The Life-Changing Lottery
To understand what this fight is about, read this brilliant article by Marcus Winters about Democracy Prep charter school in Harlem ("the highest-performing school in Harlem and among the 20 highest-performing middle schools in the entire city") and the horrific regular public school across the street ("the city's single worst middle school"):
Please, please, please," whispered the boy sitting to my left in the crowded auditorium, clenching his fists. Clearly too young for the sixth grade, he seemed to be praying for his brother, who sat nearby. If the brother's name was called from the podium, he would begin sixth grade next year at Democracy Prep, a four-year-old Harlem charter school. The odds were against it: a few days earlier, the 205 names being announced had been randomly drawn from a pool of 1,250 applicants. But finally it happened. "Yes!" the boys' mother yelped, smothering Democracy Prep's newest student in a bear hug. The younger brother beamed.
Still, most people's prayers weren't answered that day. Once the final name was called, disappointment weighed heavily on the faces of the unlucky. Nothing less was at stake than the future of 1,250 children. Democracy Prep's was the last of the charter-school lotteries for the entering class of 2010, which will be known within the school as the "College Class of 2021." Most students whose names weren't called will enter one of Harlem's dreadful traditional public schools, from which they're as likely to drop out as graduate.
So for children whose parents can't afford to pay private-school tuition or move to neighborhoods with good public schools, a simple roll of the dice determines whether or not they will get a quality education. That is horribly unfair to the losers. But the lotteries are proving how good New York City's charter schools are—and helping fuel the charters' growth in Gotham.
…Most schools now conduct their lotteries privately, either because they want to avoid the media attention or because they can't stand seeing the pain on the faces of kids whose names aren't called. (Newark mayor Cory Booker, a charter-school supporter, is so greatly affected by the lotteries that he refuses to attend any more of them.)
Democracy Prep, however, continues to hold a public lottery, intent on showing the world thousands of flesh-and-blood parents desperate to get their children into better schools. My conservative estimate is that more than one-third of all fifth-graders enrolled in public schools in Harlem's District 5 entered Democracy Prep's lottery this year.
What motivates Harlem's parents and children to apply in such numbers to Democracy Prep is a chance to trade up from one of the city's lousiest middle schools to one of its best. Many of the students in Democracy Prep's lottery are zoned for a traditional public middle school called the Academy of Collaborative Education (ACE). According to the metric that New York City uses to evaluate its schools—a complicated mixture of student test scores and school environment—ACE is the city's single worst middle school.
Given a choice, no sane person would send a child to ACE. In the New York City Department of Education's annual survey last year, when asked to evaluate the statement "I feel safe in my school," 79 percent of ACE's teachers "strongly disagreed," while the remaining 21 percent just plain disagreed. The teachers were right to worry: ACE had qualified as a "persistently dangerous" school, according to the standards that New York State has established under the No Child Left Behind act. To achieve that designation, a school must experience at least six "serious" incidents per 100 students for two consecutive years. Serious incidents include such offenses as homicide, robbery, assault resulting in serious physical injury, and use of a weapon.
Many believe that schools like ACE have such toxic environments because the students who attend them are monsters created by poverty and racism. But if that were true, you might expect Democracy Prep to be equally dangerous: its main campus sits directly across the street from ACE; the lottery's preference for children in the local district ensures that most students in the two schools are neighbors; and Seth Andrew, Democracy Prep's founder, estimates that about half of ACE's current students entered his school's lottery in past years. Nevertheless, in the city's survey, all of Democracy Prep's teachers agreed that they felt safe in school.
According to the city's metric, moreover, Democracy Prep is the highest-performing school in Harlem and among the 20 highest-performing middle schools in the entire city. And a commercial test that the school recently administered showed that its average student entered sixth grade reading at about the fifth-grade level and finished the year at nearly the eighth-grade level.
Democracy Prep doesn't boast a special curriculum, fancy classroom-management techniques, or smaller-than-average class sizes. Its success—like that of many good charter schools—has three primary ingredients: efficient use of funds, a culture of high expectations, and a "no excuses" approach to school discipline.
The Life-Changing Lottery
Charter schools offer inner-city kids a shot at success—but only if they're lucky.