Students in the Harlem Children’s Zone achieve the results they do, Canada says, because they invest more: They invest more actual time in the classroom, with a far longer school day and a school year that begins in September and ends in early August. All Promise Academy students are in school about 60 percent longer than average public school students. Struggling students can spend twice as many hours in school as the average kid—in class and in tutoring or in small-group before- and after-school instruction. HCZ’s corporate and school leaders say they hold each child to high standards and expect teachers to do “whatever it takes” to achieve success. And the charters invest more money per child per year—nearly $19,000 in 2008—than the $14,525 the city spends on children who attend general-education programs in traditional open-enrollment public schools.
The financial investment starts well before the first formal day of kindergarten. The Harlem Children’s Zone spends almost as much per child in its Harlem Gems preschool, $13,500, as the city spends on a typical older student. Gems tykes are carefully cultivated and groomed for school; they’re in the Promise Academy pipeline already, because Harlem Children’s Zone planners hold kindergarten lotteries when a cohort of students is 2 or 3 years old—effectively holding seats until they are old enough to attend kindergarten. In addition, HCZ spends $5,000 per child each year for after-school and extracurricular programs for students who don’t attend the Promise Academies but live within the Harlem Children’s Zone. Some of the money goes to direct payment of middle school children, for good grades and participation in HCZ programs.
The school day begins at Promise Academy I and II at 8 a.m., even for the youngest students. At Harlem Gems, the lottery admission pre-K program that feeds into the Promise Academies, the day stretches from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. After-school programs, which include 4- and 5-yearolds, run until 6 or 7 p.m. There’s Saturday school every weekend, and some teachers and students meet as early as 7 a.m. for intensive test preparation.
“Every single child has to make it,” says Shana Brodnax, senior manager of early-childhood programs at the HCZ. “It’s an entirely no-excuses-accepted policy that takes an almost incomprehensible amount of resources and support.” “Failure is not permitted,” vowed Canada, speaking to a public gathering in Springfield, Mass., in November. “No excuses. Failure is not permitted, because funding is tied to success, not failure.”
In the world of education, success has many definitions. But the HCZ schools are simply too new to be able to measure success in the vocabulary of graduation or college enrollment—no students have yet graduated from the Promise Academy’s high school, so there’s no graduation rate to discuss. Regents scores from 2009 are encouraging but preliminary, as only one cohort of students has taken the exams. Nearly 500 young adults who participated in nonschool HCZ programs are now in college, but not much is known about that group.
Instead, at the Promise Academies, success has an explicit benchmark: “We are judged by the New York State tests,” says HCZ spokesperson Marty Lipp. “We literally live or die by that test.”
Like all other public school students, those at the Promise Academies take statewide assessments every year. The Promise Academy schools have recently posted strong results in math: In 2009, 87 percent of Promise Academy eighth-graders scored at or above grade level, compared with 61 percent overall in District 5. On the state math test, 91 percent of Asian students and 86 percent of white students citywide scored at or above grade level, as did a mere 62 percent of black students in the city’s schools. Since the Promise Academy is 91 percent black, its high scores suggest a far narrower racial achievement gap than might otherwise be expected.
On the 2009 English-language arts (ELA) test, 57 percent of Promise Academy eighth-graders met or exceeded grade-level standards, compared with 46 percent in District 5 at large and 50 percent of black students in New York City. While HCZ students’ scores exceed city averages for black students, a substantial and significant race gap persists: Citywide, 76 percent of both white and Asian eighth-graders scored at or above grade level. (Promise Academy eighth-graders bested their District 5 counterparts in 2007 and 2008 on math and English, as well.)
In April 2009, Harvard economists Roland Fryer and Will Dobbie released a study asserting that “the Harlem Children’s Zone is enormously effective at increasing the achievement of the poorest minority children,” based on their analysis of 2007 state test score data. In middle school, they documented gains that “reverse the black-white achievement gap in mathematics.” Grade school results are even stronger, Fryer and Dobbie say, and “close the racial achievement gap in both subjects [math and English-language arts].”
Test scores are the single most powerful measure in the city’s annual progress reports about each school. Yet both the city’s Department of Education and New York State Regents chancellor Merryl Tisch recognize that the Level 3 score— widely translated as “at grade level” or “proficient,” which is where most HCZ students scored—does not actually predict academic success. In fact, students who score Level 3 in eighth grade have only a 52 percent chance of graduating from high school in four years, according to Tisch and analysts at the city Department of Education.
