A dropout and a procrastinator. Principals and teachers longing for more independence. An educator with a vision for using the arts to teach the disabled. Parents searching for quality and commitment they found lacking in traditional public schools.

These are the faces of the District's fledgling public charter movement, a radical experiment in educational autonomy that has taken root in the nation's capital in the past three years. About 7,000 students--roughly one in 11 of the public system's enrollment--now attend charter schools, according to preliminary figures, and advocates say the numbers are growing faster here than anywhere in the country.

Most of the city's 31 public charter school campuses opened in only the past year or two, so it is too early to judge their success by standardized test scores or other conventional measures. Yet the burgeoning campaign is testimony to the widespread desire for an alternative to neighborhood schools that often suffer from decrepit facilities, overwhelmed teachers and dismal student performance.

Like traditional public schools, charters receive a set amount of tax revenue per student (about $7,600 last year), depending on grade level and whether the student has disabilities or limited English proficiency. If they continue to attract youngsters--and enrollment nearly doubled this year--charter schools could divert millions of dollars from the city's troubled school system.

The charter explosion has left some casualties. Two schools closed in the face of financial and administrative problems. Another opened this fall without authorization, stranding scores of students when it was forced to shut down a few weeks later. Such failures underscore the risks of charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently operated. There is little oversight or safety net. If a school collapses, its students and staff are on their own.

Charters must accept students on a first-come basis or by lottery. They may require students and parents to sign contracts promising faithful study habits or good behavior, and by their nature, charters tend to attract families committed to seeking a quality education. In the District, applicants who want to start schools are lining up. Educators and families are flooding information sessions--each looking for their own version of a school that works.

If recent experience is any indication, many will find it, but some will not.

Making a Fresh Start

Principal Irasema Salcido calls them two of her "transformed" students: Juan Avila, 16, a former dropout with a juvenile record for assault, and Lauriel Patterson, 15, who glided through middle school goofing off with her friends. Both came to Cesar Chavez Public Charter High School last year seeking a fresh start after years in D.C. public schools.

It was harder than they thought.

Ill-prepared academically, they found out last spring they would have to repeat the ninth grade--along with a whopping three-fourths of their classmates.

Conventional wisdom--and educational research--says that when you retain students, they drop out. But more than 30 of the 45 youngsters, including Juan and Lauriel returned to Chavez, a college-preparatory school that uses public policy issues to shape instruction.

"It's different here," said Juan, who lost his way at Bell Multicultural High School facing large classes and gang rivalries. "The classes are smaller. The teachers . . . will even give you their number and you can call them at home to help you."

Going to Chavez is part of Avila's court-ordered probation agreement. He attends class regularly, turns in assignments on time and plans to stay after his court supervision ends. He doesn't mind that the school requires Saturday classes and gives only one month of summer vacation. "I'd only be sleeping anyway," he said.

Located in a former office building in an industrial strip off Florida Avenue NW, Chavez added a 10th-grade class this year, and will expand to 12th grade in fall of 2001. The entrance is in an alley. The elevator doesn't always work.

Lauriel chose Chavez instead of Ballou High School in Southeast Washington, where she assumed her teachers, like those in middle school, would let her and her friends coast from grade to grade. Although she said she wanted something more, she took her old study habits with her.

"I thought it would be like a regular D.C. public school, where I didn't have to work all year but could buckle down at the end of the year and get by," she said.

The teachers at Chavez thought differently.

Having to repeat ninth grade seems to have gotten through to Lauriel in a way that switching schools did not.

"Now I'm doing a lot of work and doing much better," she said. "I just realized I had to."

Being in Charge

Although it is decorated with stuffed animals and brightly colored children's books, the office of principal Andrea Robinson at Community Academy Public Charter School has been dubbed "the War Room."

It is here, around a polished redwood table, that Robinson and the rest of the school's leadership team meet to solve problems. Topic A at a recent session was a leak in a second-floor classroom of the old D.C. vocational school building that Community Academy rents on 13th and Allison streets NW.

Three of the five people at the table--Robinson, school operations chief Tony Upson and educational consultant Maurice Sykes--are former D.C. school administrators. Robinson took her job after 35 years with the school system, the last few as principal of nearby Garrison Elementary.

