The power of high school ‘speech’

Democracy Prep students from the Bronx went to Yale to compete in a speech tournament, reports The Guardian. The black and Latino charter students hope to earn college scholarships for success in “competitive acting.” They’re already wonderfully articulate.

Congratulations! Now, it’s going to get hard

Fourteen percent of students from the least-educated, lowest-income families will earn a college degree by their late 20s, reports the National Center for Education Statistics, which tracked 10th graders for 12 years.

Only 41 percent of low-income students with high test scores earned a bachelor’s degree, wrote Susan Dynarski in the New York Times. “A poor teenager with top scores and a rich teenager with mediocre scores are equally likely to graduate with a bachelor’s degree.

Democracy Prep's class of 2019 celebrates commencement.

Democracy Prep’s class of 2019 celebrates commencement.

Getting low-income “first generation” kids into college is hard,” writes Robert Pondiscio in U.S. News. “Getting them to graduate from college is harder.

As a teacher at New York City’s Democracy Prep Charter High School, he’s proud to see the school’s 61 graduates head off to colleges that include Dartmouth, Yale, Princeton, Brown and Emory. All are Latino or African-American.

Democracy Prep calls them the “class of 2019” to stress that their goal is a bachelor’s degree. But how many will make it?

For years, pioneering charter school networks like KIPP, YES Prep, and others won legions of admirers by ensuring that nearly every student they graduated went to college, usually the first in their families to do so. A 2011 report from KIPP itself, however, found that only 33 percent of their earliest cohorts of students had actually earned a college degree. On the one hand, that’s roughly four times higher than the rate for disadvantaged students as a whole. But it was far below KIPP’s own internal goals and a wake-up call for a reform movement that had long championed college as an essential path to upward mobility.

Since then, KIPP and others have become increasingly focused on “college match.” This typically means identifying colleges with high graduation rates both overall and for low-income students, generous financial aid, and other factors from high-touch academic advising to a diverse social environment, all of which make it more likely for “first generation” kids to persist, succeed, and earn a degree.

KIPP Through College helps graduates choose courses, keep up their grades and deal with financial aid issues.

Democracy Prep, which has two small graduating classes in college, also stays in touch with alumni. So far, nearly nine out of 10 Democracy Prep students remain enrolled.

In a story on D.C. charters, Debra Bruno describes how Thurgood Marshall Academy has boosted its college-graduation rate. 

‘The talk’ about how to deal with police

The act of scholastic disobenience was organized by Ines Anguiano, 16, a senior at Brooklyn Preparatory High School.Brooklyn Prep students walked out to protest (Photo: Caitlin Nolan, New York Daily News)

Eric Garner’s death — and a grand jury decision not to indict the police officer who choked him — is a call to action for some New York City high school students, reports WNYC.

“This can happen to any one of us,” said Christine Rodriguez, a 17-year-old senior at the Bushwick School for Social Justice. “I live in Bushwick, and on every block I see police cars. I worry about my friends, my peers, my family, strangers.”

Seventeen-year-old Malik James, who attends the Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice in Brooklyn, is part of a youth leadership group that looks into policy issues.

“As a young black male who’s part of the demographic of those affected,” he said he felt “something between anger and desperation.” His coping method was research.

James has been scouring the Internet to understand the facts of the Garner case, looking for some sensible explanation for the grand jury’s decision. He’s hoping to figure out “what is it that I don’t know, what is it that I still don’t understand about the case, why he cannot get an indictment.” So far, he has determined that the system offers too many protections to police officers and that prosecutors are too closely tied to the police department.

Democracy Prep Charter High in Harlem stresses citizenship. Students told WNYC their parents had given them “the talk” about how to deal with the police.

Eleventh grader Jeff Agyapong said his mother warned him not to challenge the police.

“When police approach you, no matter what, don’t say anything, follow their directions no matter what because your parents will come down to the precinct and everything will get straightened out peacefully,” he said. “The contradiction in the black society is ‘should I stand up for myself because I know I didn’t do anything wrong?’ or ‘should I follow what everyone wants me to do?'”