Fryer and Dobbie based their conclusions on gains made by a single class on a single test in a single year. In other years, and for other grades, state-exam scores at the Promise Academy have not always been impressive. The fifth-graders scored lower than the district average on the 2009 math test. Only a third of the school’s eighth-graders were at grade level on the 2008 English test.
On non-state exams, the results are even more mixed. On the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS), the eighth-graders’ average score was 41, well below the HCZ-set target of 50 and a score that correlates to an achievement ranking on the 33rd percentile nationally. (ITBS scores since 2007 have risen but still do not meet HCZ-set goals.) On the Terra-Nova English assessment, HCZ’s goal was for 65 percent—the tipping point—of students to score 80 percent or above, a goal that the school has not yet been able to achieve. A similar target was set for math; again, the organization’s testing goals were unmet, despite three-month delays in testing that should have translated into extra gains. The fact is, any test one looks at, whatever result is shown, is of limited use in judging whether the Promise Academy model works or not.
Each Promise Academy test cohort comprised fewer than 100 students— a fairly small pool from which to conclude that the project is brilliant or a bust.
And comparing the student populations at Promise Academy with those in the nearby regular public schools is an apples-to-oranges matchup: The HCZ schools serve significantly fewer high-need learners, like special education students or kids who are learning English. For instance, only 6 percent of the third graders who took the 2007-08 English test at the Promise Academy had disabilities, while disabled kids made up 30, 40, even 60 percent of the test-taking pool in open-enrollment schools in the district. Only a handful of students at the Promise Academies are English-language learners, compared with 14 percent in schools citywide.
And the students who attend HCZ are selected by lottery, which may in itself shape the schools’ population: Unlike open-enrollment neighborhood schools, the lottery requires a measure of parental initiative that benefits HCZ students in other ways. “One has to take the … evidence with a grain of salt,” Fryer and Dobbie caution. “Children who participate in the HCZ are not a random sample of students. …Students served by HCZ are likely to be self-selected, and results that compare [them] to other children in Harlem may be biased.”
Harlem Children’s Zone school leaders, however, are adding more than a grain of salt. Faced with dramatically different testing outcomes between state tests and the Iowa exam, they decided to find an alternative to the Iowa. According to the organization’s 2008-09 annual report, “Two years ago, a decision was made to deemphasize the [Iowa test] in order to focus on New York state standards and the skills needed for success on state assessments; thus the school is looking for another nationally recognized standardized test which aligns more closely with New York State standards.”
Being able to display the right kind of results is a matter of survival. “We are bottom-line kind of people. We live by the numbers. Show us the outcome. That’s how we’re measured—that’s how we measure you,” said HCZ supporter Ken Chenault of American Express at the November “Changing the Odds” conference. “The Harlem Children’s Zone thinks about product value, just like they do at Apple, just like they do at J. Crew, just like we do at my company. A strong brand can bring financial assets—a promise of goods and services, based on trust.”
At the Promise Academy, school leaders and teachers work backward from the test score goals set by Canada and the HCZ leadership: As Paul Tough related in Whatever it Takes, disturbingly low test scores in the school’s first years dictated a results-oriented attack. “The whole school was going to be concentrating on one thing: raising the test scores,” Tough wrote. During the period from 2004 through 2008 when Tough reported on the school, test prep began before school, at 7 or 7:30 a.m. for some students, with cash incentives for attendance. School-wide test prep started in September, Tough reported, with “morning test-prep sessions, a test-prep block during the school day, test prep in the after-school program, and test prep on Saturdays.” Over the 11-month school year, focus persisted on the state tests.
Every week, teachers tell City Limits, students took practice tests, using previous state exams as study guides. “We used exactly what people were going to see on the exam,” says a former math teacher, to make sure students were “thoroughly inculcated with test sophistication, test practice. So that when they ‘got on the field,’ they’d be ready.” “It’s all about the numbers,” another former Promise Academy math teacher tells City Limits. “Everyone felt the pressure. People got bonuses for their performance. There was a synergy there. It wasn’t so clear-cut, that if X children fail, I’m out of a job. But you knew, at any time, you could be released.”
HCZ does not deny its focus on testing. “We do work with the kids to prep for state tests—during school, after school and weekends,” says HCZ’s Lipp. “We are judged by the state tests. We have to pay attention to it.”
