It’s lunchtime at Scuola Vita Nuova, and Gina Valente mingles among the third-, fourth- and fifth-graders as though she were hosting a cocktail party. Fewer than one hundred students are enrolled in the charter school, and as principal, Valente knows them all by name. Some even run up to hug Valente, who might be better known to the rest of Kansas City as the satiny voice of KXTR 1250’s Adventures in Italy on Sunday mornings.
“I have happy children,” Valente says.
There is a lot to be happy about at Scuola Vita Nuova. Instead of filing through a cafeteria line at lunchtime, for example, the students enter the room and look for a place setting at one of the cloth-covered tables. After they’re seated, a kitchen staffer (the tattoo on her forearm peeks discreetly out from the bottom of her sleeve) comes by with a plate of food and serves each student individually.
Students at Scuola Vita Nuova can get three meals a day; today the chicken fried steak comes with homemade mashed potatoes and green beans, and dessert is warm apple pie. Teachers are required to eat with the children three times a week, using lunchtime to catch up with students and find out what’s happening at home, how things are going with school or just whatever is on the children’s minds.
When they’re finished with their meals, the students bus their own tables, return to their seats and wait for one of the teachers to let their table line up for recess. Today it’s raining outside, so the students go upstairs to a gym, where they play dodge ball and practice doing pyramids for the newly formed drill team before returning to classes for the afternoon.
Located in the lower level of the Bisceglia Italian Cultural Center at the corner of Wabash and Independence Avenue, just down the street from Garfield Elementary, Scuola Vita Nuova appears to be a sanctuary for grade-schoolers in the Northeast area — and their parents, most of whom are fed up with the Kansas City, Missouri, School District. Kindergarten through fifth-grade classes are in session year-round, nine hours a day, so parents don’t have to worry about their children while they’re at work. In addition to its core curriculum — basics such as math and reading — its instructors teach classes on two foreign languages, computer technology, African and Native American studies, creative dance and yoga. Students and their families have been treated to operas, chamber music concerts and barbershop quartets. The kids have performed with opera divas and enjoyed classes with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company. Classical music is piped into all of their classrooms.
Scuola isn’t structured by traditional grade levels. Kindergartners are the only ones who stay together; the rest of the classes are broken up into groups of ten, with the makeup of each class based on students’ aptitudes. A high-performing first-grader might be in a class with a below-average second-grader, thus avoiding the traditional middle-of-the-road approach that bores top students and frustrates the ones who need more help. Each group has a homeroom (and a special name, such as the Kangaroos or the Snow Leopards) but attends different classes throughout the day.
The facilities (the cultural center and a small two-story building next door) are anything but institutional: Schoolrooms are painted a soothing green; Native American masks decorate the walls, and the halls feature posters of famous artwork — hung at the children’s eye level.
“I was never really fond of school as a little girl, so having the opportunity to create a school, I wanted to create a school that I would want to go to,” Valente says.
But a belly full of comfort food and the tranquilizing effects of classical music don’t change the fact that the school has been through an inaugural year with enough conflict to rival the Kansas City school district’s.
When the Missouri Legislature legalized charter schools during its 1998 session, many Kansas City parents were desperate for relief from the school district’s problems. Charter school proponents argued that providing more educational choices would force the school district to improve if it wanted to compete for enrollment. While charter schools receive public money, they are independently governed and subject to less state oversight than public schools. The state sends money for the charters (roughly the same amount per student as public schools) to the district, which then passes it on to charter schools based on their previous year’s enrollment. Each charter school must pay the district $1,000 per student per year for use of the district’s property — even if, like Scuola Vita Nuova, the school has its own facilities. Otherwise, the schools are free from the district’s control.
A year and half after eighteen charters opened in Kansas City, more than 5,600 students are enrolled — 16 percent of the district’s total public school enrollment. Only two new schools have opened this year, but enrollment in charter schools is up 31 percent from last year. For many parents, anything is better than sending their kids to a district that seems as if it’s never going to improve.
