Success in Harlem

by Jenny Sedlis '04

For five-year-olds, college may seem like a distant abstraction, and may have less meaning for them than the “Great Job!” sticker they get on their hand for helping a classmate. Colleges like Scripps are particularly difficult for my inner-city kids at Harlem Success Academy to imagine. Just yesterday, on a routine visit to my office, a young student named Destini looked up at the poster of Dorsey Hall on the wall of my office and asked what it was. I told her that, one day, she too can go to a college where she can live in a beautiful dorm with her friends, with a pomegranate tree outside her French doors and a library filled with books just steps away. With a look of awe and amazement she said, “You get to live with your friends in college?”

I attended New York City’s elite private schools, and for everyone I knew, it was not a question of “if” we would go to college, but “where,” and “how prestigious.” I had little first-hand experience of the vast disparities in educational opportunity in this city. I had to work hard, but there is no question that I had access to the kind of excellent education that would simply be out of reach for someone like Destini were it not for the recent creation of public charter schools in my city.

After graduation from Scripps, I went to work as director of community affairs for Eva Moskowitz, a New York City council member. My boss was hardworking, independent-minded, and stood up to entrenched interests. I wanted to have an impact, but I wasn’t sure of the best way to affect change until she offered me a chance to join her in starting a charter school.

The idea was to start one charter school for low-income children in Harlem that would serve as the model for 40 more charter schools in New York City. We had a 300-page charter (essentially a binding performance agreement). We had founding board members who were convinced charter schools could provide a better education than most traditional public schools—for the same cost. We had a contract with a literacy and math curriculum company, and that was pretty much it. Moskowitz, three of my former co-workers, and I met at a Starbucks on January 2, 2006, and feverishly began working backwards from the day we would open—August 21, 2006. We had less than eight months to hire the best teachers in the country, recruit students, map out our curriculum, define our school culture, secure a school site, and turn it into a place where children could learn and grow.

We decided quickly that we wanted to provide science five days a week, as well as chess, geography, social studies, and art. When we couldn’t find a hands-on science curriculum where kindergartners could make hypotheses, do experiments, and analyze data, we created our own. We decided to assess the children every eight weeks so we could target our academic interventions and have quick response. We wanted to tutor not just the children who are struggling, but the ones who need an added challenge. I had danced in high school and college and felt strongly that the kids should have a top-notch dance program. We wanted the kids to play intramural soccer against other schools. We mapped out our school’s values and came up with the acronym “ACTION” for Agency, Curiosity, To Try and Try, Integrity, Others and No Shortcuts. We developed a school culture that emphasizes college graduation, reading, and a love of learning. The five of us worked day and night, taking full advantage of the endless supply of Diet Cokes in the company kitchen of a hedge fund that donated our office space.

I had just 30 days to recruit our inaugural kindergarten and first grade classes. I passed out brochures in front of the IHOP on 135th St., knocked on doors in the St. Nicholas and Martin Luther King housing projects, and spoke to parents at daycare centers, hair salons, and churches. I met hundreds of families who desperately wanted the kinds of educational options that many of us take for granted. Though we wouldn’t officially open until August 2006 and had no proven track record, parents signed up in droves for a school that didn’t yet exist, in a location that had yet to be determined, with the great teachers I was convinced we would have.

I soon found that not everyone felt families in Harlem deserved more educational options. In New York City, charter schools share space with public schools, and our negotiations with the Department of Education and with our potential host public school were not going well. The situation intensified when the teachers’ union tried to kick us out of our school site. They rallied the PTA, whose president was the staff member of a Harlem politician, and staged protests. It was frustrating to see so much parent energy focused on eliminating choices for other low-income families. I felt these parents were being duped into championing mediocrity and keeping the education system dysfunctional for someone else’s political agenda. It seemed that the same politicians who had spoken so eloquently about the achievement gap were covering their tails.They had set the bar so low, and had patted themselves on the back for such minor accomplishments, that they were worried what would happen when their own constituents realized they were being shortchanged.

Harlem Success’s goal in providing a better education for the same cost has a specific purpose: once public school parents see what we can offer, we want them to begin to demand that their own schools get better. When parents see that our students have science five days a week, and chess, arts, and sports, we want them to demand those same things.

The teachers’ union succeeded in kicking us out of our school site just weeks before we were set to open. It added a new challenge—both for us and for our incoming families—but we were going to open this school, and nothing was going to stop us. A last minute deal was brokered that placed us in a school building a half mile away from our original school site.

When Destini’s parents named her, I’m sure they envisioned a bright future filled with choices. I can’t imagine they thought that her destiny would be limited at birth, but Destini would grow up in a country where only 12% of the nation’s black eighthgraders and 15% of low-income eighth-graders are proficient in reading. What I realized is that the value of reading Rousseau and Kant at Scripps is not so that I can impress people with my knowledge of Kant’s categorical imperative.What Core and my other classes at Scripps taught me is how to critically evaluate the choices in front of me. I would never accept, as a parent, that by virtue of birth I would not have a choice in where my kids get to go to school. I would not accept that a school like Scripps would be beyond my children’s reach. I learned to challenge those assumptions, and when a solution didn’t exist, to create one myself.

My hope is that by founding a charter school, I can play a role in both creating choices and in informing parents that choices exist. I am now recruiting our next incoming kindergarten class, and my co-founders and I are in the early stages of planning schools #2 and #3 to open in 2008. I hope that schools like Harlem Success will mean that more young women like Destini will not ask “if” they will go to college, but “where.” Then, the Scripps Class of 2023 will be filled with Destinis ready to apply principles from Core for the benefit of their own communities.

 

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