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.