But some parents and teachers are learning that charters can be just as problematic. A recent Pitch article detailed the discipline and drug problems Southwest Charter School has experienced as it struggles to offer students a nontraditional, project-based curriculum (“Unchartered Waters,” February 1).
Complaints about Scuola Vita Nuova are different. They center on Gina Valente.
For more than a decade, Valente has given the Kansas City masses a better understanding of Italian culture through her radio show, where every Sunday morning she discusses Italian cuisine, customs and music. “Before Gina’s radio show, most people in Kansas City thought Italian culture was checked tablecloths, Chianti and ‘O Sole Mio,'” an Adventures in Italy fan once told The Kansas City Star. “She brings the true Italy to her listeners.”
But it wasn’t just her show that earned her the reputation of being, as Star columnist Hearne Christopher Jr. once described her, “part disc jockey, part travel agent, part cultural point person.” In addition to leading tours to Italy, Valente cofounded the Italo-American Cultural Foundation.
In the mid-’90s, former Missouri appellate court judge Charles Shangler was looking for someone to head the cultural center that bore the name of his late father-in-law, John B. Bisceglia. An Italian immigrant, Bisceglia had been a Presbyterian minister and social worker who, as the director of the Northeast Community Center, helped fellow immigrants settle into their new city.
Shangler found the stylish, charismatic Valente (her real name is Karen Zannetti; she uses her broadcast name at the school because “that’s how people have known me for years”), a former marketing professional who knew a little something about celebrating Italian culture. Her life’s mission seemed to be to share her love for the culture with others. Even before the Bisceglia center housed a school, Valente was bringing students there to to expose them to Italian art and music.
Now, as a school principal, she sees “a real opportunity to continue the legacy and the work, education and enrichment that we’ve been doing here for over one hundred years now.”
For many parents in northeast Kansas City, just the idea of longer school days was enough to convince them that Scuola Vita Nuova was the ideal place to put their kids. Others saw the school as a great opportunity for their kids to be exposed to cultural arts. Small classes, creative teaching techniques and an all-year schedule sounded good too.
“We’re in a high risk area here,” Valente says of the neighborhood, “and life in America is not easy anywhere. I thought it was extremely important that children see that there are beautiful things in this world. Beautiful things really give you a positive approach to things and help balance the ugly part of the world that we deal with.”
Other parents were excited to have another choice in their own neighborhood, where they could become more involved in their kids’ educations.
Buoyed by those expectations, 68 children signed up to attend Scuola Vita Nuova that first fall.
The school year got off to a late start. Opening day was scheduled for September 7, 1999, but in July, the school parted ways with the nonprofit School Futures, a management company the board of directors had hired to run the school; School Futures had hired the core teaching staff and a principal, and Valente served as director of operations. The board’s split with School Futures left just two short months to get everything ready.
But parents were so excited about the school, they didn’t care that it started three weeks late. They understood that getting a school off the ground took some work.
At first the problems were minor, such as incorrectly installed computers and constant revisions to the class schedules. But some parents grew concerned.
“The class schedule changed almost every two weeks,” says Jonathan Clark, who worked in the school’s office for a few months. “One day it changed three times.”
“It was not good for the kids,” says his wife, Laura. “The kids needed consistency, and I kept telling Gina that.”
Soon the parents would have bigger problems to worry about. Two weeks into the school year, Scuola Vita Nuova lost its first principal, Linda Cummins, who also was the third-grade teacher. (Back then the school was organized by grade levels.)
Her sudden departure upset her students and baffled their parents.
Cummins declined to be interviewed for this story. “Nobody would give a real answer as to why Ms. Cummins was gone,” says Deb Whitfield, whose son was in her class.
Whitfield asked Valente to let Cummins come back to tell the students goodbye so they wouldn’t feel abandoned. She says Valente told her that simply was not possible.
