CASTLE ROCK, Colo. -- In a strip shopping center, just past Dr. Wally Unruh's Chiropractic Arts center and the Cat's Meow florist, sits what many people are increasingly touting as the best hope for saving America's public schools.
Housed in a converted grocery store, the Academy Charter School is a new kind of public school that operates autonomously rather than under local school district control and gets its financing directly from the state.
Like charter schools opening across the country, Academy -- where 271 well-scrubbed students follow a strict dress code and study a back-to-basics curriculum -- was put together from scratch by a group of parents and educators unhappy with the choices offered by their school district.
To critics, who include teachers unions, school district administrators and some minority groups, charter schools are either a disruptive drain on finances or an attempt to run quasi-private, elitist schools within the framework of public education.
But at a time of extraordinary ferment in public education, charter schools have caught fire for many parents and educators as the best hope for offering real choices within the framework of public education.
"A lot of people are looking at charter schools as the last chance to create a public system of choice in education," said Rex Brown, who is both an educational researcher and the architect of the most experimental charter school thus far proposed in Colorado, where 14 have already opened.
"Either the public schools are going to find a way to provide choices and be responsive to their clients, or we're going to end up with vouchers, and that will not be for the good of public education in this country."
Charter schools are hardly the only proposal being advocated by parents and educators seeking alternatives.
Other options include vouchers, government payments that allow parents to choose private schools; privatization, like the plan recently adopted by Hartford, Conn., to hire a for-profit company to manage its schools; and home schooling, which is increasingly moving beyond what began with a largely religious base.
But increasingly charter schools -- open to all, accountable to taxpayers and subject to state and federal health, safety and civil-rights laws and desegregation orders -- are being touted as the most equitable and promising of these experiments.
Many advocates see them not as alternatives to other innovations, but as a new framework that could incorporate the other options. Since the first charter law was passed in Minnesota in 1991, 11 states have passed laws authorizing such schools.
Proponents from New Jersey to Texas are preparing to push for charter schools in their next legislative sessions.
Charter schools are too new to have a track record, but proponents say they have already had the positive effect of engaging parents and forcing schools to be more receptive to community needs.
Only 96 have opened nationwide, most in the last year. Of more than 600,000 public school students in Colorado, 3,500 are enrolled in the new schools.
The state, the third to pass a charter law and the one with the most charter schools per capita, is an example of some of the forces that have created so much interest in the schools and some of the formidable obstacles they face.
In less than two years, the charter movement has become a significant force in Colorado. Schools range from the Community Involved Charter School outside Denver, where the dress code tends toward Mohawks and earrings and the accent is on experimental learning, to the Clayton Charter School in Denver, which serves pre-schoolers through at-risk second graders from inner-city neighborhoods.
Four more schools have already been approved for next year. And proponents say the existence of the charter schools has led several districts to open their own alternative schools to compete with proposed charter ideas.
In Colorado, as in other states, existing schools can apply for charter status, but all the charter schools so far are new ones here.