One part of the HCZ experience that is not emphasized in media coverage is the stunning rate of teacher turnover the Promise Academies have posted. In 2006-07, a third of Promise Academy I’s teachers left or were dismissed. The year before 48 percent were fired or quit. Only one of the original teachers is still with the Promise Academy middle school.
Some teachers elected to leave, like those who told City Limits that working with data took precedence at the school over working with children. Others were fired. One teacher, who flew in from Hawaii to teach at the Promise Academy, was let go before her household furnishings arrived by shipping container.
Efiom Ukoidemabia, the school’s former math coach, stepped into a teaching role after an instructor resigned, and was summarily dismissed. “Before I was fired, I was never observed in the classroom. I was never offered feedback on my performance. There was no paper trail, and there was no guidance. I was given no chance to improve over time,” he tells City Limits—all steps that would have been in place if the school were bound by the sort of union rules and contracts that charter school proponents contend inhibit educational innovation.
On the afternoon City Limits was permitted to visit the Promise Academy I school at Harlem Children’s Zone headquarters, the teachers encountered were predominantly young; about half had not taught school previously in New York City (or elsewhere). Two came to teaching via the New York City Teaching Fellows program and Teach for America, alternate-certification programs that bring bright, young college grads into the public schools, with mixed long-term outcomes.
Classrooms were clean, bright and barebones modest: They were thinly supplied, with little student-made artwork, writing or other projects on display and limited classroom resources like the libraries and manipulative materials often seen in public school classrooms. Most often, students were arranged in old-school rows of desks, with the teacher’s desk at the front of the room, but the instruction was often energetic and engaging: In one fourth-grade music lesson, the teacher, who had drawn a cartoon self-portrait on a whiteboard before the lesson, wiped away an ear in protest after a cacophonous, enthusiastic recorder display. “Put the ear back!” called out one boy, “so you won’t be Vincent van Gogh!”
Teachers in the classes City Limits visited often worked in pairs, giving the very small classes of 10 to 16 students additional attention, discipline and guidance. While some teachers shushed kids on the stairways or snapped their fingers at children, expecting obedience, others coaxed their charges with humor, like the English teacher who pleaded with students for details in their essays: “Nobody wants a sandwich without the mayo and the lettuce.” An essay without color, “that’s just the meat and the cheese. That’s dry.” Students wear uniforms that wouldn’t be out of place in parochial schools—gray plaid skirts and white blouses for the girls, gray slacks and red vests for the boys, with high schoolers in khakis and button-downs.
A sign at the building’s entrance prohibits hats, “durags” and hoodies—streetwear that doesn’t belong in the classroom. The school’s two science labs are not currently used as labs but as regular classrooms— certainly complicating the instruction of Regents-level science classes like biology and chemistry. History students learning about World War I studied from books that included Regents and other test preparatory materials, although their teacher assured City Limits that they used a textbook on other days. (We didn’t see any textbooks in use, but a few were on classroom shelves.) The gleaming gym, visible from 125th Street through a wall made of 15 double-height panels of plate glass, features an HCZ logo on the basketball court’s maple floor—and 15 automated white-fabric panels that slide down, like so many eyelids, when the kids in the gym wave to passersby on the street.
Most of the teachers who came to—and left—the Promise Academies (the second school, launched a year after the first in 2005, is located a few blocks away on Madison Avenue) bought into Canada’s vision of education reform. One former staffer recalls crying, she was so inspired the first time she heard Canada speak. Ukoidemabia says that becoming the math coach of the Promise Academy was a dream after 15 years teaching in the city’s public schools. “On a visceral level, I’m an African male, this is 125th Street—you can’t get any more Harlem. There were these other African males, from Harvard, Bowdoin—I was dazzled,” he says. “It was an amazing opportunity to shape kids—and a $44 million building. I thought, ‘I want in on this.’ “
But reality was less inspiring. Physical conditions in the first years were bad, some teachers say. Discipline, an initial obstacle for many Promise Academy teachers, was a challenge for leadership as well, says HCZ treasurer Kurz. “We developed a lot of grand plans, educational philosophies,” he recalls, “and we overlooked sort of the fundamental aspect of running a successful school, and that is managing the culture of the school, managing the discipline. Forget the curriculum maps and everything else, until you’ve gotten the blocking and tackling of the culture as a whole.”
