2 Teachers Lead Drive to Open Long Beach Charter School : Education: Organizers say the proposal for a campus downtown would reduce administrative costs and boost test scores.

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Two teachers are leading an effort to create the first independent charter school in Long Beach, which they said would save administrative costs while boosting test scores.

The proposed Constellation Community Middle School would enroll about 120 students, all of whom would enter as sixth-graders and remain in the school through eighth grade. At the end of three years, the school would enroll another class of sixth-graders.

Organizers Jim Norris and Mary Ruffner, who teach at Benjamin Franklin Middle School, have gathered signatures on petitions and have asked the Long Beach Unified School District to approve their proposal to set up the school in downtown Long Beach.

The teachers hope that the ethnic makeup of the students attending the school will reflect the population of the downtown area, which is primarily Latino, Cambodian and African American. Facilities at St. Luke's Episcopal Church at Seventh Street and Atlantic Avenue have been listed as a tentative site for the school.

Many district officials said they favor the proposal, calling it an innovative idea that deserves to be tried.

Officials of the union that represents non-teaching employees, however, said they fear that a charter school could cost some employees their jobs.

The board is scheduled to consider the proposal at its meeting Tuesday.

The charter school would receive $432,000 under the same formula as other schools in the district. The staff would consist of four teachers and two bilingual aides. A seven-member council of teachers, parents and community representatives would oversee the school, which would open in the fall of 1995 if approved, Norris said.

Organizers said they hope that teachers would design their own curriculum and arrange their own support services, freeing up money to buy computers and other equipment.

"We have to look at where our priorities are and where we can get the most educational bang for our buck," Norris said. "All of the money (would be) focused right into the classroom."

An official of the California School Employees Assn., which represents such support personnel as secretaries, custodians and instructional aides, questioned whether the school could function with such a small staff.

School organizers "are underestimating the difficulties they are going to encounter without all of the administrative, maintenance and clerical support they would get from the district," said Richard Sharp, labor relations representative for the organization. Sharp said he plans to meet with Norris to discuss the union's concerns.

Schools Supt. Carl A. Cohn said he favors the charter proposal. He pointed out that the school board is encouraging innovative approaches that might help boost student achievement.

"The administration of the school district will not be an obstacle to this going through," he said.

School board member Ed Eveland initially said he was concerned that the small staff would be granted too much administrative independence, but withdrew his opposition after meeting with Norris.

"I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt," Eveland said.

If the board approves the plan, the proposal would be forwarded to the State Board of Education.

If the plan is rejected, the organizers could appeal to the County Office of Education.

A 1992 law allows charter schools to have virtual freedom from local and state school regulations.

About 50 charter schools are operating in the state.

Two charter-school proposals were rejected last August in Compton by Stanley G. Oswalt, then acting administrator, who said that the plans for an elementary school and middle school were incomplete and that the schools might be too costly.

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