Tag Archives: Charter School

Back to School for Billionaires

This Newsweek article explores the various methods employed by our nation’s concerned billionaires in an effort to reform the US education system. In their efforts to do good they’ve found that it’s not as simple as it seems.

“The business titans entered the education arena convinced that America’s schools would benefit greatly from the tools of the boardroom. They sought to boost incentives for improving performance, deploy new technologies, and back innovators willing to shatter old orthodoxies.

They pressed to close schools that were failing, and sought to launch new, smaller ones. They sent principals to boot camp. Battling the long-term worry that the best and brightest passed up the classroom for more lucrative professions, they opened their checkbooks to boost teacher pay.

It was an impressive amount of industry. And in some places, it has worked out—but with unanticipated complications.”

With so much success in the business world it would make sense to run schools in a business-like manner, but what we’re all realizing is that education reform is much more complicated.

“…The Walton Family Foundation hoped that its $8 million investment in Milwaukee charters would produce strong schools and a competitive environment to raise the bar across all the city’s schools. But the charters failed to outperform traditional schools. Reading scores were mostly flat over the past five years citywide. In math, elementary- and middle-school gains were stronger than in the rest of Wisconsin, but high-school proficiency dropped 2 points.

This causes pause to the cause. Should education reform be about school or teacher reform, or do we need to be looking at broader issues in society?


Billionaires Graded for Their Efforts:  Michael & Susan Dell Foundation

Started with $400 million in Austin, Texas, in 1999 to improve education for the urban poor through charters, school leadership programs, and data systems that track student performance. Received the best grade: B-


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Entrepreneur in Focus: Geoffrey Canada

In the spirit of expanding our blog to spotlight a successful entrepreneur, it’s fitting that our first Entrepreneur in Focus be one who has been the subject of our previous blog posts on education reform. His name is Geoffry Canada. As the CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone he’s helped to revolutionize the way a nonprofit enterprise can “change the trajectory of a poor child’s future in an inner-city neighborhood.”


Geoffry Canada was raised by his mother, Mary,  in Harlem, New York.  Finances were tight. In the early years Mary struggled to support her four sons, and as a result Canada’s early life was marked by poverty. She loved and cared for her boys, working hard to raise them with values.  Limiting their television intake, tutoring them herself and taking them to civil rights rallies, she instilled in them the importance of education and concepts of social equality.  Living in a poor, unsafe neighborhood Canada had to learn street smarts to stay safe.

In his teens he went to live with his grandparents in Freeport, Long Island where he excelled in school and won a scholarship. He continued his education at Bowdoin College where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology and sociology in 1974.  He also holds a Master’s degree in education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.


After graduation Canada joined the faculty of Robert White School, an alternative school for troubled youth in Boston, Massachusettes. His ability reaching these students, especially the most violent ones, was a reason for his quick rise to the director position of Robert White.

In 1983 he returned to Harlem determined to make a difference in his old neighborhood. He wanted to help others succeed as he had. He got a job working for the Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families as a program director in the Truancy Prevention Program, and by 1990 had risen to President of the organization. Canada was unsatisfied with the scope of Rheedlen, and he began to make changes. The Rheedlen Center was renamed the Harlem Children’s Zone and Canada shifted the entire makeup of the organization.


In an interview for the documentary film, Waiting for Superman, Geoffry Canada explains that he decided to go study what was wrong with the public education system so he “could fix it.” After earning a master’s degree from Harvard, he figured this would take “two, maybe three years.” That was over  35 years ago. NPR’s This American Life did a segment on him for their “Going Big” show. Going big was what Canada realized needed to be done to reform education.

The idea came to him when he and his wife had a son. As the narrator on Going Big” explains, Canada was in his 40’s and things had changed for him. “He was no longer trying to make ends meet. He was now a well-educated, upper middle class guy living in a big home in the suburbs surrounded by trees and lawns and golf courses.”  As a dad he found out there was a ton of new research on the benefits of stimulating your child’s brain at a young age, and it surprised him that everyone in the suburbs seemed to know about it. “They were obsessed with preparing their children,” he explains. People in the suburbs were buying up every Baby Einstein product  or other brain building toys for kids in sight. Canada said he felt “overwhelmed” by all this new information and wondered how the parents they were working with in his organization were fairing in the “parenting revolution.” He asked his staff to canvass the neighborhood and what they found was there was nothing. Abolutely no one was teaching anything – no best practices, no parental education, nothing – for moms and dads of 0-3 year olds. It dawned on him that places like Harlem “are often left out of the science of developmental education.”

