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Books and Culture

Charles Upton Sahm
New York’s Education Reform Pioneers
Joe and Carol Reich helped start a charter school revolution.
10 October 2012

Getting to Bartlett Street: Our 25-Year Quest to Level the Playing Field in Education, by Joe and Carol Reich (February Books, 169 pp., $24.95)

“This can never work. Nothing goes to closure. There is no way to work with these people. They don’t take initiative. Everything falls into the abyss of ‘no change is possible.’” Joe Reich jotted down these notes after yet another useless meeting with bureaucrats in New York’s old Board of Education as he and his wife, Carol, attempted to do what at the time seemed outlandish: open a small, independently run, high-performing public school in a community that desperately needed one.

The Reichs’ epic struggle and ultimate triumph is heartwarmingly told in their new book, Getting to Bartlett Street (the title refers to the street where they opened their first school in 1992). But the book is much more than a stroll down memory lane. With the Bloomberg administration’s end in sight, Getting to Bartlett Street is a timely reminder of how far the city’s schools have come—particularly in the charter sector. It’s also a sort of handbook for effective philanthropy and an illustration of what can be accomplished when two persistent individuals pour their money, their time, and their hearts into a worthy cause.

Inspired by their participation in Eugene Lang’s “I Have a Dream” Foundation, through which they sponsored college educations for a class of 60 students in pre-gentrified South Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the Reichs decided that they wanted to help the thousands of other kids in that neighborhood—and sooner than high school. Carol held a Ph.D. in developmental psychology and had served as the chair of the Lexington School for the Deaf. Joe had prospered in finance and was semi-retired. The Reichs decided that it was time to give back to the city they loved. Why not help open a successful public school in South Williamsburg?

Their motivation increased after they began regular visits to JS50, the junior high school that their “Dreamers” attended, seeing firsthand the poor education kids received and the even poorer attitude of many teachers. Could they open a school and design an educational program that would enrich the lives of these disadvantaged, mostly Latino children? Surely, they couldn’t do worse. They convinced Pfizer to offer, free of charge, the building that housed its old Williamsburg corporate headquarters. The company also made a large financial contribution to help start the school. All the Reichs needed now was Board of Education permission—no easy task in the early 1990s.

For those who claim that New York’s education system hasn’t improved under Mayor Bloomberg, Getting to Bartlett Street reminds us of how pre-Bloomberg school superintendents often treated their districts as personal fiefdoms. The superintendent of Williamsburg’s District 14 in those days was a former gym teacher, William “Wild Bill” Rogers. Though the Reichs didn’t know it at the time, Rogers was involved in a scheme wherein he put scores of women from the local Hasidic community on his payroll with no-show jobs and then turned the money from their salaries over to a local rabbi, who ran a private school with the funds (after all involved took some money off the top.) Years later—after Rogers retired and another superintendent, former UFT district rep. Mario DeStefano, took over—the Board of Education finally began to ask why District 14 had so many more employees per student than any other district. When pressed, DeStefano simply added scores of fictitious names to the student roster. (In 1999, after two decades and millions of dollars lost, the Board of Education finally shut down this scam.) These were the types of people running the New York City schools 20 years ago. Needless to say, they didn’t welcome competition from outsiders.

The Reichs detail their years-long battle to open their first school, a tale equal parts persistence and chutzpah. Ultimately, after the New York Times ran an article about the Reichs’ struggle, the Board of Education relented, and the Reichs finally opened the doors to the Beginning With Children School in September 1992. Starting with 25 kindergarteners and 25 first-graders, Beginning With Children added a grade level each year until it reached its current full enrollment of 450 students in K through eighth grade.

The success of Beginning With Children—a small, independently run public school granted greater flexibility in its operations, and the first of its kind to use a lottery system to admit students—helped pave the way for charter schools in New York. The Reichs, through their involvement with the Manhattan Institute and the Center for Educational Innovation—Joe served as a trustee of M.I. and a supporter of CEI for many years—played an active role in the fight to bring charters to New York. After the state’s charter law passed in 1998, the Reich’s Beginning With Children Foundation worked with local parents in Fort Greene, Brooklyn to launch Community Partnership Charter School (CPCS) in 2000. In September 2001, the Beginning with Children School converted to a charter, becoming the first K-8 conversion charter school in New York State. A third charter school under the Beginning With Children umbrella opened in Brooklyn this fall.

The Reichs also helped create the New York City Charter School Center, a nonprofit instrumental in transforming New York’s charter sector into one the fastest-growing and best-performing in the country. As a result, the number of charters in New York City has grown from just 23 in 2004 to 159 this fall, and 56,000 students are now enrolled in charters (4 percent of all public school students). In neighborhoods like Harlem, where better educational options are most needed, the figure is as high as 25 percent. Tens of thousands of disadvantaged students across the city are getting better educations. Their parents are being given, often for the first time, a meaningful choice of public school. And the whole system is benefiting from charter schools’ infusion of new ideas—and more importantly, new urgency—into the public school system.

As Getting to Bartlett Street illustrates, the Reichs played a huge role in bringing this about. Former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein puts it best in the book’s foreword, when he notes that “against all odds, and in the face of persistent, unyielding naysayers, these two people led a revolution in education in the largest school district in the country.” In doing so, Joe and Carol Reich have brought hope and opportunity to thousands of New York’s disadvantaged kids.

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