By RON COLE
VINDICATOR EDUCATION WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- In 1968, Alex Murphy taught English and social studies at Science Hill Junior High School on the city's East Side.
Down the hallway, Joe Conley taught math.
More than 30 years later, Murphy and Conley -- who went on to successful administrative careers in the public school district -- again are down the hall from each other.
Murphy is the newly appointed superintendent of Eagle Heights Academy, Ohio's largest charter school that enters its fourth year this fall in the former South High School on Market Street.
Conley is the new principal of grades kindergarten to fourth.
Together, the reunited duo hopes to refocus the 988-student school on academics, boosting lagging test scores and turning it into a model school.
"Eagle Heights is amazing, and it's a testimony to the hard work and vision of the people who began the school to see how far they've come in three years," Murphy said. "Therein lies the excitement. There's so much potential here."
The irony of former public-school administrators now leading the state's largest charter school is not lost on Murphy and Conley, especially given the cold welcome public schools statewide have given the charter school movement.
Their goal: But Murphy and Conley say their jobs at Eagle Heights are no different from when they worked for the city schools: Educate kids.
"We're in the business of educating children, and to me it doesn't matter if it's in the public arena or in community schools," said Conley, city schools superintendent from 1994 to 1996.
"It's going to take all of us working together to help our children achieve as well as they can in the classroom," added Murphy, former principal of Chaney, East and Rayen high schools.
Murphy's and Conley's hiring are part of an administrative restructuring as Eagle Heights enters the fourth year of a five-year charter granted by the state.
In 1997, Ohio approved a law creating charter schools, privately operated, publicly funded schools that lawmakers hoped would compete with traditional public schools and improve education statewide.
Eagle Heights, founded by a group of pastors in the Greater Youngstown Coalition of Christians, opened in 1998 for pupils in kindergarten through sixth grade and has added a grade level annually since. This year, the school will add ninth grade.
Since its inception, parents have waited in line to register their kids. This year, the waiting list numbers about 400, Murphy said.
Administrative changes: Changes in the school start at the top. The Rev. Gary Frost, a founder of the school and president of its board from the beginning, left Youngstown in July to become vice president of strategic partnerships for the Southern Baptist Convention.
The Rev. Kenneth Simon, pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church, is the new board president.
Simon said Eagle Height's growth required some administrative changes.
"We had one principal trying to handle two or three jobs," he said. "And it was critical that we put someone in place to oversee the whole operation."
So, the academy tapped Murphy, who left Youngstown in 1992 to become a principal in Baltimore, Md., and in 1994 moved back to Ohio to become principal of Warrensville Heights High School.
Murphy in turn hired Conley, who retired from Youngstown schools in 1997. He also hired Gail Tigner, a Hubbard native and former teacher in DeKalb County, Georgia, to be principal of the academy's fifth through ninth grades.
Murphy said facilities is a top challenge facing the school. Eagle Heights will need another building next school year to accommodate 10th-graders.
But Murphy said his greatest focus will be on raising the level of learning.
Test scores: Eagle Height's test scores, like those of other charter schools in Ohio, have lagged well behind those of traditional public schools.
For instance, 2 percent of Eagle Heights' fourth-graders and 1 percent of sixth-graders passed all parts of the proficiency test on the 2001 state report card. In comparison, the passage rate was 7.7 percent for city public school fourth-graders and 12.1 percent for sixth-graders.
Murphy said those scores must go up. "We will do much better than that in the years ahead," he said.
Jim Ritter, a consultant with the Ohio Department of Education, said Eagle Heights' operations will be reviewed after this school year, at which time the state school board will decide whether to extend the charter another five years.
"They are doing, from what we can see, very well," Ritter said. "Our site visits have been very good."