Southwest Charter School promised it would be different from Kansas City's troubled public schools -- so far it hasn't made the grade.

Unchartered Waters 

Southwest Charter School promised it would be different from Kansas City's troubled public schools -- so far it hasn't made the grade.

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Harden says the high number of suspensions, disciplinary problems, frustrations with the project-based learning concept and a shortage of financial and educational resources are hurting the school. "Teaching there is a nightmare. The open rumor was they refused to expel certain students with flagrant discipline problems because there was a financial price on their head. You can suspend a kid, but after a while, you can lose your state and federal funding. A person doesn't get into education because it's easy -- but it would be nice to have supplies. The school hardly has any educational resources -- running out of paper so you can't make copies."

Harden and other teachers have contributed to the school's high teacher-turnover rate -- according to board president Jim Lloyd, only six out of the first year's twelve teachers came back for the second year. The school, in its first annual accountability report and financial review, says the exiles are "generally due to weak hires."

After one semester, Harden quit his $26,000-a-year position and moved to Colorado with Renee Kammeier, who also had been a Southwest teacher.

"I'm not saying this about all charter schools, but the project-based learning is just a very sort of hip term in education," Harden says in retrospect. "Lee's Summit and places with tons of resources, where you can have lots of projects and computers and funding, can do that. But that's part of the fraud of Southwest -- there is not real project learning going on. We are getting kids at an academic remedial level who were the scraps of the KCMO school district, which hasn't been educating kids for millions of years. It was a good selling point, but students need to learn how to read, write and do math first."

Josh Harden's opinions of Southwest Charter School mirror those of Washburn University education and school law professor Daniel Harden -- his father. The elder Harden, who taught more than a half dozen of the charter school's teachers (his son among them), visited for part of a day with Bruno (also a former Washburn undergrad but not one of Daniel Harden's students), faculty and students earlier in the year.

"It seemed to me they had a good-quality faculty and they were young with a good deal of idealism and wanting to do something," Daniel Harden says. "I believe in charter schools, and I believe in more alternative education. But I believe Southwest is working at a real disadvantage. They came up with a charter that meets progressive assumptions ... but they do not need a lot of progressive [teaching methods]. They need a content-rich curriculum that's structured and presented in an exciting way. These kids need to learn stuff. For the particular population and demographic that they are trying to reach, these kids [need to] be in command of more facts than they are."

Harden says Southwest's charter places too much emphasis on such goals as building self-esteem. "Progressive schools emphasize process instead of content, where a school is all about being supportive. I'm not against the self-esteem stuff, but we have developed a cult of self-esteem. The blind emphasis on self-esteem as a kind of cure-all has been very destructive."

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