At Garrison, Robinson said, leaks meant she would have to "call somebody, and get put on hold, and wait for someone to come out." Her charter school has an independent maintenance contract. At the meeting, Upson reported that he had already called the contractor, who arrived within the hour, identified the problem and fixed it.

Walking the halls of Community Academy can be like attending a D.C. schools reunion: teachers, an assistant principal and others have followed Robinson here, searching for a focus on learning that Robinson believes the charter movement offers. It is one of at least eight charter campuses headed by former D.C. administrators. Another veteran educator founded a math and science high school, but was ousted after a year by the charter school's board and has since returned to the school system.

Robinson revels in being able to decide which teachers, equipment and programs to invest in. She offers salaries as high as those in some neighboring suburbs but insists on tough one-year teaching contracts, which soon will include some version of performance-based pay.

Both parents and teachers are required to volunteer in the after-school program. First-grade classes are limited to 15 students or less. School starts early and ends late, and summer break lasts only a month. Spanish--very rare for a D.C. elementary school--is taught starting in second grade.

With freedom comes responsibility. Robinson recalled putting off some tedious paperwork last school year and thinking about how at Garrison, bureaucratic obstacles could often be blamed on the school system.

But at Community Academy, "if it doesn't get done, then I didn't do it" she said. "I can't blame anyone else."

Choosing an Alternative

Last year, Katrina Taylor accepted a pamphlet from a young man on 16th Street NW--and soon ended her search for a school for her 5-year-old son, David.

She wanted to avoid the public schools where she felt her teenage daughter had languished. Private schools were too expensive, and the only charter school she knew about--Marcus Garvey--had just had its charter revoked.

But here was Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom Public Charter School, an experiment about to be launched in a Mount Pleasant church basement. The pamphlet promised small, nurturing classes and a bilingual curriculum. Taylor went to the open house and was sold.

"From what I could see and feel, I just felt that this would be a good place," she said the other day. She had just finished reading a story to a first-grade class in the multipurpose room, where white sheets dotted with student art projects cover the church bulletin boards.

Stokes started with 35 students and has grown to 76 kindergarten to second-graders, spilling onto the church's main floor. Next fall, it will add third-graders and will need more space.

Taylor spends every Tuesday at the school, helping in classrooms, monitoring the lunchroom, taking a group of second-graders to afternoon tennis class uptown. Other parents help with paperwork, serving breakfast and publishing a weekly newsletter. One mother gave an impromptu tortilla lesson to the children last month, freeing teachers to attend a special training session.

Taylor said the collaborative atmosphere makes her feel like a partner in her son's education. David has thrived. He learned to read last year and now tackles books well beyond his grade level. To Taylor, his enthusiasm is far more important than the school's makeshift quarters or the lack of a playground.

"This is my school. This is our school. I feel very responsible for doing my part here," she said. "I feel very appreciative that they want my input, because usually in the public schools, they want parents to just grit their teeth and bear it."

Realizing a Dream

Seven students intently watched Jude Cranitch's long fingers as he pinched white and purple Sculpey clay into a human form.

"The neck is very important," he instructed. "You don't just stick a ball [of clay] on there."

The students began rolling and twisting and molding their own tiny sculptures, the last step in designing and building a model neighborhood.

"Do you like this, Mr. Jude?" asked an eager Terrence Thomas, 7. Mr. Jude did.

They sat in one of two large, airy art studios at School for the Arts in Learning (SAIL). The public charter school is packed with paints, brushes, chalk, crayons and all manner of art tools used to help teach math, language and other subjects to children with special needs and learning disabilities.

"You have to think of arts as a language," said founder L. Lawrence Riccio. "For some kids, teaching through that language allows them to express themselves in a way that is acceptable to those around them who might not understand them otherwise."

Riccio's 74-student school opened last year and serves kindergarten through grade 3--with plans to expand to fifth grade.

About one-third of the city's charter schools have specialized missions--adult education, for example, or training in hospitality or construction careers. Each represents an area where public school officials acknowledge their system is lacking.

