PHOTO: Alex ZimmermanDemocracy Prep students and their families watch President Obama's inaugural address.
An inauguration event at the Harlem Armory on Monday drew students too young to remember any president but Barack Obama — and others who said his presidency changed the way they see their own futures.
While most schools across the city were closed for the Martin Luther King Day, the Democracy Prep charter network convened students, parents, teachers, staff, and community members to watch Obama’s inauguration on the big screen.
Leesandra Moore brought her four daughters to the inauguration event. Her oldest is in eighth grade at Democracy Prep, and her three younger daughters were born during Obama’s first term.
Referring to her three-year-old, Moore said, “I wanted her to experience it so she can say that she was there. She doesn’t understand race … but she will grow up in a world that does talk about race. Right now it just seems to her like, all these people are making a big fuss, what are they making a fuss over?”
Democracy Prep Charter High School students who recently took an exchange trip to South Korea, met with South Korean Prime Minister Kim Hwang-Sik during his visit to the school.
Last month, students from Democracy Prep Charter High School were honored guests at Seondeok High School and Dong Seong Middle School in South Korea. Today, they honored a guest of their own: Kim Hwang-Sik, South Korea's prime minister.
Kim met with school leaders; spoke with the students; and hobnobbed with Congressman Charles Rangel, who supported the exchange trip, during Kim's brief stop at the school this afternoon. He was in New York City to visit the United Nations as part of a tour of North America.
All students at Democracy Prep High School study Korean, and last month, three dozen of them traveled to South Korea to see the country up close. They visited the schools, toured Buddhist temples, and stayed in the homes of South Korean families.
One student told Kim that the trip had brought the Korean culture she had studied at school to life for her. "Now I want to travel more and ... see things with my own true eyes," she said.
Democracy Prep Superintendent Seth Andrew told Kim that American education leaders often point to South Korea and Finland as two countries whose students far outpace students in the United States. Korea, he said, is the more instructive example of educational excellence because of its economic history.
Superintendent Seth Andrew answers questions after the Democracy Prep admissions lottery event earlier this year.
When the first crop of seniors at Democracy Prep Charter High School graduates next June, they won't be alone. The founder of the school's network of charter schools will be exiting alongside them.
Seth Andrew, the founder and superintendent of the six-school network, has spent the last week making hundreds of phone calls to friends and professional contacts to let them know that he will be stepping down in June, seven years after launching a middle school steeped in civic values.
Andrew's decision comes weeks after the U.S. Department of Education announced that Democracy Prep Public Schools would be one of two charter school networks to get federal funding to expand. Democracy Prep will get $9.1 million over five years to open 15 new schools in Harlem; Camden, N.J.; and potentially beyond.
Andrew said the award made him confident that he could depart without destabilizing Democracy Prep — and relieved that the network would be able to grow using only public funds, a value to the network.
"The organization is incredibly healthy," he said today, speaking by phone from Boston, where he had been meeting with Building Excellent Schools, the nonprofit that helped him start up his first school a decade ago. "This is the time to do a transition."
Andrew opened his flagship middle school, Democracy Prep Charter School, in 2006 with a $30,000 grant from the city’s Center for Charter School Excellence (now named the New York City Charter School Center). He expanded to a high school in 2009 to accommodate his graduating eighth-graders and has since opened three more middle schools.
For many of the city's strongest teachers, moving up professionally means moving out of the classroom and on to jobs in school management, consulting, policy, or academia. That was the conclusion of a recent survey from the New Teacher Project on the challenges districts face retaining teachers who have hit their stride.
The Department of Education is in the early stages of several experiments to encourage those teachers to stay in schools, offering higher-level professional development and sometimes higher pay. But some school leaders don't want to wait to give their teachers opportunities to improve their leadership practices.
Enter the National Academy of Advanced Teacher Education, a fledgling training program for teachers who have already demonstrated strength and commitment to the profession, but want to improve even more. For the past two years they have offered teachers around the country an intensive leadership training workshop tailored to the experiences of classroom instructors. This year, six city teachers joined a cohort of 50 in Chicago, for a two week long summer seminar series.
The curriculum is split between teaching skills and leadership skills like public speaking and improvisation, and peppered with business school-style case study reading assignments, according to Deborah Levitsky, the program director. The idea is to help them to think deeper about non-supervisory leadership roles, such as grade-level team leaders and department chairs. The program runs for two years, with a winter weekend-long meetup and at-home reading and writing assignments.
Two years ago, just one in three students at Achievement First Bushwick were rated "proficient" on the state's reading tests. It wasn't exactly the kind of result promised from a high-performing charter school in a "no excuses" network.
But the school has nearly doubled that rate in the two years since, according to state test scores released Tuesday. On the 2012 English language arts test, nearly 60 percent of students at the school were rated proficient, compared to 47 percent of students citywide.