Later, Whitfield ran into Cummins at Benjamin Banneker Charter Academy of Technology, where Whitfield’s daughter went to school. “I said, ‘Do you mind if I bring [my son] in so he could see you because he always talks about you, and it was hard that you didn’t come back and say goodbye. You know, these kids really liked you, and they wanted closure.’ And she said, ‘Well, I apologize,’ but she told me she wasn’t allowed.”
That was just the beginning of staff turnover at the small charter school. Almost all of the school’s original teachers left in its first year, including the full-time core teachers who taught each grade, as well as the majority of its part-time employees and several administrative staff members and teacher’s aides.
While the school struggled to find a replacement for Cummins, third-graders had to endure a long string of substitutes.
At about that time, Mary Miller, a former neighborhood association president who had helped start the school, left her administrative position there. She had quit a job with the city and taken a $7,000 pay cut to work full-time at Scuola Vita Nuova. But after only four months, Miller decided she didn’t fit in. “I have a totally different concept of management than [Valente],” says Miller. “And I was working 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day. I prefer to defer to people who really know about education versus someone who knows a lot about marketing, who has an interest in running the school like a business.”
After Cummins left, Valente took over as principal. When Valente finally hired a new third-grade teacher, Paula Smith, in January, attention turned to the second grade. Some parents who volunteered at the school say the class was out of control. They complained that the teacher didn’t send home graded papers and too often raised her voice to the kids. When the teacher failed to improve the situation, Valente, along with the board, asked the teacher to resign.
After the second-grade teacher left, another series of substitutes taught the kids, until Valente and Smith decided that Smith would teach the second and third grades together with the help of two teacher’s aides.
A few parents found out on a Friday that Valente and Smith planned to combine the classes on Monday, pending the approval of the school’s board the next day. Nancy Gardner, who was the president of the parent-teacher association, first heard about it when some other parents called to ask her what she thought of the decision to combine classes. By the time she went to the board meeting, “it was a done deal,” she says.
Gardner says parents never had any input regarding the fact that their children were now in a bigger class run by one teacher who would be trying to teach two grade levels. “It caused a lot of trauma to both the second-graders and the third-graders,” she says. “The third-graders felt like they were being let back — suddenly they’re with the second grade. The second-graders were freaking out because they felt like they were barely in second grade and suddenly they didn’t have a teacher, and then they were with the third grade.”
By this time, parents were noticing another problem: staff qualifications and certification.
By law, 80 percent of a charter school’s teachers have to be certified. But in the school’s first year, parents had reason to question its certification rate. Laura Clark, for instance, does not have a high school diploma, but based on her computer skills and experience, Valente hired her to teach the school’s computer class when the first part-time computer teacher left.
Clark admits that she didn’t tell Valente that she hadn’t finished high school. “But,” Clark says, “she didn’t ask.”
And though she had no teaching experience, Clark had to come up with her own curriculum. “But I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll do this for a couple of months until she finds someone else. Not a problem.'”
The teaching gig lasted eight months.
Valente also asked other parents to substitute. One day Deb Whitfield returned home from dropping her kids off at school to find a message saying the kindergarten teacher couldn’t make it. “They asked me to substitute teach. I have absolutely no teaching degree. You should have substitute teachers on call to do that.”
Several parents suspected that the only certified teachers at the school were the core education teachers, German teacher Harald Geirke (who is Valente’s husband) and one retired teacher who occasionally substituted.
And there were concerns about Valente’s qualifications as principal.
“When Ms. Cummins was gone,” says Whitfield, “all of a sudden I hear that Gina Valente is the principal and is in charge. I asked several times, ‘What qualifications does Gina Valente have to run this school? I want to know the qualifications and the background of anyone who is teaching my children.'”
Whitfield never got an answer. While Valente’s background is in marketing, she says she once attended a teaching college. However, charter school principals are not required to be trained in education.
