What’s going on in Harlem?

In 2009, David Brooks of the New York Times reported on Harlem Children’s Zone schools, which were producing “enormous” gains by any standards – students entering the school in 6th grade, scoring in the 39th percentile in math & language arts, had improved to the 74th and 53rd percentiles, respectively, in just two years.

This past February, Bob Herbert, another Times columnist, reported on the Harlem Village Academies, three other charter schools in the area.  The majority of students coming to these middle schools are 3-4 years behind grade level; but in 2008, after just a couple years in the program, students’ math & science test scores showed 100% proficiency.

Both these schools are focused on high standards from everyone – teachers, students & administrators.  Their programs are rigorous and a lot is expected of students.  And a lot is delivered.

Deborah Kenny, founder of Harlem Village Academies, feels we need to take the focus off things like curriculum, class size, school size – and put it squarely on quality of teaching.  In fact, she calls the Academies “Schools Designed for Teachers” in which they “designed every aspect of [the] schools to ensure great teaching.”  Geoffrey Canada, founder of Harlem Children’s Zone, agrees that great teachers are key.  He spent years finding the “right” teachers.  The Zone’s Promise Academy had nearly half their teachers not return after the first year, and another third did not return after the second.

Clearly, both these groups have found ways to reach students who have been struggling and make school – and learning – rewarding for them.  How can we take this knowledge and apply it here?  What elements from these breakthrough programs can apply, what can we learn from them that will help our students?  As we move forward and look for new approaches, we very well may find some we like – straight out of Harlem.

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