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Cloning A Charter School From Connecticut

by Marcia Biederman, Aug 03, 2004
 
 

As part of his plan to open 50 charter schools in New York City over the next five years, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has invited a successful Connecticut charter school to clone itself here.

On its face, the plan seems sound. Many parents in this city would welcome the chance to send their children to a school like Amistad Academy, a small New Haven middle school, where nearly all students are black or Hispanic. Chosen by random lottery, most entering students are struggling readers. By eighth grade, they're winning prep-school scholarships and outperforming white suburban kids on standardized tests.

Even the usually skeptical New Haven Advocate, the city's alternative newspaper, dubbed Amistad "a school that works." A glowing report in that paper described orderly rows of kids in crisp uniforms discussing Hamlet with a passionate teacher. School begins at 7:30 and ends at 5. Parents contractually agree to unplug the TV and oversee homework.

Bolstered by $1 million in private donations and Mayor Bloomberg's cheerleading, Amistad leaders plan to open three schools here in the fall of 2005 and two more the following year

Good news for New York? Possibly. Anyone who's seen "All About Eve" knows that New Haven used to be Broadway's barometer: shows that survived out-of-town tryouts there often thrived here.

But not every production survived the transition to the big stage, and in Amistad Academy's case, we're talking about a production of Lilliputian proportions.

Test score results at Amistad Academy are based on low numbers. The school opened in 1999 with 84 students in fifth and sixth grades. Even after adding Grades 7 and 8, enrollment last year totaled just 250.

In the Connecticut education department's strategic school profile for Amistad for 2001-2002, [In PDF Format] the most recent available, Amistad reported academic strides made by its eighth graders. Most had entered in sixth grade with below-par scores in writing and math on standardized state tests. Two years later, all but four kids ranked at "proficiency" or "mastery" level.

Impressive to be sure, but since the entire 8th grade class totaled 32 students, the four lagging behind grade level comprised 12.5 percent of the class.

And can New York replicate Amistad Academy's small class sizes? In most New Haven public schools, most middle school classes have 27 or 28 students. In New York, where middle school class rosters routinely exceed 30, many parents would be thrilled with that.

Yet Amistad Academy's classes are even smaller. According to a report filed by the school for the 2000-01 school year, seventh-grade classes at that time averaged 13.1 students. Pat Lucan, president of the New Haven Federation of Teachers, noted that unionized New Haven teachers could probably achieve the same results as Amistad's non-union staff with similarly sized classes.

How does Amistad Academy afford its teacher-student ratio? Like other charter schools, Amistad depends on private donations to supplement state funding. Its founder and executive director, Dacia Toll, a Yale Law School graduate, is widely respected and, according to many in New Haven, well connected. The school's New York debut already has financial backers who will want to see it succeed here.

According to teachers' union president Lucan, Amistad also benefits from the unpaid labor donated by its non-union teachers, who work longer hours than the typical New Haven school day. While praising the school, Lucan said, "Many of us have economic concerns that don't permit us to do what, altruistically, we would like to do."

It's a safe bet that Mayor Bloomberg finds Amistad Academy's non-union status at least as attractive as its test scores. "Teachers in charter schools are typically non-union. That's supposed to be part of their appeal," said Ron Davis, a spokesman for the United Federation of Teachers, which represents the city public school teachers.

How ironic that Mayor Bloomberg, after wresting control of the city's schools, now promotes charter schools, which operate outside Department of Education control and are accountable only to the state.

Amistad Academy is to be commended for its accomplishments. But does New York really need to outsource educational talent? Already here, under the mayor's control are schools with Amistad Academy's potential. They, too, have raised the scores of low-income, minority students.

Even more amazing, they have accomplished this with overcrowded classrooms, inadequate textbooks, antiquated labs - and unionized teachers.

At M.S. 61 in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, nearly 1,400 students are crammed into a drab building. Most are low-income black students with roots in the Caribbean; several bilingual classes are taught partly in Haitian Creole.

This middle school has its share of problems. In fact, it appears on a list of hard-to-staff schools, to which the city tries to lure teachers with the promise of tuition reimbursement dollars called "Teacher of Tomorrow" scholarships, but known informally as "combat pay."

Yet something remarkable is going on at M.S. 61. Several years ago, dedicated teachers and administrators established a rigorous academic program at this Brooklyn middle school. It's named the Britou-Moore Academy, after two students who tragically died on a college-sponsored trip; one perished trying to save the other.

Unlike the Connecticut academy, which admits students by open lottery, M.S. 61's scholar's program has some selection criteria. But it is not strictly an honors program. As at the New Haven school, only hard-working students with dedicated parents even cast in their lots. Sixth graders are accepted on the basis of standardized test results. But other M.S. 61 students can transfer to the program in seventh and eighth grade if they're prepared to do the work, regardless of their scores.

Because the school hesitates to turn students away - unlike charter schools with limited lottery slots -- the seventh- and eighth-grade classes in the Britou-Moore program are packed. Yet students flourish. As at Amistad, Britou-Moore students wear uniforms. Uniforms are not unusual in New York City public schools. And, as at Amistad, minority students are held to high expectations.

Like many other unionized teachers in New York, Britou-Moore teachers often donate hours of their own time to the students. And the staff of this Brooklyn program does not judge progress solely by scores on citywide and statewide tests. Students willing to take on the workload can enroll in Regents courses in math and science. As a result, many graduate from middle school with some high-school credits already under their belts.

This year, 19 students from M.S. 61 went to the selective summer programs run by Johns Hopkins University's Center for Talented Youth. They qualified by scoring well on the S.A.T.s. That's right: they took the college boards while still in middle school.

Interestingly, several students at M.S. 61 made the Johns Hopkins cut on the college boards despite scoring at Level 2, supposedly below grade level, on statewide eighth grade exams. That raises questions about the validity of standardized test scores, and about schools like Amistad, where administrators have proposed tying teacher evaluations to the performance of students on Connecticut's tests.

It wasn't easy for the cramped middle school in Crown Heights to prep middle-school kids for the college boards. For one thing, they had to raise money for the test fees. And even in the Britou-Moore program, M.S. 61 students sometimes have to share textbooks. Some of the school's classrooms lack enough desks to seat students..

Instead of bringing in productions from elsewhere, perhaps the mayor should focus on the standing-room-only show right under his nose.

Also, though the Amistad Academy's name trades on a noble moment in New Haven's past -- the trial and acquittal there of Africans who had taken control of the Amistad slave ship - the school's non-union status is reminiscent of a sadder chapter in Connecticut history: the jailing of teachers in the 1970s for breaking laws then prohibiting them from collective bargaining.

Marcia Biederman writes about city public schools for InsideSchools.org and contributes regularly to The New York Times.


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