“[The board] ignored me; they would not answer. Never, ever did anybody ever tell me what it was. The only thing I ever knew was Gina had worked with the Italian Cultural Center for years and it was her idea to start the school. That’s not the way it should be.”
Many parents put their children in charter schools because they’ve heard parents are allowed more input into these schools’ day-to-day operations. Some of this access comes from parents volunteering at the schools, or from the school’s board being more accessible to them.
At Scuola Vita Nuova, parents found out they were wrong.
In late April, all of these problems culminated to create a frustrated group of parents that presented 26 questions to the school’s board. The list covered everything from why the administration was ignoring frequent false fire alarms to who was making the final decisions on the school’s curriculum. The parents also questioned Valente’s qualifications. But when the parents went to the meeting, the board members said they couldn’t speak if they weren’t on the agenda and that they should work with the PTA president to present their list of concerns to Valente.
To get on the agenda, the parents began circulating a petition, but the board never responded to their concerns.
During one heated PTA meeting that included angry parents as well as parents who hadn’t voiced any concerns, Valente dismissed the complainers as hotheads and said the PTA was supposed to be like a booster club that raised money for school activities. That was news to PTA president Gardner, who eventually lost her temper and stormed out of the meeting, causing a commotion by throwing a file on field trips she’d been planning into a trash can outside the meeting — an act she regrets. “I was just so frustrated,” Gardner says.
“[Valente] was not allowing us to have a voice,” Whitfield says now. “It was Gina’s way or no way. I don’t feel like anybody was asking for anything outrageous. We were just saying, ‘Why are we having so much turnover, what qualifications do these teachers have to teach our children, and what qualifications does Gina Valente have to be able to head a school?'”
Clark, who had been working in the administrative office after Miller left, says Valente told him the day after the meeting that because he and his wife had participated in the meeting, he should start training someone else to do his job. At lunch he went home and talked to Laura about it, and they decided it was time for both of them to quit.
Shortly thereafter, they pulled their kids from the school. Several parents had heard Valente make nasty remarks about other parents and kids behind their backs, and the Clarks were concerned that she might say something about them to their kids.
Other parents followed. Fed up with being lied to, Gardner and her husband removed their daughter, who ended up going to a Gladstone school for the last two weeks of the district’s school year.
Whitfield kept her kids in the school through the summer, but then her daughter started having trouble with a new first-grade teacher. “This was a child who once couldn’t wait to go to school, and now she was miserable,” she says.
At that time another parent (who asked not to be identified in this article), took her daughter out of the school because she’d found bruises on her arms and suspected they’d come from that first-grade teacher. The parent filed a complaint with the Division of Family Services, but an investigation cleared the school. For Whitfield, who heard about the complaint from the parent, the incident turned out to be the last straw.
“I thought, ‘This is not where I want my kids.’ I had gone through battle after battle, trying to get things done, had been told bald-faced lies and could not get answers as to who the certified teachers were.”
But rather than put her children back in the Kansas City, Missouri, School District, Whitfield sent two of them to one charter and an older child to another, where things are going much better, she reports. “There’s little bumps here and there, but nothing is perfect in life. But I am able to go to [the administration]; I’m able to address things. They look for parent participation; they listen to parents. I don’t have the problems I had at Scuola Vita Nuova.
“It’s my opinion and, especially at this point, there is no love lost between me and Gina Valente, but all along if you traced all of the problems that the school has had, it’s because she doesn’t have an educational background.”
Kerri Buckley found out the hard way about the school’s lack of experience in educational protocols.
Her son, Alex, has attention deficit hyperactive disorder and is by all accounts a handful. “He either had teachers who loved him and thought he was a genius,” Buckley says, “or he had teachers who thought he was the biggest loser in the world.”
So when she heard about Scuola Vita Nuova, with its small classes and cultural arts focus, Buckley thought it might be the answer for Alex and his twin sister, Aleah. Unfortunately, Buckley was living just north of the river — out of the school district.
She told the school administrators where her family lived and said she could stay with a friend in Westport. If things worked out with the school, she would find a place to live in the district.