“I don’t think black communities should be teaching their black boys to be afraid of cops,” Jaylene Paula said. “If we’re passive in these cases, then this passivity is going to encourage what happened in Ferguson and what happened in Staten Island.”

The parents of 16-year-old Anthony Ayba said, “They just think right now you need to be safe, don’t worry about your rights, just make sure you’re alive.”

On their way

Work Hard. Go to College. Change the World! is the motto of Democracy Prep Charter High in Harlem. The first graduating class shows where they’ll be going to college in the fall.

Alise vs. the Mayor

Alise vs. the Mayor the first in a pro-charter mini-series, pits a cute 10-year-old girl who loves reading against Mayor Bill deBlasio, who tried to close her school. Alise Alexander is a student at Success Academy‘s Harlem Central.

The school’s fifth graders — nearly all black and Latino and more than three-quarters from low-income families — scored first in the state in math in 2013 notes The Blaze.

A HuffPost story on public school “apartheid” complains that a Harlem Children’s Zone charter school is better equipped, more cheerful and serves a much better lunch than the ones district students get.

(At the Promise Academy charter), the brightly lit hallway is decorated with the student’s artwork. Every class has three teachers, 20 students and an abundance of computers, lab equipment and books. More grown-ups monitor the hallways.

One floor up is public middle school 469. It is Depression-era Kansas to the Promise Academy’s Oz. The hallway is grim, undecorated, and poorly lit. A group of older boys shove one another against lockers, which are mainly unused because they are too easy to break into, and a gaggle of eighth grade girls are huddled together whispering, plotting, gossiping. There are several hundred children bursting with energy and one security guard at one end of the hallway leaning against the wall.

The classrooms are largely devoid of books and equipment. One room has square black tables pushed together into groups suggesting a scientific purpose. It is easy to imagine beakers bubbling over Bunsen burners, but that was a long time ago, before the kids threw the scalding beakers at one another and a teacher.

. . . At some point, we tacitly consented to the notion that providing only 20 percent of the children in Harlem, those that win the lottery and go to charter schools, with adequate teachers, equipment and food, is a morally acceptable public policy.

The story is nonsense, writes Robert Pondiscio. He works for Democracy Prep, which runs a second charter school in the same building. “We run it on public dollars, at a per pupil rate that is lower, not more, than district schools.”

If the charters provide more for students than the district-run schools, why not expand the charters so more students can enjoy adequate teachers, equipment and food, plus lighting and supervision?

Charter schools and citizenship

Charter students should be nation builders, says Seth Andrew, the founder of Democracy Prep Public Schools. The seven-school charter network is featured in the first policy brief in American Enterprise Institute’s new series of charter schools and civics education.

Andrew’s passion for civic activism and academic rigor are at the center of Democracy Prep’s model. The network’s motto—“Work hard. Go to college. Change the world!”—couples the “no-excuses” charter school movement’s emphasis on student achievement with a decidedly civic focus. This pairing is in the schools’ DNA; students and parents are exposed to an explicit and unapologetic emphasis on civic education from day one. As Andrew quipped at a 2012 event at the Brookings Institution, “We are called Democracy Prep, not Generic Prep.”

. . . Andrew views charter schooling as an ideal venue for experimenting with exactly how to teach citizenship. When it comes to civic education, Andrew argues, “The charter sector can start to model best practices . . . and really take risks”—such as sending a fleet of students to the streets of Harlem in a GOTV (get out the vote)  campaign.”

Democracy Prep teaches “what it means to be a citizen by doing—mobilizing voters, lobbying state legislators, and teaching their own family members about the importance of voting rights. Meanwhile, classroom lessons about history, government, rights, and responsibilities provide students with the foundation and context necessary to understand why civic engagement is so important.”

Of course, preparing students to be good citizens can take many forms. National Heritage Academies, a for-profit charter network based in Michigan, stresses character education. I wrote the Counting on Character brief for AEI.

