John A. Reisenbach Charter School

KAROLYN BELCHER, the forceful young principal of the John A. Reisenbach Charter School, sat in her office on a recent Thursday, sniffling slightly.

''I think I'm officially bitter,'' she said with a catch in her voice as she worked her way through a pile of red eighth-grade diplomas, flipping each one over, signing it, and laying it on a second stack. ''It's hard to see five years come to this. At least the kids are graduating.''

These eighth graders are the last class at Reisenbach, a charter school on West 117th Street in Harlem that Ms. Belcher has guided since its founding in 1999. Charter schools, state-financed, privately run alternatives to traditional public schools, have unusual freedom to operate, but they must submit to periodic and grueling review. In New York, the toughest review comes every five years, when a state evaluator, in this case the State University of New York Board of Trustees, must decide whether to renew the school charter.

Last February, the board decided not to do so for Reisenbach, influenced in part by low test scores its students received in 2003. Two weeks ago, amid calls for a reprieve based on new, higher scores, and after a nerve-racking period of flux, the board affirmed its earlier decision…

This intense parental loyalty makes closing charter schools very difficult. ''There's a huge sympathy factor to parents who look you in the eye and say, 'My child loves this school, and I'm not sending them away,''' said Peter Murphy, formerly a vice president of the Charter Schools Institute, an expert body that advises the SUNY board. ''It grips your soul. Nobody wants to tell these parents, 'Sorry, we've got to go by the book here.''' But, he added: ''What are charters supposed to be about? They're supposed to be about unemotional issues.''

By ''unemotional issues,'' Mr. Murphy means measurable indices of a school's performance: how well its curriculum is designed, whether there are provisions for self-review and -- most important -- how the students test. The Charter Schools Institute found Reisenbach had fallen short in all of these respects…

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