According to Miller, who worked in the school’s office at that time, “We told her, ‘We have to have you in the district.’ [Buckley] brought in a letter from her friend that said she was living with this lady [in the district], so we thought it was okay, and the kids said that’s where they were staying.”
The school had begun negotiating with Buckley to use her catering business to provide food for the dining program; the deal-breaker came when the school wanted her to insure the entire operation. But she liked the staff and decided she still wanted her kids to attend school there.
“They were happy to be learning German and Italian, learning about opera and Italy,” she says. “The kids loved that kind of stuff, and the small class size made it a perfect match.”
But trouble began after Valente hired Paula Smith as the third-grade teacher. At first, Buckley says, the teacher got along well with her family. Buckley had been ill, and when her doctors considered sending Buckley to the Mayo Clinic at the end of January, Smith even offered to let Alex and Aleah stay with her.
But after the school combined the second and third grades, Buckley started to see increased signs of stress in Alex, and he was misbehaving more at school. As a result, he was not allowed to go on field trips and to assemblies, and eventually Smith sent him to a room separate from the rest of the class and told him to “think of it as a yellow jail.” Buckley suspected the instability at the school and the larger class size were responsible for Alex’s problems.
Other parents who volunteered at the school say Smith was overwhelmed by her increased responsibility and was unable to give Alex the attention he needed. (Smith, who has since left the school, declined to be interviewed for this story.)
Buckley tried to talk with Smith but says the teacher was always on her way out or couldn’t find the time. “I think she was avoiding it because she wouldn’t even look me in the eye. I think she was frustrated with him and didn’t know what to do,” Buckley says.
On May 4, Buckley had a conference with Smith and Valente. They discussed a medication change and more counseling for Alex, but Alex’s psychiatrist couldn’t see him until June 9. A frustrated Smith said she couldn’t wait until June 9 for Alex’s behavior to change. On May 26, Smith and Shangler, the board president, asked Buckley to take Alex out for the summer (but said that Aleah could keep coming to school). “They wanted him to take the summer off because he would have a new teacher for fourth grade in the fall,” Buckley says, “and he needed more than [Smith] could give him.”
Buckley thought Alex needed to be retested to develop a more comprehensive Individualized Education Program (which outlines skills a child with ADHD needs to work on and what learning activities will build on his strengths). But Buckley says Smith was not willing to wait for those measures to take effect. “I said, ‘Alex has the right to an education,’ and she pounded her fist down on the table and said, ‘I cannot teach the other children with that child in my class.'”
That morning, Alex had kicked over a bucket of water (Buckley says he was trying to be funny), earning a weeklong suspension. Buckley kept Aleah out that week too. When they came back, Valente asked Buckley to sign a contract that said she would agree to bring Alex to school for only one hour a day.
“That’s totally against the law,” Buckley says.
Although charter schools enjoy less state oversight than public schools, they are still prohibited from discriminating against students on the basis of disability, which includes ADHD.
On June 1, Buckley hand-delivered a heartfelt letter to the school that outlined her concerns — and contained high praise for Valente.
“The vision you have for a year-round school that adds culture and beauty and a sense of our European roots is so very unique, and it does reach children in a way that nothing else can,” she wrote. “I feel that you care about my children and all of the children at the school. In addition, I myself have grown very fond of you and appreciate your talents as a director. You have worked very hard with very few resources, and you have managed to pull support from the community for the school and make it look effortless.”
Buckley went on to chronicle the events of the past year. “There is nothing I want more than to see my son succeed and be happy, productive and responsible,” Buckley wrote. “I would do anything for that outcome. I fear that this is a critical and even dangerous time for Alex in terms of how he views himself. He is always asking me if he is a ‘bad’ kid. This is not a word that I use at home.”
Buckley requested that Alex be retested to determine if he qualified to receive special services under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. She also asked for a due process hearing to reassess his 504 plan, which outlines other special education services. Schools are required by law to pay for such tests when parents request them.