Character education is ubiquitous and relentless at NHA schools. Each month is assigned a “moral focus” or virtue, which teachers are supposed to weave into their lessons and students write about from kindergarten through eighth grade. Signs in classrooms and hallways honor examples of virtue.

Like other charter schools, NHA promises parents to teach a rigorous curriculum that will prepare their children for success in college. It also promises a moral education imbued with traditional values such as love of country and family. Good character is not just a private asset, NHA leaders believe. It leads to good citizenship.

The AEI series will look at a variety of ways to teach civics and citizenship.

A life-changing lottery

With six applicants for every space, Democracy Prep‘s lottery is a life changer for Harlem children, writes Marcus A. Winters in City Journal. Winners attend the highest-scoring middle school in Harlem, ranked eighth citywide. Most losers are zoned to attend the Academy of Collaborative Education, the city’s worst middle school based on test scores and school safety. ACE, labeled “persistently dangerous,” is across the street from Democracy Prep.

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.

All of Democracy Prep’s teachers said they felt safe at school.

About half of ACE’s students entered the Democracy Prep lottery and lost, estimates the charter’s founder, Seth Andrew.

Lottery winners typically start sixth grade at the charter school reading at the fifth-grade level and finish the year at the eighth-grade level, according to an outside test the school administered.

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 charter doesn’t spend any more money per student, but is able to pay its young teachers 10 percent more than the district’s pay scale and add a variety of enrichment activities.

. . . great teachers often jump at the chance to work in a school that pushes excellence. Last year, 4,000 teachers applied for about 20 openings at Democracy Prep.

The school enforces a strict discipline policy, teach students to sit at their desks and concentrate on their work.

On the day I visited Democracy Prep, the school took the uncommon step of requiring the sixth-graders to eat lunch in absolute silence because they had been “mean” to one another recently.

The United Federation of Teachers, which wants the city shut down low-performing charter schools, filed a lawsuit to keep the district from closing ACE and 18 other low-performing district-run schools.

Union fights for ‘D’ Harlem schools

Harlem parents are refusing to enroll their children in two low-rated Harlem elementary schools. But the United Federation of Teachers, backed by the New York Civil Liberties Union, is fighting a plan to phase out the schools, which would be replaced by charters run by the Harlem Success Academy.  HSA, which opened in 2006, doesn’t have enough space for the students who want to attend, reports the New York Daily News. Meanwhile, PS 194 is more than half empty; PS 241 is more than two-thirds empty. Both schools have ‘D’ ratings.

PS 194 has space for 628 students in kindergarten to fifth grade, yet enrollment has fallen to 280. PS 241 has room for 1,007 students but draws 310, including just 11 kindergartners. That pitiful number means that only 15% of the kindergartners who reside in the zone attend.

Harlem Success Academy, which eventually will run K-8 schools, organized neighborhood parents to protest, reports Gotham Schools.

“I’m tired of these special interests claiming they represent me. Did the teachers union ask me if P.S. 241 should close? If they asked me, I would have said, yes, absolutely” said the mom of Emanuel Agbavitor, a first grader at P.S. 241. “I never get to see my child’s teacher, I don’t know how he’s doing in school and they don’t return my phone calls.”

. . . “The teachers union is trying to prevent a bad school from closing and me from sending my child to the school of my choice,” said Thiong Sall, mother of two children zoned for P.S. 241. “Mayor Bloomberg should not listen to the union and should instead listen to parents like me.”

“I live across the street from 194 and although it’s a zoned school and very convenient for me, I wouldn’t put my child in there because the children are well behind,” said Melissa Haley. “I used to attend 194. I would prefer a school where it is not only clean which 194 isn’t, but also where there are teachers that are willing to see children get not 65% but 100%.”

“I feel good about them closing 194. Teachers are there just for a paycheck, not to help kids learn,” said Shamecca Davis, mother of Tytiana. “Children beat each other up and there are not enough supervisors.”

It’s easier to get into Harvard than to get into top-rated Democracy Prep, a Harlem charter middle school which will add a high school, reported the New York Post. Some 1,500 parents applied for 100 seats. Students were chosen by lottery.