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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The younger Harden says Bruno has difficulty living up to the lofty tenets of the school's charter.

"I was given a book by Tracye Bruno about today's paradigm of leadership and how the school was going to be run by consensus. People were going to work democratically and as a team. As things started to erupt, things were thrown quietly out of the window. Then the teachers realized there was this communication break-off. For a while, Tracye Bruno and [assistant principal] Rie Clark weren't seen that much. It was like they were hiding out because things were not going as planned."

And things didn't go as expected when Bruno led the Pitch on a tour of the school two weeks ago. After one of the morning "enrichment" classes, school security guard Charles Banks apprehended two male students in the hall nearby, handcuffing one and body-pressing the other against a wall. Banks sifted through the second boy's pockets and emptied the contents on the floor -- a hair pick, some dollar bills and pocket change.

Bruno reluctantly agreed to interrupt the tour to let the Pitch check out the incident, saying, "You're just looking for the negative, aren't you?" Banks said he had caught the boys trying to run away. He had found them carrying ammunition -- BB pellets -- and was certain there must have been a gun somewhere nearby.

Bruno downplayed the situation. She and assistant principal Clark touted the school's discipline record. "I think everyone is concerned about discpline everywhere," says Clark. "You are going to have your share of discipline problems in middle school, and we're taking proactive steps to address these problems. We utilize a program called B.I.S.T. [Behavior Intervention Strategy Team]. It's unique in that it's not punitive and it works on relationship building among students and faculty and addressing the issue behind what's causing the behavior rather than punishing kids for the behavior. It lets you get to the root of it."

When it comes to discipline problems, Bruno says, Southwest Charter School is "no different than any other public school."

But wasn't the point of starting a charter school to be different?

Lois McGee sends her son, Connor (not their real names), to Southwest Charter because she believes that "when there is a discipline problem, they are not namby-pamby about it." She also says Southwest's project-based learning curriculum can improve her son's academic potential. She says Connor is a "master of evading schoolwork" and his test scores weren't good enough to get him into Lincoln College Prep.

McGee says one of Connor's first projects became a tip-off that he wasn't grasping his schoolwork. After Connor's team completed a scale-model design of Kansas City's past, present and future, the mother -- who has some design experience -- noticed that the project fell short of the assignment's requirements.

"They put it on display in the hall, and it wasn't well-drawn to scale," McGee says. "Even though they give them time to work on it in class, it's too vast. Maybe they should have smaller, less-encompassing projects. We're setting them up for failure, and no one wants them to fail."

But Connor also has a serious marijuana habit, something McGee didn't know until he transferred to Southwest.

"It might be part his fault, but things are overwhelming at Southwest," she says, "and I don't know if Connor needs to be in a more defined program."

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