(Released Jul 2006)
It is common to hear that public schools are failing our children. Despite this identified and obvious problem, giving parents an alternative – school choice – is fought tooth-and-nail by teachers’ unions and other advocates of government-run education. Scores of children, especially those in the inner city, find themselves trapped and essentially left behind while this debate rages.
In Harlem, at last, there is now a ray of hope. According to The New York Times, “by the end of next year, Harlem will be home to 17 charter schools, publicly financed but privately run – more than in Staten Island, Queens and Lower Manhattan combined.”
This growth suggests that charter schools – quasi-independent public schools focused on and accountable for student achievement – are indeed working. Can it be that social and market forces are coming to the aid of our children? If that’s true, what is it about charter schools that make them such a success?
Betty Marsella and Leonard Goldberg, co-directors of Harlem’s Opportunity Charter School, showed me their formula for success. My tour of their school gave me a first-hand account of what a charter school offers to disadvantaged children in a city where many public schools are failing.
The Opportunity Charter School (OCS) opened its doors in the fall of 2004 with 108 students enrolled in the 6th and 7th grades. They added 8th grade for the 2005-06 school year. Students are recruited through outreach initiatives at neighborhood schools.
One element of OCS’s success is the enrollment process. Each child is individually evaluated to determine his or her learning needs. When they first enroll at OCS, most students are below standard levels for reading and writing. Out of its 162 current students, 48 percent require special education services. For those OCS students significantly below standard – approximately 25 – the multi-sensory Wilson Language Training Program assists the teachers in addressing special needs. There are also therapists specializing in speech, language, and reading available on-site for further assistance.
The combined efforts of nine homeroom teachers, each with an assistant, and the specialists have made significant progress by paying close attention to their students’ needs.
Another factor in this charter school’s success is discipline. While addressing deficient educational gaps, OCS also deals with behavioral problems such as bad attitudes, frustration, anger, and a basic lack of respect towards others. Through coaching and personal experience, students are taught to recognize a high regard for personal accountability with both their schoolwork and their interaction with peers and staff members.
Awareness of the challenges facing inner city children off school grounds is yet another important aspect of OCS’s curriculum. Tragically, some OCS students have first-hand experience with the violent loss of an immediate family member or friend. There are also times when students arrive deprived of basic necessities such as a good night’s sleep or a nutritional dinner. The staff recognize these heartbreaking situations. Every possible effort is made to ensure these children receive counsel and are monitored, and that any outstanding problems receive the necessary follow-up.
Individual evaluation and attention to students’ needs and discipline, as well as an understanding of their home environment, are key components in the OCS curriculum. As a result, OCS is flourishing, making a difference in the lives of children in need by providing a secure and structured environment and a sense of belonging. Breakfast is available at 7:30 a.m. Classes are held between 8:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. There is also after-school programming, and about 80 percent of students regularly remain until 6:00pm to talk with teachers, do homework, or participate in club activities such as photography, dance, and art.
During the summer, a four-week math and reading program is offered, as well as an internship program for older students. Remarkably, no child has ever dropped out, and approximately 100 students are waiting to join.
Charter schools can offer a successful alternative for parents seeking to improve the educational prospects for their children. The Opportunity Charter School demonstrates that, even in the most challenging environment educational, progress is possible.
Rays of hope in a child’s life today can provide a solid foundation for a bright tomorrow.