Shortly after she delivered the letter, Buckley got a call from a nurse at her pediatrician’s office saying that someone from Bisceglia Pharmacy, whose owner is on the Scuola Vita Nuova board of directors, had called to request that Alex’s “demographic information” be faxed to the pharmacy. The caller didn’t leave a phone number or a name but explained that somebody at his church had asked him to start filling prescriptions for Alex.
Buckley had never asked anyone at the pharmacy to start filling Alex’s prescriptions. A few days later, she received a letter telling her the kids had been kicked out because the school had discovered that they did not live in the district.
“They knew we’d been looking for a house in the school district since January,” Buckley says. “They took the money from the state from October until June, and they didn’t want to deal with Alex anymore, so they used that against him. If they said, ‘You have one week to find a Kansas City address,’ we would have done something. But they didn’t do that.”
Valente declines to discuss Alex’s situation, other than to say she has been told by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education that she did nothing wrong. As for Buckley, “She was here illegally. She gave us the wrong address. She has no credibility at all.” Valente denies that the school was aware of Buckley’s situation. “No,” she says, “it would be against the law.”
Buckley recently moved to a new place just a few blocks from the school. Now that they’re in the district again, the kids want to go back to the school to be with their friends. Buckley has even discussed the possibility with Valente, for whom she says she still has “very warm feelings.” But Valente was reluctant. For now, Buckley has decided to continue home-schooling her children.
When Scuola Vita Nuova opened for its second year in September, at least fifteen students had left — a significant number for a school that had only 68 to begin with. The school has since added two grades, and its enrollment is now up to ninety, Valente says; DESE records show the school’s enrollment at 81. “As they left, they came,” Valente says. “The word on the street about the school is a very positive thing. We’re doing something here that is unique and beneficial to children. I don’t know a private or a public school that offers the curriculum that we offer here — plus the kind of dining service that we provide, the culture and just the general love.”
But Valente’s “general love” doesn’t apply to everyone. When it comes to charges made by parents of former students, Valente says, “Oh, those people” and blames the problems on personality differences. “It’s the children who should take precedence. Whether the parent likes me or not should have nothing to do with the type of education [we’re providing]. I don’t know if any one of them complained that the children weren’t getting a good education. No one has ever pulled their child because they didn’t like the educational process. And to pull them out because they don’t like me is personal and very, very silly.”
To address parents’ concerns, a parent advisory council now serves as a liaison between the administration and the parents. “The board meetings are open to all parents,” Valente says, “but there’s a procedure. To be heard at a board meeting, you need to be put on the agenda. You just can’t show up at anybody’s board meeting and just start talking. There’s protocol. The first year of school was brand new for everything. Some of these parents may have expected more, they may have read in the paper and misread that parents can do everything at a school…. We may have had a little bit of confusion.”
Valente says she still wants to have parents’ input — if they’re the right kind of parents. “During the first year, you’re just getting to know the parents. To me it would be almost ridiculous — unless you started with parents a year or a year and a half before opening the school — to just pick people at random and say, ‘Okay, you’re going to be the parent council’ without really knowing them, without them knowing us, knowing really what our vision is. We have a parent council now that is based on people who have talked with us, who have attended the board meetings, put in their volunteer hours, who have brought good and enlightening issues to the board.”
One of those parents is Elizabeth Ohanian. While her children have attended Scuola Vita Nuova since the beginning of this school year — not the “year and a half” Valente says is an ideal amount of time to know a parent before putting her on the council — Ohanian loves the school, and her sons are thriving there. She praises the “very caring” staff, small classes and cultural diversity, and she notes that her second-grader is reading at a fifth-grade level. The parent advisory council meets once a month to address any concerns a parent may feel uncomfortable discussing with Valente — though Ohanian describes Valente as “very accessible.” Ohanian is unfamiliar with last year’s problems and says the only staff change this year has been the departure of the fifth-grade teacher, who has been replaced.
