Charter Schools Celebrate 10th Anniversary
At a proud celebration of the 10th anniversary of charter schools in New York state, charter enthusiasts gathered at the Harvard Club to hear a distinguished panel detail some of the history, successes and ambitions of the young movement. Harvey Newman, senior fellow at the Center for Educational Innovation-Public Education Association, noted, “The accomplishments of charter schools over the last 10 years give us reason to celebrate.” As proof of the schools’ growing reputations, last year 44,000 youngsters applied for 8,500 seats in New York City. Even more significant is the demographic makeup of the schools, which strive to raise student scores in English language arts and math. In the city, 62 percent of students were African-American and 32 percent Hispanic, groups that, historically, have performed below white classmates. “This year,” says Newman, “saw a dramatic narrowing of the achievement gap.”
Malcolm Smith, New York State Senate President Pro Tempore, who founded Peninsula Preparatory Academy, the first public charter school in the Rockaways, explained that local parents initially fought his plans for the school, but now plead to have their children admitted. He described the lottery process for admission and the huge crowds of hopeful parents waiting for results in the school gymnasium knowing chances are slim. In an “epiphany,” he saw the answer to unmet demand — raise the number of charters allowed. Committed, he vows, “As long as I am in the Senate, I will fight for charters and for raising the cap.” Edward Cox, widely known as a son-in-law of President Richard Nixon, is a lawyer who has been active in education as a trustee of the State University of New York and chair of its Charter Schools Institute. He declared, “the issue of education is perhaps the most important issue in our time.” He sees charter schools as a civil rights matter — “Perhaps that’s why we’re so passionate about it” — where welfare of students, and not rules, is paramount. The institute authorizes, monitors, and, “the most important part of what we do,” oversees the renewal process for charter schools. “We are very tough,” explains Cox. “Twenty percent of schools are not renewed. Hoping that charters become models and tools for improving education, the institute has established a policy center to study best practices.
Steven Klinsky is a hero in the charter school movement. After New York state enacted legislation in 1998 to allow charters (the 34th state to do so), Klinsky took time off from work in finance and joined the cause. In 1999, he helped establish the first public charter school in the state, Sisulu Walker Children’s Academy in Harlem. To Klinsky, the primary lesson of charters is “people and leadership are the keys to success.” Before charters, individuals outside of education — lawyers, businesspeople, politicians — could only watch as public schools failed. Charters, on the contrary, welcome expertise, lessons and successful practices from disparate fields. Thinking outside the box is allowed. Klinsky believes the cap on charters (now 100 for the city) should be lifted, and a school should not be closed for underperformance if it is performing better than others in its district. “All that should matter is producing great students.”
Education Update recently spied Eugene Lang, legendary creator of the I Have a Dream Program that guides and supports disadvantaged students in K–12 and funds college educations for students who graduate from high school. He was attending the anniversary celebration not only as a supporter of charters, but also to find the answer to a question troubling him. What happens to charters when the generation that established them is no longer here? “How do we maintain a sense of mission?” he wondered. “Is there a system in place?”
Perhaps the answer is in The Charter School Center, an independent not-for-profit created four years ago to support the growth of charters in New York City. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein are champions of the movement and, as of 2009, New York was a leader with 98 charter schools. #