Michael Connelly | Mosaica Education | New York City

It's Friday afternoon in Mr. Schwartz's third-grade class at Our World Neighborhood Charter School in Astoria, Queens. Kids decked out in baggy jeans and fake furs are jumping up from their desks and shouting out of turn. The unruliness might reasonably be chalked up to the cheese pizza and chocolate pudding lunch; the impending weekend; the wintry cancellation of recess; or the general state of inner city public education. In fact, the thing that has the students all buzzed up is...long division. There's a contest, you see, and at schools that are run, as this one is, by Mosaica Education, students enjoy such things.

"Our mission is to offer choice from the monopoly and demonstrate that private enterprise can operate public education," says Michael Connelly, the CEO of Mosaica. He joined the company in 1998, a year after it was founded by a literature professor named Dawn Eidelman and her husband, Gene, a Russian defector turned real estate developer. The couple had previous educational experience running corporate child care centers, and Dawn wanted to try out a humanities-based curriculum of her own design, called Paragon, in a public school environment. They paid out of their own pockets for their first school, which opened in Saginaw, Mich., in 1997.

A school charter is issued (by a local school district or a state agency, depending on the state) to a community-based nonprofit group. A for-profit educational service company like Mosaica can enter into a management contract with the school board in that community. The company is then responsible for everything under the roof: curriculum, back-office operations, budgeting, hiring and firing. (The roof itself, and the rest of the building, are the school district's responsibility.) Some 13,000 students are now enrolled in 51 Mosaica schools in eight states, the District of Columbia, and Qatar.

Connelly's central selling point is Mosaica's curriculum. Students take standard courses in the morning and spend the afternoon in Paragon, in which each grade studies different aspects of a period in history. The Renaissance section might find kindergartners learning motor skills while buckling and lacing royal attire for a masquerade ball, fourth-graders painting their own versions of the Mona Lisa, and fifth-graders mapping out a Viking exploration and deciding what to do when the silver pennies run out.

The jury is still out on charter schools, which educate a tiny fraction of the number of kids enrolled in public schools. The 2003 Nation's Report Card study from the Department of Education reported that students in charter schools performed worse than public school students on reading and math tests. Connelly says the data is accurate, but the conclusions are facile -- charter schools are typically found in disadvantaged areas with underperforming kids, he says, and scores are bound to be lower. (The study did, however, break down categories by geography and income.) He points to a Brookings Institution study that shows greater academic growth at charter schools and another study that found that the average Mosaica student's test score increased 17.4% in 2003-04. At Our World Neighborhood in Queens, the customers seem pleased. "It's a very creative, interesting school," says Nicole, age 9, "and that's compliments of Ms. Gould's third-grade class."