At the same time Canada began rethinking his approach to social work. After so many years of frustration saving one child and having 10 more slip through the cracks he wondered if there was a tipping point, a point at which the the entire culture, the cycle of teen pregnancy and dropping out of high school could be altered. Could he reach 40 or 50% of these kids? He went to his board with these thoughts and the conclusion: we’ve been going about this the wrong way.

It was this revelation that led to the complete re-thinking of how they were approaching urban poverty and education reform. The two were intertwined. Middle class and upper middle class families had access to this information and talked about it openly. It completely passed over lower-income families. Kids in middle to upper middle class families have opportunities to continue to grow and develop after school with programs, clubs, sports and more. Kids from lower-income families are too often left unsupervised, because their parents, or parent, are working. Single parents in the neighborhood had little access, or knowledge, of support systems. What Harlem Children’s zone aimed to do was provide a quality education for the children of Harlem as well as design a support network that is “designed to mimic the often-invisible cocoon of support and nurturance that follows middle class and upper middle class kids through their childhood” until they graduate college.


Quoting from the HCZ Project web page: “The HCZ Project began as a one-block pilot in the 1990s, then following a 10-year business plan, it expanded to 24 blocks and then 60 blocks. The goal is to serve 15,000 children and 7,000 adults by 2011. The budget for the HCZ Project for fiscal year 2009 is over $40 million, costing an average of $3,500 per child.”

The ambitious Harlem Children’s Zone Project has expanded the comprehensive system of programs to nearly 100 blocks of Central Harlem and aims to keep children on track through and beyond college, as former students enter the job market. So, what programs and services are included in HCZ?

  • Baby College, a series of workshops for parents of children ages 0-3
  • Gems, an all-day pre-kindergarten program
  • Harlem Peacemakers, reducing violence through negotiation skills and self defense classes
  • Promise Academy, extended-day charter schools from kinder to 12th grade
  • TRUCE Arts & Media, fostering career readiness through media literacy and artistic ability
  • Employment & Technology, teaching computer and job-related skills to teens and adults
  • College Success, an office that supports HCZ graduates throughout the college admission experience and during their college education
  • Community Pride, organizes tenant and block associations
  • Family Support, provides crisis intervention services, advocacy, groups on parenting and anger management training
  • Asthma & Obesity Initiatives, educating families and providing management counciling

And there are many more. Read more about these programs and their success. This is significant because HCZ is now helping $1,200 students, 90% of which go on to attend college. The odds are in favor of college grads for breaking that cycle of poverty.


Geoffry Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone has been extraordinarily inspirational. president Obama launching promise neighborhoods program, 20 cities across US to mimic HCZ. Read more about promis neighborhoods here.

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The United States’ Shocking Education Statistics

While it’s debatable whether or not Davis Guggenheim’s documentary film, Waiting for Superman, offers the right solution to the problems affecting the US public education system, it definitely has raised awareness of the statistics presented throughout the movie:

The tables and graphs above shed light on our broken education system. Though we’ve increased spending per student, math and reading scores are abysmal. According to the PISA test, a international test that measures proficiency in core subject matter every three years, only 23% of United States high schoolers graduate at their expected level in math. That’s less than 1 in 4 students. Reading proficiency is better but not by much at 35%, or a little over 1 in 3 students.

How do these figures measure up on a global scale? In comparison with 30 other developed countries, the US is nowhere close to the top:

If we’re not serving our students and they’re not prepared for college or the workforce, how will this affect poverty in America? In turn, how will it affect government-supported social services? Our nation’s future in general? Let us know your thoughts on our discussion forum.

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Join the Conversation: The Myth of Charter Schools

This blog post is a continuation of our previous post, Join the Conversation: Charter Schools, which discussed the documentaries Waiting for Superman and The Lottery. These documentaries suggested charter schools as the answer to America’s failing public education system, but not everyone would agree. Diane Ravitch, a writer for The New York Review of Books embodies the sentiments of those who feel charter schools can’t be a all-in-one solution for education reform. She and others argue that Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for Superman is an oversimplification of what’s wrong with the current system.