Canada says teachers should be treated as professionals, like hard-driving, well-compensated young associates at law firms.
“You take the brightest young people, and you work them to death,” he said at the Sheraton conference, only half joking. Indeed, the demands on Promise Academy teachers are high and near constant. The school year begins on or near Labor Day and finishes in the second week of August. Longer hours and a longer year were part of the original job description; evening sessions and Saturday school were not. All of the schools’ staff, from the principals down, serve at the pleasure of Canada and the HCZ board.
There is no union, there is no tenure, and there is no job security. That lack of security can be a stumbling block for experienced teachers and administrators.
Former Promise Academy teachers say that leadership applied a double standard to teachers versus parents. “To get parents to meetings, they would give away iPods, stereos, Pathmark gift certificates,” says former literacy coach Shelly Klein. At parent meetings, dinner was ordered for parents who attended, “but they would not let the teachers eat,” Klein says, despite the fact that teachers remained on call after a very long school day. The message from the board was clear, she says: “The people who gave us the money [for the schools] wanted to see results. These gentlemen gave millions of dollars. The kids weren’t getting better. The responsibility, and the critique, was to the teachers.”
Canada does not dispute this. Of the most reluctant parent-participants, he says flatly, “I bribe them.” Boxes of Pampers, cases of Coke, free pizza dinners, tickets to ballgames, gift certificates—”whatever it takes” to get parents engaged and into the schools. Canada relates how he motivated competition in an ongoing anti-obesity initiative: Children who lost the most weight won a trip to Disney World in Orlando; winning staffers were rewarded with a sojourn in the Bahamas. Canada, in efforts to inspire students, visited the school frequently, Klein says. “In middle school, when kids did their homework, Geoff Canada would stand in the auditorium with a roll of money and pay them. Kids would be called up by name. ‘Oh, you got X grade, here’s $20.’ He would call up kids. Don’t forget—he’s not the principal. And he’d hand out money. That’s what Oprah doesn’t say.”
The conditions and demands took their toll, on individual teachers and the schools themselves as they tried to build a culture of success amid staggering turnover. “New teachers come in—12 new teachers, 12 distinct cultures. It affects the gestalt. The sum of the parts doesn’t equal the whole,” says Ukoidemabia.
Attrition has lessened since 2008, a result, at least in part, of a dramatic move to revamp the school’s focus.
The tension between the teaching staff at Promise Academy I and the HCZ board came to a tumultuous head in March 2007, when, after three years of consistently dismal test scores, Canada elected to close enrollment in the middle school for a year. No new sixth-graders were to be admitted—a luxury that an open-enrollment neighborhood school, which is by law obliged to educate all youngsters within its catchment zone, could never entertain. (The school also decided not to admit sixth-graders the following year, “restarting” the middle school in grade five. It also ended the practice of the middle school admissions lottery and began the preschool lottery that determines eventual enrollment in the Promise Academy. Neither strategy would be permitted in conventional open-enrollment schools.)
As it closed the entrance to new kids, the Promise Academy also ushered existing students out the exit. Of the 100 eighth graders who were the inaugural Promise Academy middle school students—those who entered the school with the understanding that they would continue through 12th grade there—65 remained in the academy when the board stopped enrollment. That May, they were hastily “graduated” and placed in city and private high schools. Where the kids ended up is not clear.
“We don’t track them in the sense that we evaluate our own kids,” says HCZ spokesperson Lipp, who couldn’t detail where that cohort went to high school or discuss their progress toward graduation. “We don’t track them as a group, like we would track our eighth-graders.” This division—”our” eighth graders vs. the children who were once Promise Academy eighth-graders—stands in sharp contrast to the oft repeated promise of the Promise Academy and the HCZ: Once a child is in the HCZ pipeline, they’re secure and supported all the way through college. Here, children who once were in are now out.
In the fall of 2008, the Promise Academy I middle school again accepted new students. But instead of admitting sixth-graders, the decision was made to start fresh with fifth graders who came up from the Promise Academy lower grades, effectively controlling the quality and previous education of students entering the middle school. The eighth-graders whose 2007 test score gains inspired Fryer and Dobbie’s enthusiasm, just a year after the middle school hiatus went into effect, are now in the Promise Academy high school. In 2014, 10 years after it opened its doors, the Promise Academy will finally reach its full K-12 enrollment.