakes made by some charter schools, he believes the movement as a whole will only improve the accountability of public education. "Regular public schools as we knew them five years ago and regular private schools are not the only game in town," he offers. "Clearly you're going to find some better, some the same, and some worse."
Magaly Abrahante at the school district tends to agree. But she offers the caveat that parents must ultimately decide which educational choices are good enough for their children. "Public education is at the core of the country, and the core is changing. It's scary, and it's exciting. But choice just for the sake of choice is nothing. The key will be, can we make parents educated consumers of education?"