Soundings

Ryan Sager
The Charter School Revolution
Amistad Academy shows how good public schools could be.
Spring 2005

Who are we proud to be?”

“Amistad Academy!”

“And why are we here?”

“To push ourselves, to learn, to achieve our very best.”

“And who is responsible for your success?”

“We are responsible for our actions; we control our destinies.”

“And what will it take to succeed?”

“Work, hard work!”

This encouraging scene—the “circle chant,” it’s called—is taking place in “morning circle” in the gym of what has swiftly become New Haven’s superstar middle school. The six-year-old Amistad Academy is a charter school, meaning that it’s publicly funded but privately run, so it’s free from some of the centrally imposed strictures, such as union work rules and curricular requirements, that stunt the city’s traditional public schools. Amistad has won national acclaim for blasting the test scores of some of Connecticut’s neediest kids through the roof. While state testing in 2003 showed that only 23 percent of New Haven’s traditional public school eighth-graders achieved mastery in math and that 31 percent mastered English, Amistad had 66 percent of its eighth-graders demonstrating math mastery and 71 percent English mastery—beating even the statewide averages.

How is Amistad getting such spectacular results? Critics charge that it’s just skimming the city’s best students from the public school system. But that’s unlikely. Selected by lottery from all over New Haven, the students enter the school performing, on average, two years below grade level. Nearly all of Amistad’s 220 students are black or Hispanic, and they come from poor families—84 percent are eligible for the free-lunch program. Nor is Amistad spending oodles on them: charter schools in Connecticut, as in most states, get less funding per pupil than traditional public schools, and not a cent for facilities.

At bottom, the reasons for Amistad’s breathtaking success are pretty simple. For starters, it boasts a rigorous academic program. The Amistad curriculum is highly traditional, based on research-based methods. For reading, it’s phonics, phonics, phonics, supplemented with literature when the kids are ready for it. The school uses the old-fashioned—and proven to work—Saxon Math program to teach ‘rithmetic. And Amistad bases its history, science, and arts instruction on E. D. Hirsch’s content-rich Core Knowledge program. What students need to know at every grade level, moreover, isn’t flexible. Every six weeks the school assesses the kids, with the evaluations then used to figure out which students need help in what subjects. With an extended school day, mandatory summer school, and tutoring before and after school, there’s time for students to catch up.

Amistad kids hear every day not only that they can go to college, but also that they’re expected to. Indeed, on the morning I visited, the school’s cofounder and director, Dacia Toll, a Yale Law grad, announced that she’d be taking the eighth-graders on a trip to Washington College in Maryland—a yearly excursion at the school. Without getting a proper education, Toll points out, black and other minority students will never be able to take advantage of the legal and political gains made by their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. It was that belief that led Toll and her cofounder, fellow Yalie Stefan Pryor, to get Amistad off the ground, pulling together support from 30 New Haven–area backers. “New Haven has a culture of excuses,” she tells me. “People always say you can’t fix poverty and racism—I see it as the reverse.” Good schools tend to spring up around extraordinary, energetic principals, and Toll fits the mold.

Two other reasons for Amistad’s achievement—a strong emphasis on personal responsibility and the creation of a vigorous school community—are both on display during morning circle. Calling the circle to order, a couple of kids beat African drums. And then the rhythmic chanting starts. All the kids have the circle chant written down on pieces of paper. Individual students read the questions; all respond. After the chants extolling hard work and conscientiousness come these:

“And how will we treat each other?”

“We will respect and help our classmates and teachers.”

“And then what will we do?”

“We will give back—to our friends, our family, and to our city.”

“And when will we do all of this?”

“Today, tomorrow, each and every day.”

As this morning ritual suggests, Amistad has at least some of the trappings of an “Afrocentric” school. Indeed, Amistad takes its name from the nineteenth-century Cuban schooner whose cargo of slaves killed the captain and seized the ship, directing it to return to Africa; intercepted by a U.S. brig, the slaves wound up imprisoned in New Haven—hence the link of name and city—until a famous Supreme Court decision freed them. The circle chant’s message of individual and communal virtue, though, transcends its multicultural framework. For kids who’ve been falling behind since birth, often with disorganized family backgrounds, it’s an empowering message—a recipe for success in life.

Further morning-circle ceremonies reinforce that ethos. First come the “apologies” and “recognitions.” On this morning, no apologies are necessary. But Amistad kids routinely must ask forgiveness from the school community for misbehavior: disrupting class, talking back to teachers, failing to do homework. As tough as Amistad is in its behavioral standards, however, it uses recognitions to lavish praise on accomplishments, even relatively minor ones. One teacher recognizes her class for showing enthusiasm for a guest speaker. Another recognizes a student for getting a good score on a grammar test. Toll, who teaches a writing class, recognizes several of her students for volunteering to read their work aloud in class. This practice of communal praising and shaming—all but unthinkable in regular public schools, with their self-esteem fixation and “child-centered” classrooms—tells students that their actions have meaningful consequences.

Amistad doesn’t just place demands on students; it also requires a lot of educators. But they seem happy to give their all. Sue Walling, Amistad’s young academic dean, bubbles over with energy. “One of my favorite things was when Dacia gave me a key to the school,” she enthuses. Why? Because it made it easier to work late.

At Walling’s old job, in a suburban Connecticut public school district, where she worked for four years, putting in long hours got her into trouble with her union. The union rep told her that working so much set a bad precedent—management could start asking all the teachers to work late. If she absolutely had to work extra, the rep went on, then she should at least hide her car. “I got the whole speech that this is a marathon, not a sprint,” Walling recalls. “I could never go back.”

Seeing teachers putting in such hard work instead of counting their clock time can impress the impressionable. Vanessa Torres, 14, was nervous about coming to Amistad, but these days she couldn’t be happier. “The teachers here help you out a lot,” she confides. At her old school, “they really didn’t care.” Now she doesn’t even have much contact with her old public school friends, who’re “always using improper grammar,” she complains. Instead, she and her best pal from Amistad help keep each other focused. She says she wants to be a lawyer eventually, following Ms. Toll’s example.

New York schools chancellor Joel Klein has invited Amistad to open five new schools in the Big Apple—two of which have been approved to open in the fall of 2005—part of his pledge to open 50 charter schools in the city between now and 2008. Seeing what a perfectly secular public school can accomplish if liberated from the modern public school system’s bureaucratic entanglements makes you realize that urban public schools don’t have to be pits of despair. In fact, it makes you ask: Why can’t they all be this good?

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