“At last we have the culprit on which we can pin our anger, our palpable sense that something is very wrong with our society, that we are on the wrong track, and that America is losing the race for global dominance. It is not globalization or deindustrialization or poverty or our coarse popular culture or predatory financial practices that bear responsibility: it’s the public schools, their teachers, and their unions.”

In Waiting for Superman, charter schools are portrayed as the answer to failing public schools, but is that really true? In 2009 results from a Stanford University study were released that found, when compared to traditional public schools:

  • Only 17% of charter schools performed significantly better (less than 1 in 5 charter schools)
  • 37% of charters performed worse
  • 46% showed no different in their performance

Guggenheim focuses heavily on Geoffry Canada’s success with the Harlem Children’s Zone as the example of a successful charter school, and rightfully so. That success is clear cut. In almost every respect students at HCZ are performing above state averages. However, Guggenheim chooses to cling to the idea that charter schools like HCZ are successful because they’re mostly free from teacher unions and can fire teachers that aren’t up to snuff.

Geoffry Canada is an advocate for the ability to fire poor performing teachers. He’s not afraid to share his opinion that “some teachers just can’t teach” and “when you see a great teacher you’re seeing a work of art.” Throughout the documentary segments of an interview with Canada are shown that portray these sentiments in support of a charter school’s freedom to manage its staff. This narrow focus on whether or not schools can fire bad teachers as the cause for a failing education system is not fair to the viewer. This idea becomes the scapegoat and ignores the many other issues that are part of the cultural fabric of urban areas like Harlem.

Canada expects their teachers to consistently perform at a level of excellence, but he also understands that excellent teachers are just part of the solution. All teachers in inner city classrooms face crime, poverty, substance abuse, and the challenges that come with dysfunctional and single parent families.

HCZ teachers are teaching kids that face these challenges, too. The difference is Canada’s solution wasn’t solely to create charter schools where he can fire teachers who aren’t up to snuff. What isn’t shown in Waiting for Superman is that HCZ created a “project pipeline,” charter schools surrounded by an institutional support structure that, according to author of Whatever it Takes, Paul Tough, is “designed to mimic the often-invisible cocoon of support and nurturance that follows middle-class and upper-middle-class kids through their childhood.” This cocoon includes services like access to quality family and social services, health and community building programs that provide teacher support.

Let’s take a quick look at inner city public schools that have found a way to create a similar support system. Turnaround for Children, Inc. is an organization in New York that works with public schools, as well as the 4 in 5 failing charter schools, to help them reorganize from the inside out and make them productive learning environments. To do this they work with schools in many ways. How?

  • Servicesbuilding internal school capacity to address mental health and behavioral challenges and linkages to community social services:
    • School-based counseling and support
    • Pathways to a community-based mental health partner
    • Family engagement ahd education
  • Skills providing outcome-driven professional development for all school staff, for example:
    • Strategic classroom organization
    • Proactive classroom management
    • Knowledge of social-emotional and behavioral development in children

By providing social support and counciling, Turnaround for Kids, Inc. has found success. Schools became calmer and safer:

  • 51% decrease in police-reported incidences
  • 32% decrease in suspensions

Which also had an effect on teacher performance:

  • 77% decline in teacher turnover
  • 34% decrease in teacher absences

Over a three to four year intervention period ending in 2009, students in Turnaround for Children’s New York City partner schools showed notable academic gains, as shown by the percentage of students demonstrating at or above grade-level proficiency.

  • Math:  Students’ math proficiency scores increased from 49 to 82% at the elementary level; and from 24 to 64% at the middle school level.
  • English Language Arts:  Students’ ELA proficiency scores increased from 47 to 57% at the elementary level; and from 27 to 49% at the middle school level.

So, reader, what do you think? Is the real question of education reform as simple as saying teachers are the problem, public shcools are inadequate and charters are the answer? Contribute your thoughts to our discussion board.

