Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Charter School Tries to Save Itself

Barbara Martinez's article in today's WSJ is about Harlem Day Charter School, which after numerous unsuccessful attempts to improve is effectively shutting down and handing the reins to Democracy Prep charter school to run it (so the kids don't have to find a new school).  I'm sure charter school critics will celebrate this "failure", but as usual they have it all wrong.  What is happening here is exactly what is RIGHT about charter schools: there's ACCOUNTABILITY.  The real question is: why isn't EVERY public school in America subject to the same accountability?! 


EVERY school that is failing to properly educate the great majority of its students, after repeated, good-faith, intensive turnaround efforts (as opposed to the sham, shuffle-the-deck-chairs-on-the-Titanic "turnarounds" that so many failing schools engage in), should be shut down – not in the sense that the students are kicked out, but rather the adults are, and proven operators should be brought in.  Isn't this blindingly obvious?!

But the school never really found its footing. In a visit to the school in May of 2009, SUNY representatives noted that "in most classes, teaching was not effective." For multiple years in a row, Harlem Day failed to perform better than even the dismal showing among the traditional schools in the same neighborhood.

After yet another leadership change last year, including help from outside consultants, Mr. Lambert thought it was possible that a turnaround was at hand. But this past summer, while he was vacationing, he got a phone call about the test scores. In English, only 20% of the Harlem Day students were on grade level, compared with 36% of kids in the rest of the district. In math, 25% were proficient, compared with 46% among the other neighborhood schools.

"I was devastated," he recalled, choking up during the interview

The test scores were the last straw, and he knew that SUNY was likely to call for the school's closing. He started to think of a way to find a proven charter operator to take over the school and do what he, his fellow board members and school staff had been unable to do.

…After Mr. Lambert's suggestion several months ago, SUNY asked charter operators for applications to take over Harlem Day. Only one applied: Democracy Prep Public Schools, which had the highest-ranked middle school in the city this year based on improvement in student performance.

Seth Andrew, founder and superintendent at Democracy Prep, said he is prepared to turn around Harlem Day. Charter schools typically begin with one or two grades, with just a few dozen children, helping to create a culture slowly. In the case of Harlem Day, Democracy Prep would be taking over six grades with 260 children in one fell swoop.

Nevertheless, Mr. Andrew said his organization is qualified to take on the task. He said that 90% of the students who enroll in Democracy are below grade level, and 20% have special needs. "Yet after just a few years," 97% of 10th-graders pass their Regents biology exams and 95% pass their algebra exams, he said.

"We take students that are behind their peers and propel them to new heights rapidly," Mr. Andrew said. Among the methods that Mr. Andrew uses at Democracy Prep are a longer academic day and year, intensive tutoring and student assessments every six weeks to identify weak areas that need more attention.


Charter School Tries to Save Itself


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