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Bruno first began thinking about alternative methods of education when she attended Topeka West High School. She describes herself as a "rowdy" student who found little challenge in traditional classwork. Part of her dream was to have a career in education and toss tradition out the window. For four years, she worked as an assistant principal at Blue Valley Middle School and Center Middle School before moving to Southwest Charter, where she's getting a chance to put her KU thesis to the test.
"You have to put out fires every day, and it's more challenging than a public school," she says. "Any time you start a school from scratch, from birth, that requires a lot of trial and error. It's a tough job, but I love it."
The 32-year-old Bruno, who earns an annual salary of $75,000, is a striking presence. In college, while attending the University of Nevada-Reno as a freshman, she was a swimmer who went to the Division I finals. Bruno now stays in shape by teaching aerobics and kick-boxing -- at Center Middle School, she tutored her students on the finer points of jabbing and punching.
"People underestimate her because she's pretty," says Southwest Charter School board member Ruth Fritts, "but she has the gift to educate. The school is her life."
The school's most tangible signs of achievement since opening are the first-year results of its state test (the MAP) and a national standardized test (the Stanford Nine). Three local charter schools, including Southwest, notched MAP scores higher than those of the Kansas City school district, but Southwest trailed the state of Missouri in three of the four categories listed, according to a report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. On the Stanford Nine last spring, Southwest improved its scores from the previous fall. Bruno says the scores reflect her students' ability to persevere under adverse conditions.
"There's hurdles when you create a start-up school, but we have a solid background," Bruno says. "We are just continuing our focus from last year."
Francis Crow has spent plenty of time in Bruno's office. On one trip there to talk about an impending suspension, Francis told her the school was an example of "parasitic socialism."
Former Southwest eighth-grade teacher Josh Harden overheard the conversation. He'd had Francis in class during a period of the day known as "enrichment class," in which students concentrate on basic skills or bettering skills they already have.
"Francis and I hit it off," Harden says. "I don't know if it was the craziness of the school, but it was easy to realize this kid is very intelligent. But I know Francis can get worked up. When I heard him say that the school is 'parasitic socialism,' [I knew] he's a man after my own heart." Francis says the term "describes people who live off of other people to live. It's like people who insult you to get their popularity; that's how they thrive."
Harden says Francis, like other students, resisted an environment ill-equipped to handle the diversity of its student body -- kids with criminal histories, kids with drug problems, kids with learning disorders, kids from abusive homes and kids who, for the most part, could benefit from a more structured and regimented learning program.
"Francis feels victimized," Harden says. "I was in the front office when Francis had one of his explosions, and he would yell and walk out of the front office, which is bad. Don't think Francis didn't deserve to get suspended. But I think if the school wasn't run in a state of chaos, things would be a lot better. I think if Francis goes to a good school, he will be a doctor or an author. If he's left in that school, he will become a very good criminal."