Monthly Archives: March 2013

Harlem Link’s Five-Year Charter Renewal

It may not seem much like a big deal now (oh, aside from the hearings, protests and litigation), but until recently closing a school because of poor performance was next to impossible.

And let’s be clear: Once a school has established patterns of unsafe student behavior, ineffective practices and poor academic performance, it is very, very hard to turn it around.

Don’t believe me?  A few years back, “turnaround” became a buzzword in reports about education policy.  Have you seen “turnaround” in any headlines lately?  Probably not.  That’s because turnaround, while far from a bad idea, is very, very hard to pull off.

In 1991, Minnesota passed America’s first charter school law.  Forty states have since followed suit, always making this explicit promise to charter school operators:

We’ll give you more autonomy, but we’ll hold you more accountable than we do conventional public schools.  We will shut you down if you are not meeting your goals.

Nationally, the promise has not been kept.  There is a growing cry from the charter sector itself and from the press for state authorizers to hold charter schools more accountable and close down the the charters that don’t meet their standards.

The story in New York is different.  We have been blessed with the State University of New York (SUNY), which has been recognized by the national authorizers’ association as one of the most rigorous authorizers in the country.  As SUNY’s Charter Schools Institute says on its website, “the SUNY Trustees do not automatically grant charter renewal; a school must demonstrate that it has earned it.”  SUNY instructions to schools up for renewal include reference to the “high honor” of serving the state’s children and families, an honor that is not bestowed lightly.

On February 26, the trustees determined that Harlem Link had met the Institute’s rigorous expectations and gave the school an unqualified five-year renewal, the most generous that SUNY offers .

Gaining the renewal was no mean feat.  While several other schools also received five-year reauthorizations, the SUNY trustees judged some other schools wanting, and some schools even judged themselves to be failures.  In the last two years, two charter school boards in Albany surrendered their charters to SUNY rather than apply for renewal.  KIPP did the same thing, opting to reorganize one of the Harlem schools within its network rather than present a case for renewal.  And at that February 26 meeting, SUNY granted a two-year renewal with strict goals that, if not met, will lead to automatic closure without another vote for the United Federation of Teachers’ Charter School in Queens in 2015.

To achieve our renewal, our staff members, students and families have worked extremely hard.  In particular, the last two years have featured a herculean effort as we have aggressively put in place organizational changes associated with the Common Core State Standards and other reforms.

Having been a part of many different school communities with varying levels of achievement and stability, I know that hard work and good intentions are only two among many ingredients for success.  At Harlem Link, we have:

  • set goals and chosen priorities;
  • intelligently stewarded our resources to put them to work in focused efforts around those goals;
  • seen ourselves as a learning organization.

Because education is a fully human endeavor and humans are unpredictable, dealing with setbacks is the name of the game for schools.  While each of our eight years of operation have brought new structures, systems and energy, we have been relentelessly self-critical and have never been satisfied or assumed that we had no room to grow.

Turnaround is hard, and so is replicating someone else’s success in your own classrooms.  Regardless, educators are famous for stealing ideas from each other.  The best professional development for teachers is usually to visit the expert teacher next door and walk away with a plan.  We have no designs on changing the face of education or solving the thorny problems facing school districts large and small.  But I know that the timeless principles that we have employed to achieve renewal can apply across communities.  I look forward to using this blog to elucidate and discuss those principles, and I hope you will join me.

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Honorable Mention in Our Essay Contest

How We Can Make Our Community Stronger, Safer and Better
by Safeerah, Grade 4 NYU

Note: This essay received an Honorable Mention in our essay contest because, while it is outstandingly, written, the author received a degree of parental support not provided to other entrants.  There were no rules against this support, however the judges deemed the work of other students to be done individually.

Recent incidents involving violence, such as the Sandy Hook shooting in Connecticut, have brought to the forefront the subject of making communities stronger, safer and better. It is true that violence, which is any type of crime or harm to another person, must be stopped but we must go beyond this line of thinking. Actually, everyone has to accept the challenge to create a healthier, safer community that would bring in benefits for all community members.

The effects of violence are disastrous, for we all know that violence tears apart communities and it does not allow communities to come together. Weapons are a major factor contributing to violence, especially guns. It has been reported that one out of five children take weapons of some kind to school. However, weapons are only part of the problem; feelings, behaviors and attitudes are just as important. Bullying takes place when someone who is often thought of as different or weak is abused in some way, or when someone is made to feel bad by being made fun of, or even when lies are being spread about someone. Bullying can happen anywhere as in workplaces, schools, or even through electronic tools like Internet. It must not be forgotten that bullying can sometimes result in very violent events such as in the case of Columbine High School shooting in Colorado in 1999 where the two shooters were known to have been bullied for years in school.

A number of steps may be taken to bring about safer and better neighborhoods and communities. Laws such as gun control laws should be passed, and members of law enforcement such as the police officers should indeed be in the picture. Community problems must be recognized and dealt with properly. For example, school teachers should be aware of bullying and should take appropriate actions to stop bullying. Of course, community members must communicate among themselves and work together to build community standards and expectations that come down on crimes and harms to others, and thus move towards setting up communities where everyone can live in peace and harmony.

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