Good schools, bad scores?
A beloved charter school in Harlem faces closure because of poor test scores. But parents, with few options, are fighting to keep its doors open.
It's 8 a.m., and students and parents are slogging through slushy Harlem streets on their way to the John A. Reisenbach Charter School. Families filter through the school's cheery orange lobby until 8:30 a.m., when breakfast ends and classes begin.Skip to next paragraph
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It's a Friday like any other here - a weekly "Color Day," when students celebrate school spirit by wearing the hues of their floor - orange, green, and blue - rather than their usual oxford shirts and gray pinafores or slacks.
Except, this day, and this month, are like no other. State evaluators who oversee New York charter schools have recommended that Reisenbach be shut, due in part to the school's results on eighth-grade state tests. The State University of New York (SUNY) Board of Trustees plans to meet Tuesday to decide whether to act on that recommendation.
The threatened closure has parents and experts both raising questions about a school's less tangible aspects - qualities no standardized test can measure. How, for instance, do you quantify the environment here - the safe, carefully monitored hallways, or the eager confidence of the students?
"These are important pieces that are part of these schools that perhaps can't be measured under traditional measures of accountability," says Luis Huerta, a professor at Columbia University's Teacher College in New York. Reisenbach's future may come down to "accountability" - modern education's trendiest buzzword, applied to everything from sweeping reform under the No Child Left Behind Act to the work of beleaguered local school boards.
But the charter school movement in particular is built solidly on the offer of greater autonomy in exchange for a promise to perform. So poor test results have serious consequences.
After seeing their children off, a handful of parents paused to talk. Some were disheartened: Wary of traditional public schools, they say they can't afford private or parochial alternatives.
"It's like a punch in the stomach," says Tiffany Foster, whose daughter Briah is in second grade. "All schools in Harlem are failing. Where does that leave my child?"
Both Craig Cobb and his daughter, Brittan who is a third grader, have fallen in love with Reisenbach.
Like other parents with children at Reisenbach, Mr. Cobb is smitten with the high level of parental involvement. Others rave about the safe, courteous atmosphere, an eighth-grade curriculum that includes reading Shakespeare and newspapers, and extras like drama class and a choir as reasons to keep the school open.
For many Reisenbach families, if the school closes, their only option will be a return to neighborhood schools, many of which are considered the city's worst.
Cobb sees Reisenbach as a work in progress - albeit one in need of assistance.
Among the state's first charter schools, Reisenbach is one of three to face re-chartering this year. The two other schools that opened in 1999 have fared a bit better.
Daniel Oscar, president of the Learning Project, a nonprofit that manages Reisenbach, says the school may have started too quickly - with four months from proposal to opening. It's had building troubles, shaky finances, and high teacher turnover.
There is no doubt that the school has not delivered on its promise to raise test scores. The report by SUNY's Charter Schools Institute (CSI) says Reisenbach "has failed to meet the terms of its charter and is not likely to improve student learning and achievement."
But administrators say the school has now hit its stride, with six new classrooms and more state dollars as enrollment has grown. Teacher morale is high. Last year, however, only 13 percent of Reisenbach's eighth-grade class met state standards in English; only 7 percent in math.
Eric Premack, codirector of the Charter Schools Development Center at California State University, Sacramento, cautions that such tests should be used over time - gauging long-term progress rather than relying on "snapshots."