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Join the Conversation: Charter Schools

While we love boasting about the progress Urban School Foundation and its students have made here on our blog, we also feel it’s important to get more people involved in the conversation about education’s tough issues, to feature the benefits of entrepreneurship education, spotlight great entrepreneurs and their success stories and other topics surrounding the achievement gap in education and the chasm that exists between the opportunities afforded students in affluent neighborhoods compared to those in disadvantaged ones.

Education has been called the magic bullet – a way to solve poverty, grow the economy, improve our nation’s health, provide a means to better compete on the global scale and heal many more of society’s ills. However, the timeless question remains, “How should we reform education so it’s more engaging and effective?”

There are many ideas and challenges to reform that are being discussed, and I hope we’ll touch on them all at some point. READER WARNING! Full disclosure: as a former teacher  I have opinions on many of the topics we’ll be discussing, however I don’t think there’s a magic bullet to this magic bullet, and with this blog I’m hoping to offer an objective perspective on the ideas that have been floating around. I want your input and thoughts on the subject matter, and I’d like to start with a current hot button issue: public schools versus charter schools.

The idea that Charter schools could be the education system’s savior has been around for over two decades, but before we discuss charter schools it would help to clarify what the difference is between a public school and a charter school. Both types of schools receive public funding, but charter schools are not subject to some of the rules and regulations that apply to public schools. For example, charter schools can hire or fire anyone they want, can have a longer school day and other differences that mark them as independent of the public school system. In exchange they have 5 years to prove they can succeed in producing successful students or their charter will not be renewed and is closed. Charters can be founded and managed by parents, community groups, nonprofits, government agencies and even corporations. The most important difference is anyone can attend a charter school if they are accepted, and therefore provide parents an alternative to their public district school.

Last year was called the “year of the Education Documentary.” There were many documentaries made that addressed the serious issue of the deteriorating American education system, but Waiting for Superman drew the most attention nation-wide. For those of you who may not be familiar with the documentary, here’s a quick overview:

“Documentary filmmaker Davis Guggenheim explores the tragic ways in which the American public education system is failing our nation’s children, and explores the roles that charter schools and education reformers could play in offering hope for the future. …There was a time when the American public education system was a model admired by the entire world. Today other countries are surpassing us in every respect, and the slogan “No Child Left Behind” has become a cynical punch line.”

Both this film and another documentary called The Lottery focus on Harlem and the sharp contrast between abysmal public school performance levels and the success of charters like the Harlem Children’s Zone and Harlem Success Academy. These charters are raising the bar in every respect and achieving a standard of excellence in the communities that were written off long ago as impossible to turn around.

The main points that these movies seem to be making is that these charters have been successful for a few reasons; they have the freedom to create their own curriculum and to make necessary changes in the schools without having to wade through the bureaucratic red tape. Another central point, one that I will explore in more depth in future posts, is that charter schools are largely free from union interference. This is something that leaders of both charters have identified as key points to their success, because if they feel their teachers are not meeting their standards for an educator they can replace them with a better teacher.

The question both films ask the audience at one point or another is, if charter schools can produce this kind of educational success why don’t we have more charter schools? Even President Obama has addressed the issue, coming down on the side of more charter schools in cities across america. These movies raise this question by showing us how the current public school system is failing our children. Schools are graduating functionally illiterate students, a shocking number of city schools are averaging a 50% dropout rate or higher, giving some schools the name “dropout factories,” and many more startling statistics show the ineffectiveness of public education. Waiting for Superman even addresses the failures of schools beyond the inner-city, showing how many suburban, presumably successful, schools are also not meeting the needs of all their students.

As the viewer we’re along for the ride as we journey with five promising kids who are trying to get into high achieving charter school. Because there are more of these students than available seats at the successful charters, ambitious children like Anthony, Francisco, Bianca, Daisy, and Emil, must leave their hopes and dreams for a better education to chance in a public lottery. In the end we’re for those students whose names are called, and we’re disheartened when the other students were not so lucky. The most disheartening realization is knowing there are many more students and parents attending this lottery who share that disappointing experience – their name wasn’t called.

Both movies leave you with a sense of duty towards education reform, and both make the case that charters can be the answer. What do you think? Post your opinion about charter schools vs. public schools in your discussion forum.

This is just our first post on this topic. Keep an eye out for a followup posts on public school solutions and other issues affecting education.

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