A Charter-School Setback?

Fixing the education system.
Sept. 24 2008 9:12 AM

A Charter-School Setback?

I've long been impressed by the accomplishments of Achievement First , the charter-school network that grew out of Amistad Academy , a middle school founded in 1999 in New Haven, Conn., by Doug McCurry, an educator, and Dacia Toll, then a recent graduate of Yale Law School.

Amistad has always served a low-income, high-minority population—a demographic that tends to do poorly in school and on standardized tests. And yet Amistad's results are consistently excellent. In 2007, the eighth-grade students at Amistad were neck and neck with the students at Worthington Hooker School for the highest state-test results in New Haven. Hooker is a well-respected public school in the city's East Rock neighborhood; some of its students have parents who are Yale professors or who are otherwise connected to Yale. Very few of Hooker's students—just 16 percent—are from low-income families, while at Amistad, that figure hovers around 80 percent. And yet Amistad's eighth-grade students beat out Hooker's eighth grade for the highest math score in New Haven, and they earned the second-highest reading and writing score in the city, right behind Hooker—a fairly stunning result. *

What impresses me just as much as Amistad's sterling test scores is the commitment of the school's founders to the broader issue of equity in education. Achievement First's leaders see their mission as not just to serve the 3,700 students enrolled in their schools in Connecticut and Brooklyn, but to create a national model for school success in low-income communities.

Two years ago, Amistad middle school expanded upward to include a high school as well. And so I was interested, and a little concerned, to read in the New Haven Register last month that students at the high school have been struggling.

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Last year, 19 of the 56 students in Amistad's ninth grade—the same cohort that scored so well on the eighth-grade tests in 2007—failed at least one course. And 11 students, 20 percent of the grade, failed two courses, meaning that they did not move on to the tenth grade.

It's not quite clear just what this means. Last year, the 10th-grade students at Amistad once again did very well on the state achievement tests. So by outside measures, achievement at the school remains high. And yet many students are struggling to meet Amistad High's own standards, even after four or five years of Amistad education.

Amistad, to its credit, has launched an internal review of the middle school's methods to see what steps it can take to better prepare its students for high school. As the Register reported :

Amistad is now examining both the academic and non-academic structure of its middle school, adding more non-fiction reading, for example, and evaluating whether the institutional attitude of "we will not let kids fail" has in turn failed to teach students how to learn independently. "Independence is something you teach and develop and cultivate. We need to be more thoughtful and more intentional about doing that," said [Dacia] Toll.

My guess is that whatever difficulties Amistad's high-school students are now facing can be traced back to their experiences before reaching Amistad. As at most high-performing low-income middle schools, students generally have been arriving in fifth grade at Amistad performing well below grade level. Amistad's intensive methods are usually able to propel those students to grade level and above in just a few years. But it may be that the early academic deficits those students experienced have some lingering aftereffects that will make high levels of achievement a continuing challenge for them at every stage.

Given Amistad's track record, and Toll's willingness to face her school's problems directly and publicly, I imagine that she and her staff will figure out how to get most of those students to graduate from high school well-educated and prepared for college, even if it takes an extra year or two.

I would also hazard a guess that in a few years, things will start to get a lot easier at Amistad High. Achievement First has been assembling its own version of Geoffrey Canada's "conveyor belt" ; this year, for the first time, one of the group's charter elementary schools began feeding students into one of their middle schools with four years of Achievement First education under their belts—arriving ahead of grade level instead of well behind it. It seems a safe bet that the experience those students have in ninth grade, a few years from now, will be a lot smoother than the experience of the kids now enrolled at Amistad High.

To me, the struggles at Amistad High point to the same two conclusions as do the attrition issues at the Bay Area KIPP schools: First, that the KIPP/Achievement First middle-school model can achieve truly remarkable levels of success among the kind of students—low-income, behind grade-level, a less-than-ideal home life—who just a few years ago were routinely written off altogether. And second, that if and when these middle schools are linked together with equally well-run elementary schools and high schools  (and then, I hope, with high-quality prekindergartens, parenting programs, and community and family supports), they will be able to achieve much more: better and more consistent results from a broader selection of students. If that happens—and at Amistad, it may begin as soon as this year—what now seems miraculous will, I hope, come to seem downright routine.

* I'd like to provide a link to the New Haven Register story reporting those figures, but it's not easily available on line. The reference, should anyone want to Nexis it, is: Maria Garriga, "Charter school group ups the ante on scores," New Haven Register , Aug. 7, 2007.

Paul Tough is the author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character and Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest To Change Harlem and America. He is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and a speaker on various topics including education, poverty, parenting, and politics.

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