The events of the past year in this insular enclave seem to have been fueled by passionate agendas — Valente’s desire to further the cultural center’s mission with a school that fulfills her childhood fantasies, and the parents’ quest to find the best education for their children. For many parents, Scuola Vita Nuova was a place where charter school dreams turned into more education nightmares in Kansas City.
Valente admits that the school has had some trouble. “We have a five-year plan — all the charter schools have a five-year plan. I would think it would be almost impossible to get it right the first minute.” And she gets frustrated when asked to respond to the criticism that the changes at the school are hard on the students. “That’s not true,” she says. “I think grown-ups need more stability than children. Children need to be flexible. I’m not sure how much stability these children have in their lives, or any of us has in our lives. Our lives change on a day-to-day basis…. These kids go with the flow. It’s the teachers who may need more structure.
“When I grew up, children sat like this,” she adds, tensing her body and sitting up straight with her knees locked together and her arms rigid by her sides. “You could sit like this all day.” These days, kids’ attention spans are far shorter, and teachers need to “teach sound bites.”
“When a parent hears ‘schedule change'” — Valente pauses to emit a mock gasp — “‘Oh, my God,’ but … it could just mean origami is after school today instead of during school.” As for concerns about combining grade levels, Valente maintains it was for only six weeks and that Smith had two teacher’s aides to help her with the thirty kids, giving the class one adult per ten students.
She dismisses the concerns about staff turnover, arguing that no one was fired but that all chose to leave. From her perspective, the original core teachers are no longer there because they had been hired by School Futures, the management company that was initially contracted to run the school. “When a management company comes in, it has a set program, set rules, set curriculum…. It is a cookie-cutter approach. We tried very hard to make these teachers understand what this school is about, but they were hired on a completely different premise,” Valente says.
“It’s not that they weren’t nice teachers or good teachers,” she continues, “but there has to be a certain kind of teacher who works in this school — a teacher who can think out of the box, a teacher who is more creative, a teacher who has flexibility — because these children move, this is like high school, they go from class to class to class…. We only had four [full-time] teachers last year, so if that’s a major turnover, so be it. But we’ll probably still weed out because everybody is not meant for this environment, and this needs to be a team-building effort at this school.”
Much of the problem, she says, was that those teachers were conditioned to teach within the framework of the public school system. “We grow up in public education, we are taught by people that grow up in public education, we go to college and we are taught by people who grow up in public education. Public education for the last 25 years has failed. That system doesn’t work. This school says phooey on that system. We’re going to create our own system.”
Apparently, Scuola Vita Nuova’s “own system” includes continuing to make up special rules when it comes to teacher certification. Valente says the school has sixteen teachers this year; when asked how many of those teachers are certified, she replies, “100 percent,” and produces a letter from the DESE confirming that the school’s faculty is indeed fully certified. However, a call to Jocelyn Strand, author of the letter and head of DESE’s charter school office, reveals that the school’s certification rate is based on a total of five teachers. “It’s a really small school,” Strand tells the Pitch, “and they use additional aides.”
When it comes to the one quantitative method the state will use to monitor charter schools’ progress, the Missouri Assessment Programs, Scuola has scored well. The third grade, which had only about a dozen students at the time, scored above the state average in two of four areas and above the Kansas City district average in all four. But the true test of the school’s effectiveness will come later, when test results can be judged by the baseline set in the first three years.
And if some parents and children are left out, they’ll simply have to find yet another “alternative” to the Kansas City school district.
Valente explains that Scuola Vita Nuova is “what a real charter school is supposed to be like. A charter school is supposed to be, to some degree, an alternative to the situation we have in public education right now. Most charter schools are opened by educators. Educators are used to doing things the way public education is already being done. Here it’s really very, very different because we are not coming at it from an educator’s point of view.”
That might be the only thing everyone who’s been involved with Scuola Vita Nuova agrees on.