Bushwick's gains on the reading tests were among the largest made in the charter sector, which improved as a whole by seven percentage points, from 44.5 percent to 51.5 percent. The improvement — from matching the citywide average to scoring well above it — has provided fodder for charter school advocates and the Bloomberg administration to push back against critics who oppose the expansion of charter schools across the state.
"Policy makers and legislators should take note" of the gains, said Bill Phillips, president of the New York Charter Schools Association."It’s not only a tougher measure than the host district comparison, it suggests that districts across the state should consider charters as another tool to better educate children."
"We can't possibly handle the demand from parents for the charter schools," Mayor Bloomberg said during a press conference Tuesday. "They're just off the charts."
Several charter operators announced their schools' test scores in celebratory press releases Tuesday. Deborah Kenny touted the eighth-grade math and reading scores at her schools, the Harlem Village Academies. The Success Academy network announced a 7-point gain in reading proficiency across its four schools with testing grades, more than twice the citywide improvement rate. And Democracy Prep said the low-performing charter school it took over last year had posted the largest reading proficiency gains of any school in the state, with third-grade reading proficiency hurtling from 28 percent in 2011 to 63 percent this year.
The charter school sector wasn't nearly as enthusiastic to promote its gains two years ago, when reading scores slumped. Struggles to boost literacy were not unique to Achievement First Bushwick.
Lopez-Pierre, center, and his family, in a photo sent out in the new PAC's introductory emails.
A Harlem realtor known for founding a controversial social club and playing a role in a high-profile loan dispute is now entering the world of charter school politics.
Thomas Lopez-Pierre, a charter school parent, thinks Harlem's political leaders don't sufficiently support the charter schools that dot their districts. So he has formed a political action committee to help finance candidates who would.
The committee, called the Harlem Charter School Parents PAC, made its debut this week in a letter to charter school advocates outlining its political goals: to raise $250,000 over the next year to support candidates in Harlem's three 2012 City Council races and local Democratic Party district leader races. The group also said it would find volunteers to help those candidates get out the vote.
Lopez-Pierre, whose son is finishing first grade at Harlem's New York French American Charter School, said he and two other parents aim to create a new unified voice for parents in a community that has served as the front line of the political wars over charter school expansion. (Lopez-Pierre declined to name the other parents but said their children attend Harlem Children's Zone's Promise Academy and one of the Harlem Success Academy charter schools.)
"Elected officials only respond to two things: votes and money. Our goal is to elect officials that support charter schools," he said. "My son is in first grade, and he's going to be in a charter school for at least 10 years. This is not about an election cycle. It's about transforming Harlem and expanding school choice."
When Democracy Prep students stroll into school wearing t-shirts that read “I’m kind of a big deal” and “Don’t act like you’re not impressed,” they don’t get in trouble for not wearing their uniforms. Instead, they get applauded for winning the right to wear the celebratory shirts by hitting a major milestone on their journey towards reading 1.2 million words.
Requiring students to log the pages or books they read is common practice in city schools. But the expectation is a bit different at Democracy Prep.
Schools in the network regularly see students' math scores shoot up. But reading scores proved harder to budge. The network's founder and superintendent, Seth Andrew, chalked the phenomenon up to differences between the two subjects. In math, a student can be strong in geometry but weak in algebra, but literacy is built on more cumulative knowledge, he explained: In order to raise students' reading scores, they mostly needed to read more.
In 2010, when Democracy Prep Harlem opened, literacy specialist Ajaka Roth and principal Emmanuel George thought about ways to make this happen. It wasn't by requiring students to read more books, they decided.
Parents from Peninsula Preparatory Academy rallied against the city's closure decision outside Department of Education headquarters in January.
Last month, as parents from Peninsula Preparatory Academy vocally protested the city's decision to close their charter school, Principal Ericka Wala quietly pursued an alternative.
Wala discovered that a charter school in Harlem that had faced closure last year was saved when a different operator was allowed to take over its charter and management. Harlem Day lost virtually all of its teachers and got a new name and curriculum when Democracy Prep took over in 2011, but the students were allowed to stay.
For Wala, the last point was the biggest draw: Peninsula Prep’s students are set to be sent back to neighborhood schools that mostly post lower test scores.
"I was like, this is something we should explore," Wala said, even though it meant she'd almost certainly lose her job in the process. Both Wala and the school's board, led by Chair Betty Leon, told Recy Dunn of the Department of Education's Charter Office that they would resign if that's what it took to keep the school open.
"We were willing to do whatever that would allow the school to continue to exist, in whatever capacity, so that there would be less disruption to the children," Wala said.
Wala reached out to Seth Andrew, the founder and head of the Democracy Prep charter network, and asked him to consider taking over Peninsula Prep. Wala set up a time for Andrew to visit the school, but when he floated the idea to top city and state education officials they rejected it, according to a source who was briefed on the proposal.