Not all charter schools deserve support — especially when they cherry pick the best students, leaving the public school system to do the heavy lifting.  But those that take all comers — and succeed?  It is a joyful thing — just as are the many traditional public schools that do really well.

In Harlem, something like 90% of all the parents join charter school lotteries, hoping their kids will get in.  Fully 80% join the lottery specifically for the Success Academy charters.  So I guess you could say there’s a little self-selection going on — the parents who fail to enter the lotteries may not be the most engaged parents in the neighborhood — but everyone is welcome to apply and 80% do.  From there on, selection is random.

But the results sure are not.

Success Academy has grown since 2006 from a single school to 22 schools enrolling 6,700 scholars — 100% of whom passed the 2013 state science exam.  Their schools rank in the top 1% of all New York schools in math, with 82% of scholars passing the 2013 state exam.  “Success Academy Bronx 2,” as it’s known, ranked #3 out of 3,528 New York State schools in math, scoring as the top non-selective school in the state (i.e., among schools that take all comers).  Fifth graders from “Success Academy Harlem 4” ranked #1 out of 2,254 schools in New York State in math.

And one of the Success schools’ debate teams, I’m told, beat the Dalton debate team.  Dalton (tuition: $40,000 or so) is one of the finest private schools in New York.  Alumni include Gloria Vanderbilt’s son Anderson Cooper and legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn’s son, Wallace.

So the metrics are great.  But forget that — just look at the faces!  Ninety-seconds guaranteed to brighten your day.

Charters are controversial because there is the important concern that they not drain resources from the rest of our public schools. (Charters are public schools, too, but with more autonomy.)  But Success Academy has been getting only 80% as much per pupil as the city average, so that concern wouldn’t seem to apply.  If you can do a great job for thousands of randomly selected kids for just 80% as much as is spent on kids citywide, how can that be bad?

(For now, millions in supplemental start-up funds have come from wealthy donors.  But once Success Academy gets up to scale, with enough schools and students to spread the fixed administrative costs adequately, the public money it receives should suffice.   Until then — hurrah for the generous donors.)

And this isn’t like Coca Cola, that guards it’s secret formula.  Success Academy is a not-for-profit that says it would love nothing more than to have everyone steal its formula (or whatever parts others may find useful).  It’s all here: Mission Possible: How the Secrets of the Success Academies Can Work in Any School.  Or a chunk of it, anyway.

Consider the comment of an Amazon reviewer who gave the book just two stars out of five (emphasis added):

Some of the strategies here are wonderful and easy to implement. For example, getting parents to sign a “contract” that they will participate in their kids’ education in certain ways. Some of the strategies here are excellent and somewhat more difficult to implement. For example, setting high expectations for academic achievement. What precisely is this and how is it measured? Big questions! Or having a commitment to continuing teacher education. What parts of this education are necessary and what part of this education are overly bureaucratic, time-wasting, and one-size-fits-all? Also big questions. And this book does attempt to grapple with these sorts of issues in an intelligent manner.

But. This book is distasteful in that it advocates for a specific “brand” of education by disparaging public education in general. It does so with a wide brush and in a tone which I can only call snotty. I’m all for storming the battlements against corruption and complacency. However, while I believe in the core concepts put forward by these educators, I feel that this book is weakened by its brazen promotion of the the sort of charter school that is being sold by The Success Charter Network. This weakens this book’s authority and cheapens some of the educational concepts it endorses.

Let’s assume that’s right.  (I haven’t read it.)  No one likes snotty.  Maybe the tone could be improved for a second edition.  But is that the part that really matters?  Or is it the “excellent strategies” that matter?

Wherever you come out on this, you will love the faces and the energy and the bright futures of those itty-bitty Harlem scholars.



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