In a first, a charter operator will try to turn around a failing charter

Big block letters announce the entrance to Harlem Day Charter School, but next year they’ll spell Harlem Prep Charter School — a reflection of a charter school authorizer’s decision today to put the school under new management.

For the first time, a charter school network is trying to turn around an already-failing charter school. Last year, when the State University of New York’s Charter School Institute decided to close Harlem Day Charter School due to its low test scores, it solicited applications from charter operators who could reform the school. But there was a catch: whoever agreed to this proposal had to keep all of Harlem Day’s current students rather than starting from scratch with a fresh group of kindergarteners.

The risk was great enough that in a city of charter leaders eager for building space, SUNY’s search turned up only one applicant: the Democracy Prep Public Schools network. Today SUNY officially gave Democracy Prep the go-ahead to take over Harlem Day and reopen it in July with the same students and a different approach.

Democracy Prep Superintendent Seth Andrew currently operates two charters schools — Democracy Prep Charter School (grade 6-10) and Democracy Prep Harlem (grade 6) — and this will be his first experiment with an elementary school.

“Harlem Day had incredibly low class size, tons of adults, one of the highest philanthropy per-pupil rates if not the highest, and a really nice building,” Andrew said today. “So all of the traditional arguments that people make about what’s needed to fix schools: more money, smaller class sizes, more teachers, are just wrong. What you need is better teachers in a rigorous academic program.”

Andrews said he hoped to succeed in turning around Harlem Day and become a “national proof-point” for other charter school operators to model themselves after.

For years, Andrews’ schools have enrolled a handful of Harlem Day students and he said that, with some exceptions, they were often among the least-prepared for middle school. Several of his students, who were at Harlem Day this afternoon and attended the school when they were younger, described it as a fun school, but one lacking in rigor.

Taraun Frontis, an eighth grader at Democracy Prep, said his parents considered pulling him out of Harlem Day when he was in fourth grade, but decided to wait the extra year and find a good middle school.

“At Harlem Day it was a little more free and relaxed. I could easily be distracted and they wouldn’t care really, they thought it wasn’t a big deal,” he said. “After a while, a lot of students started to leave.”

Not all parents would agree with that assessment. Daryl Miller, the father of a fifth grade student at Harlem Day, said the school didn’t need to be closed.

“I think it’s a good school,” he said. “But it can only get better. I think it’s just good that it’s Democracy Prep that’s coming in.”

Harlem Day’s declining enrollment in its later grades means that Andrew is likely to enroll not only a new kindergarten class next year, but will also accept applications from older students in order to fill the school.

In addition to keeping all of the Harlem Day students who decide to stay, Democracy Prep is also taking on all of Harlem Day’s assets, including its building lease.