Perhaps the most egregious void has been in building programs for the disabled, which is what SAIL is all about. Riccio dreamed of creating the school years ago but could not convince then-superintendent Franklin Smith. But with the charter movement offering the opportunity, he opened the school downtown in a former office building, in partnership with Washington Very Special Arts, his nonprofit arts-in-education organization. Renovations to accommodate wheelchairs are planned.

Riccio has assembled a team of teachers and therapists to work with the children, most of whom have language developmental problems. At least one is autistic. There are two therapy rooms, but the specialists also work in the classrooms so as not to isolate individual children.

The students seem to view the school as a haven, where their teachers understand them and are able to cope with their problems.

"They used to holler at me all the time," Juwan Thurston, 7, said of his old school. "Here they don't."

Left Adrift

Robin Ashton gambled her seven children's education and her livelihood last year on a newly opened charter school--and lost.

Teacher turnover at Young Technocrats Math and Science Public Laboratory Charter School left her two oldest daughters without the math class they needed to graduate. Then Tiara Laury, Ashton's bright, ambitious 15-year-old, quit Technocrats midyear, frustrated with the chaotic combination of disruptive students and inexperienced teachers.

A fourth daughter, Johnese McFail, 12, was stunned by the lack of control in Technocrat halls and classrooms. "I felt like I was being cheated," she said.

Three younger boys fared better in Technocrat's well-regarded early childhood program. But they, like their siblings and hundreds of other students, were left adrift when Technocrats shut down in June because of financial and management problems.

The closure also ended Ashton's job as a school security guard, which she had taken to be near her children.

"All it turned out to be was a crapshoot," said Ashton, 35, who tried to instill college dreams in her children after her own plans were derailed by an early marriage to an Army man and two babies before she graduated from high school. "They lost a lot of things they can't get back now."

Ashton, now a single parent, was wary of putting her large family into regular public schools when she moved to the District from Prince George's County about a year ago. She thought she had found a solution in Young Technocrats, which promised academic excellence from pre-K through 12th grade.

Now she berates herself for believing school organizers when they assured her that a decrepit former D.C. school building they had rented would be fixed, that the chaos of the first few weeks would subside and that classrooms would be filled with technology, top teachers and students who were eager to learn.

"They said, 'Bear with us, because we're going to grow together,' " Ashton recalled. "Nothing ever changed."

One daughter tried another charter school, where the teachers weren't much better and the laptop computer she was promised never materialized.

Ashton spent the summer scrambling to find new schools.

Her oldest daughter took the needed math course in D.C. summer school but is waiting for charter officials to locate some of her paperwork and issue a diploma. Her sister is making up the math credit this year. Both plan to go to college.

Tiara, an aspiring pediatrician in a rush to graduate, declined a scholarship to Bishop McNamara High School because officials there said she would have to repeat ninth grade to make up for last year's chaos. Instead, she attends a much less challenging D.C. vocational high school, where she combines regular studies with training to work in a medical office.

Her younger brothers are at a neighborhood elementary school, and struggling. Two of them have learning disabilities. Ashton said she is having trouble locating their Technocrat records and getting their new school to provide the services they need.

She visited several charter schools hoping to find a better place for Tiara and the boys. But the schools were either just getting ready to open or in the midst of moving to new sites--and Ashton was wary.

The only place that won her confidence was Hyde Leadership Public Charter School--located, ironically, in the old Technocrats building at First and T streets NE.

Ashton was impressed by the seventh- to ninth-grade school's emphasis on building character and demanding commitments from both students and parents. She was reassured that the Hyde organization runs successful schools elsewhere and has financial reserves to help the school surmount any startup hurdles.

Johnese enrolled in seventh grade. She describes her teachers and principal as committed and attentive, and says the school embodies what she thought a charter would be.

"We have to give [charter schools] a chance--and we do need an alternative from D.C. public schools," Ashton said. "We need to monitor more carefully. . . . Don't go by what's on paper. Just by being there, that's the only way to know what's happening."

Challenging the Students

When Edison-Friendship Public Charter School's new middle school opened this fall, science teacher Virginia Allen-Mazique told her students' parents that she meant business.

They had to sign a contract saying they understood their child was responsible for a series of research projects--and there was no excuse for failure.

