Sunday, October 01, 2006

Visit to the Carl Icahn Charter School and one teacher's typical story

I visited the Carl Icahn Charter School last week, which just reported the highest % of kids reading at grade level of any charter school in the state (above 80% in all but one grade level).  It started 5 years ago with K-2 and now has roughly 280 students in grades K-7, which will grow to K-8 next year (unclear if it will grow to high school afterward).  It's located off the Cross Bronx Expressway and, as one would expect, the demographics are roughly 80% black and 20% Hispanic, the great majority of which are low income.  The school spends about $12,000/child (a bit higher than the roughly $11,000 avg. for NYC), with the extra money going to additional teachers, bringing the average class size down to 18.  More info is at
It was quite different in many ways from KIPP, North Star, etc., yet it's achieving at the same remarkable level, so it just goes to show that there are many ways to skin this cat.  The core is the same, however:
a) There's great leadership.  The principal, Jeffrey Litt, is a long-time veteran of the NYC public school system, where he was a real innovator and renegade. 
b) The principal recruits top-notch teachers and then supports in every way so they can be highly effective.
c) There is regular (roughly monthly) internal testing so teachers can know whether students are learning the material and make appropriate adjustments.
d) There's a strong culture, with a major focus on order/discipline.
e) There are high expectations -- every child is expected to go to college.
But outside these core similarities, I observed some differences:
a) Nearly every charter school I've seen has a young leader (usually a TFA alum), whereas Litt is a grizzled veteran.
b) There's only a slightly extended school day -- 8:30-4 -- and no Saturdays or summer school (though maybe school started a week early in August?).
c) There are no TFA teachers on staff -- most of the teachers appear to have been recruiting from the NYC public schools (see below for one teacher's story).
d) There were few posters with slogans on the wall ("Work Hard.  Be Nice.", "Climbing the Mountain to College", etc.).
e) I didn't observe any of the teaching techniques that involved all the students chanting vocabulary words, doing multiplication with "oom-pop-drop" and the like.
I highlight these differences not to make any judgments, but rather to show that schools can be highly successful with many different approaches, as long as the core fundamentals are in place, namely high-quality leadership and teachers, who build a strong culture and community.
I spoke with one of the teachers and had quite an interesting conversation:
Me: Where did you teach before here?
Her: A PS XX (I forget the number).
Me: What was the school like?
Her: (She described your usual failing inner-city school.)
Me: How do you like teaching here?
Her: Oh my goodness!  I feel like I've died and gone to heaven!  Seriously!
Me: What are the differences between your old school and here?
Her: (Laughs) Everything!
Me: Like what are the major things?
Her: There's respect here: the principal and teachers respect each other, the students and teachers respect each other...
Me: But these are the same students as in your old school?
Her: Yes, but the teachers aren't the same.
Me: If you were made principal of your old school and could keep only the teachers there that you wanted to keep, what percentage of them would you keep?
Her: Not very many.  All of the good teachers had left so the remaining ones were mostly rookies.
Me: Why did all of the good teachers leave?
Her: The principal.  She was very cold and mean, marching down the hallways with her arms crossed and a glare on her face.
Me: Doesn't everyone know she's a lousy principal?
Her: Of course.  She's been this way for a LONG time.
Me: Well why isn't she fired?
Her: (Looks at me like I'm the most naive, clueless fool on the planet and finally says,) There's no-one to replace her.
Me: Surely there must be some dynamic, up-and-coming assistant principals?
Her: It's just not done.  She's a veteran and would organize parents to protest and make a huge fuss if you tried to fire her.
This, my friends, captures the fundamental problem with our public schools: FAR too many principals and teachers who EVERYONE knows are horribly incompetent are left alone to commit educational malpractice, year in and year out, AND NOBODY DOES ANYTHING!!!!!  WHAT ABOUT THE CHILDREN?!?!?!!?!!?

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