Daily Archives: March 25, 2011

Numbers Don’t Lie? High-Stakes “Recruiting” at Democracy Prep Charter School

For those parents dreaming of a charter school as a “last resort” for their struggling child, that affection is probably unrequited.

In a world where low test scores mean school closure, struggling students is the last thing a charter needs—and their recruiting tactics back that claim.

Recently, a couple of my fifth grade students received a recruitment flyer and application from Democracy Prep Charter School, a school that boasts among the best test scores in the city. This is not new: fifth grade kids get bombarded with literature about the various middle-school programs available to them. So I just saw Democracy Prep as one of many suitors vying for their attention…

…that is, until I discovered an ulterior motive.

According to two stories, one in Fox 5 News and one in Gotham Schools, Democracy Prep got the green light from SUNY to take over the governance of Harlem Day Charter School, which is at the opposite polar end of its new overseers. Harlem Day was consistently among the lowest-achieving charters in the city, and reformers across the city championed Democracy Prep’s takeover.

In light of such movement, I took a look at Democracy Prep’s literature. The flyer was pretty non-descript, touting it’s perceived status as “the #1 middle school and the #1 charter school in the entire city of New York.” It had a nice mission statement, too: something about educating “citizen-scholars” (great bullshit term, thanks TFA!) to succeed as college graduates and “become active citizens in our community.” Nothing too inflammatory there.

Tucked away in the middle was the notice that Democracy Prep was “working to open a new elementary school in the fall…”, neglecting to mention that this new school did not come out of the blue, but rather from the frequently pissed-on ashes of Harlem Day. Still, if you fire the staff, dump the administrators and redesign all aspects of structure and curriculum from scratch, it’s essentially the same thing.

Then I took a poll, in each class, of the students who received such a letter. To a man, all the students—and ONLY the students—who received passing grades of Level 3 or 4 on their state English Language Arts (ELA) and Math exams in 4th grade were recruited by Democracy Prep.

Furthermore, the application was a slick exercise in covering its own ass from the ravages of an ACLU lawsuit. It stressed there was no admissions exam, and that “English language learners and students with special needs are especially encouraged to apply.” (their italics).

“Encouraged” meaning “…as long as your test scores don’t bring us all down and drag us into the painful light of DOE or SUNY scrutiny.”

If Democracy Prep was open to everyone, they had a funny way of demonstrating their openness.

It didn’t take long for me to figure it out—and not long after to explain to the kids my misgivings. In no uncertain terms, I shared my skepticism about Democracy Prep’s aims and their viability as an option:

(1) Democracy Prep is taking over a failing school. Chances are, propping up that failing school will take priority—regardless of what they say to you. Resources will be siphoned off their more “successful” schools at your expense.

(2) Democracy Prep has no admissions exam. If you are planning to go to a great middle school, what kind of school would not vet its applicants to assess their prior knowledge and skills?

And the most damning evidence of all:

(3) Even though they claimed to be open to everyone, Democracy Prep only sent letters to level 3s and 4s. This should tell you that this school probably cares more about their test scores than about how ready you are for high school and college.

This was only one charter school. Imagine the hijinks going on among schools across New York City. If ever there was proof that charters are not the “silver bullet” that will solve the ills of education, this is it.

It’s even more ludicrous considering Democracy Prep’s superintendent Seth Andrew and his remarks about their new acquisition:

“Harlem Day had incredibly low class size, tons of adults, one of the highest philanthropy per-pupil rates if not the highest, and a really nice building. So all of the traditional arguments that people make about what’s needed to fix schools: more money, smaller class sizes, more teachers, are just wrong. What you need is better teachers in a rigorous academic program.”

…that, and cherry-picking the best students from fifth grade to fill your rosters with ready-made “achievement.”

Lastly, this could not have been done without the connivance of someone within the bowels of Tweed. Middle schools in the city do get information about all fifth graders who are applying. However, how many of them have the top-scoring students already set apart on a silver platter—all the while expressing their desire to work with students at all levels.

If charter schools like this are your “Superman,” then they only work under a Lex Luthor-like web of deceit and slight-of-hand.

Would you entrust the education of your child in an institution that bases itself on such dishonesty? The education reform crowd seems to think so…which speaks volumes to their moral fiber.



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