As an author, CNN and MSNBC educational correspondent, host of TV One's Save My Son and founder of the Hartford, Conn., Capital Preparatory Magnet School, Steve Perry has built himself into an educational brand, referring to himself as "the most trusted educator in America." He is set to bring that brand to New York City, a charter school in West Harlem set to open this August.
Boasting nearly perfect graduation rates and a 100 percent college acceptance rate, Perry and Capital Prep seemingly dispel the notion that poverty and minority racial status equate to low academic standing.
But critics in the Nutmeg State have charged Perry, who holds a master's in social work and a doctorate in education, with exaggerating Capital Prep's accomplishments. For the most part, the naysayers have taken issue not with the metrics of Capital Prep's educational success, but with Perry's characterization of the population it is serving.
"There are serious accountability problems," says Jon Pelto a former member of the Connecticut House of Representatives and educational blogger.
Capital Prep's philosophy, defined in their mission statement, is to provide historically underprivileged students of color with rigorous, year-round educational instruction and zero-tolerance discipline. The school states that it has "operated for the past 10 years in Hartford's poorest, highest LEP (limited English proficiency) population and highest need school district."
Capital Preparatory Harlem will be located in Manhattan's community school district five – a district with similar demographics as Hartford, where over 80 percent of students are considered underprivileged, more than 10 percent are listed as LEP and roughly 15 percent have reported learning disabilities.
"The area (Harlem) is one of the worst performing districts in the state," Perry says. "That's why we are opening a school there." Open enrollment will create a student body "consistent with that of the community" and provide underprivileged, LEP and learning disabled students in the area with scholastic options. As such, the school's New York state charter application states, "we expect the majority of our students will be low-income, LEP and at risk students."
But that is not the case for Capital Prep. Because of its status as a magnet school in the Hartford Public School district, Capital Prep is allowed to enroll students from outside its geographic district. As a result, Capital Prep serves an amalgamation of students, according to data compiled by the Connecticut State DOE, comprised of just 43 percent underprivileged students, three percent LEP and nine percent learning disabled.
"It's hugely suburban," says Ebony Murphy-Root, a former Capital Prep teacher who left, she says, because of dissatisfaction with the administration. "A lot of kids come from middle-class families outside of Hartford and little attention is paid to special ed and LEP students."
Underprivileged and LEP students generally have lower test scores, graduation rates and college acceptance rates. With an attrition rate of over 40 percent, Capital Prep has been accused of compelling these underperforming and at-risk students to transfer schools in order to maintain strong statistics.
"We have testimony after testimony of students who left Capital Prep because they were sat down and counseled out," says Andrea Johnson, president of the Hartford Federation of Teachers.
Perry rejects those claims. "I disagree that there is a high attrition rate. It's even higher in Harlem," he says. "We have kids leaving elite school districts in other parts of Connecticut in order to attend Capital Prep. Some families decide the commute is too much."
Because of its broader geographic draw, Capital Prep's performance cannot be directly compared with the historically challenged Hartford school district, or Harlem's CSD 5 for that matter. The more apt comparison is between Capital Prep to schools statewide. And there, the numbers are mixed. Capital Prep 's standardized test scores fell considerably short of averages statewide. But 93 percent of Capital Prep's students went on to a postsecondary education in 2013 compared to just 85 percent of students statewide.