Tim Castanza admits that he was “triggered.” The year was 2016, and Castanza, then working for the New York City Department of Education, attended a Community Education Council meeting in Staten Island, where several mothers of kids with dyslexia spoke. The public schools didn’t have any programs for their children, they said, describing how long schools took to offer proper evaluations and how the district failed to provide adequate services, even after children received diagnoses. Along with Rose Kerr, a retired DOE principal and director of education for Staten Island’s borough president, Castanza wanted to do something. “I know what good phonics instruction looks like because of my elementary school teacher,” Castanza, who received an ADHD diagnosis in college, said. “Still, I had a lot of needs that were not met at that school.”
Three years later, Castanza opened the school that he wished he could have attended himself: Bridge Prep Charter School. Designed according to scientific reading instruction, the school offers all the necessary support for children with dyslexia and other language-based learning difficulties. City leaders should learn from its impressive results.
Bridge Prep’s advantage consists not just of a different curriculum but of a different way of training teachers and an expansive capacity to meet students’ needs. Nearly two-thirds of students at Bridge Prep have an Individual Education Plan, and nearly all of these receive multiple services. Seven in ten Bridge Prep students also hail from low-income families, which often cannot afford extracurricular phonics coaching (a common but expensive practice among high-income students who struggle to read). The school, therefore, offers 60 minutes of daily instruction based on the Orton-Gillingham Approach. Phonics instruction gets delivered to students grouped by grade and ability. This is “equity,” Castanza says. A school is “not prepared to teach every kid” unless it has a structured literacy program, he adds.
Georgia Orosz’s son has benefited. When he came to Bridge Prep to repeat second grade, he was reading at kindergarten level, had a dyslexia diagnosis, and was writing in reverse. And his struggles at school had become a behavioral issue. His mother was so frustrated with the Staten Island public school he attended that she planned to homeschool him—until a therapist referred her to Bridge Prep. Her son enrolled in the school right before the pandemic. By the beginning of fifth grade, he was reading at grade level.
Some charter schools deliver exceptional results but also ask families to do a lot of homework. At Bridge Prep, “they only ask you to trust the process,” Orosz says. The school assigns no homework—believing that students need free time to move their bodies after school. But to allow that, the kids get lots of instruction during the school day. The pandemic has been a disaster for learning; the fact that Orosz’s son could learn to read in second grade during a school year disrupted by closures and online instruction testifies to the school’s effectiveness.
Bridge Prep certifies its teachers in the Orton-Gillingham Approach and is now pursuing certification for the entire school. Only 19 such schools enjoy such certification in the U.S.; all are private. All Bridge Prep students take regular state tests, though they can ask for alternative testing and for accommodation. Last year was only the second year in which students took the state tests: 34 percent of third-grade students were reading at grade level, a high percentage, considering the high-needs student population and compared with New York City results overall. (Just one in four children in New York City can read at grade level.) According to NWEA MAP, an assessment given three times a year to all Bridge Prep students in English, language arts, and math, 90 percent of students increased their proficiency this past school year. Such improvement is remarkable.
Because Bridge Prep uses only public funds, its results suggest lessons for the city. Schools chancellor David Banks is trying to revamp reading instruction in city public schools. Last May, Banks announced NYC Reads, an initiative requiring schools to select one of three literacy curricula. The chancellor has received deserved praise for the initiative from reading experts and activists. He is tackling one of the biggest challenges facing urban school superintendents. Bridge Prep was the first school that he visited after announcing the initiative.
Still, after I visited Bridge Prep, I wondered whether NYC Reads can accomplish its goals, given the existing restraints in traditional district schools. I have seen enough to doubt the system’s capacity to implement a Bridge Prep–like curriculum. Focusing on phonics is an excellent first step, but the city principals’ union has released a letter opposing even the announced curricular changes. Banks must ensure that the initiative doesn’t get sabotaged, and he should invest heavily in teacher training. As Castanza says, “the science of reading cannot just be layered on old practices.”
The story of Bridge Prep shows that persistence can overcome barriers. City educators should learn from its example to provide adequate reading instruction inside the public school system.