To her delighted surprise, she said, there were no complaints. Parents were happy to comply.

"My students want to be here, and it makes a big difference," said Allen-Mazique, who also serves as eighth-grade science coordinator for the campus, housed in a former D.C. school in a tough neighborhood off Benning Road NE.

Allen-Mazique says she can't quite believe her good fortune in being at Edison, which launched two elementary schools last year and now enrolls about 2,000 students--nearly one-third of the charter population.

A former medical student who decided to become a teacher after a near-fatal car accident, Allen-Mazique can easily tick off differences between Edison and Takoma Elementary School, the D.C. public school where she taught before.

Parent enthusiasm and involvement is one factor. Support from the school's administration is another. Teachers in traditional public schools who succeed often do it in spite of the administration, she said. At Edison, administrators are partners.

"I have more freedom," she said, explaining that she has leeway to try innovative teaching methods, make outside partnerships and take field trips. Administrators often visit class.

Another difference, she said, is the resources provided by Edison, one of three D.C. charter schools that contract with private for-profit companies to manage daily operations.

"Kids have more technology than they have ever seen," she said.

Each Edison teacher is given a laptop, and students get iMac computers to take home starting in third grade. Such perks help cushion the rigor of the Edison calendar: School runs from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., 10 1/2 months a year.

"We are basically making it impossible for these students to fail," Allen-Mazique said.

"We know they have to be challenged because kids who aren't get bored. You have to challenge them, and that's just what we are doing."

DISTRICT CHARTER SCHOOLS

About one in every 11 District public school students is enrolled in a charter school that was opened within the last three years, according to preliminary figures. A look at where they are located and charter school enrollment in the District:

ELEMENTARY

1. Children's Studio School

2. Community Academy -- elementary campus

3. Edison Friendship -- Chamberlain Campus

4. Edison Friendship -- Woodbridge Campus

5. Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom School

6. Ideal Academy PCS

7. Meridian PCS

8. SouthEast Academy of Academic Excellence

9. Arts and Technology Academy

10. School for the Arts in Learning

11. World

ELEMENTARY/MIDDLE SCHOOLS

12. The Village Learning Center

13. Roots PCS

MIDDLE/JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOLS

14. Community Academy -- middle school campus

15. Edison Friendship -- Blow Pierce Campus

16. Hyde PCS

17. Options PCS

18. SEED PCS

MIDDLE/HIGH SCHOOLS

19. New Vistas PCS

HIGH SCHOOLS

20. Associates for Renewal in Education

21. Booker T. Washington PCS for Technical Arts

22. Carlos Rosario International PCS

23. Cesar Chavez PCS

24. Hospitality PCS

25. Integrated Design Electronics Academy

26. Maya Angelou PCS

27. Next Step PCS

28. Richard Milburn PCS -- Rabaut HUB

29. Richard Milburn PCS -- Carver HUB

30. Techworld PCS

31. Washington Mathematics, Science and Technology PCS

Charter school enrollment, by grades (total: 7043):

Preschool: 87

Pre-kindergarten: 250

Kindergarten: 631

First grade: 630

Second grade: 599

Third grade: 543

Fourth grade: 496

Fifth grade: 427

Sixth grade: 445

Seventh grade: 569

Eighth grade: 428

Ninth grade: 615

10th grade: 443

11th grade: 149

12th grade: 126

Adult: 530

Other: 75

SOURCES: District of Columbia Board of Education, D.C. Public Charter School Board, D.C. Public Charter School Resource Center

CAPTION: At School for the Arts in Learning, which focuses on special-needs students, Michael Dugger leads second-graders in a morning meeting.

CAPTION: Former dropout Juan Avila, 16, found success at Chavez, a charter high school.

CAPTION: Virginia Allen-Mazique collects papers from her science students at Edison-Friendship Public Charter School's middle school. "My students want to be here, and it makes a big difference," says the former public school teacher.

CAPTION: Ruby Macklin helps Norman Consert, 8, with his penmanship at School for the Arts in Learning, which uses art to teach students with special needs.

CAPTION: At School for the Arts in Learning, Jude Cranitch, center, helps 7-year-olds Terrance Thomas, left, and Juwan Thurston craft human forms from clay.