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The Little School that Could

books and culture

The Little School that Could

The connection between MLK and New York City’s school choice pioneers September 12, 2014

A Light Shines In Harlem: New York’s First Charter School and the Movement It Led by Mary C. Bounds (Lawrence Hill Books, 224 pp., $24.95)

This back-to-school season is rife with excellent education books, including Elizabeth Green’s Building a Better Teacher and Dana Goldstein’s The Teacher Wars. But anyone who wants insight into how hard it is to build a successful school should pick up Mary Bounds’s A Light Shines In Harlem, which tells the story of New York’s first charter school, the Sisulu-Walker Charter School of Harlem.

When New York State’s charter school law was passed in the wee hours of December 18, 1998—thanks to Governor George Pataki linking it to a long-awaited pay raise for legislators—it was unclear whether charters would amount to much in New York City, the graveyard of many well-intentioned efforts to improve public education. Today, however, 197 charter schools operate in the city, serving 82,000 children—about 7.5 percent of all public school students. The majority of these schools are performing better than their district counterparts. Students and parents now have a meaningful choice of public school. And the whole system benefits from charter schools’ infusion of new ideas and new urgency. But all of this was far from certain in early 1999, when investor Steve Klinsky, seeking greater personal fulfillment and to honor the legacy of a deceased brother, walked away from a prestigious job at the private equity firm Fortsmann Little to open the Sisulu-Walker school.

A veteran journalist, Bounds tells the story of Klinsky’s struggles and ultimate success in a suspenseful, behind-the-scenes manner, unusual for an education-policy book. She writes in detail about many of the academic, political, and financial challenges facing Sisulu-Walker and the New York charter-school movement in its early years. The book includes a foreword by Wyatt Tee Walker, the former chief of staff to Martin Luther King, Jr., who became a Harlem minister and joined forces with Klinsky to provide the Sisulu-Walker school with a home in his church’s community center on 115th street. The school is named for Walker and Walter Sisulu, an antiapartheid hero who worked alongside Nelson Mandela in South Africa.

I knew nothing about Walker or Sisulu before reading A Light Shines, and learning about their respective fights for civil rights was an unexpected delight. Walker was King’s “field general” for the Birmingham civil rights campaign and helped compile the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” from notes King had written on scraps of paper. King personally installed Walker as pastor of the Canaan Baptist Church of Christ in Harlem on March 24, 1968, 11 days before his assassination in Memphis. Over time, Walker came to see school choice as “the civil rights issue” of the late twentieth century. If King were alive today, Bounds quotes Walker as saying, he would support charter schools as a way of combating the “discrimination against low-income people trying to get their children a quality education.”

Bounds makes clear that Sisulu-Walker—the only survivor of that pioneering 1999 class of charters—has had its ups and downs. At one point, when Sisulu-Walker was going through significant growing pains, some advisors told Klinsky to walk away from the school he had invested so much time, effort, and money to create. Klinsky instead redoubled his efforts to turn the school around. “This is tombstone stuff,” he says.

Klinsky also established Victory Education Partners, which provides academic and school-management support services to independent charter schools and public school districts. Bounds briefly touches on the experiences of some of the Victory-affiliated schools, including the successful Charter School for Educational Excellence in Yonkers, New York. In the last chapter, she describes what she sees as the characteristics of successful schools. But at its heart, A Light Shines is the story of an unlikely partnership between a Wall Street hotshot and a Harlem minister, the little-school-that-could they created together on 115th Street, and the path that they’ve charted for educational equity in New York—and across the nation.

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