The Best NYC Charter School Story You Haven’t Heard

A predictable war of words has erupted around interpreting the latest set of NYC test scores. The charter sector has touted its successes, with Success Academy Charter Schools front and center, and the mayor has increasingly pushed back, critiquing the results, Success Academy itself, and broadly tarring the sector.

Missed in the battle of the elephants are some other remarkable outcomes. First and foremost among them is an autism-inclusion charter school in Harlem that posted the top scores for any independent charter school, all while serving high-needs students in an authentic and responsive way.

I have written about Neighborhood Charter School of Harlem before. A school our Incubator helped start that deliberately recruits and reserves spots for students on the autism spectrum. The school has a robust program of support that integrates students on the spectrum and helps them develop socially in a safe and staged way. 

This is crucially important work from a societal standpoint and would be worthy of applause for even taking on the challenge. But when you see the development of students and also the awe-inspiring outcomes, this is a lot more than a social development program, it is one of Harlem’s highest performing schools.

Outstanding Results

Take a look at the scatterplot below provided by the NYC Charter Center. Neighborhood Charter shines.

Scatterplot of test scores for NYC independent charter schools

While the analysis does not take into account differences in student populations, and schools that tend to serve more disadvantaged students tend to have lower overall scores, nobody can argue that Neighborhood is “creaming” kids. And the work it is doing is much deeper than a test score.

One story from the school really struck me. A parent was talking about how her son was basically mute in school, but at Neighborhood he had started to open up, talk, make friends, and develop a previously nonexistent social circle.

The joy and contentment is evident on kids’ faces when you visit, alongside a responsive design where every class has individual supports for students.

And the results are really remarkable—75.4% of their students are proficient in math, compared to 16.7% in the district. 69.7% of kids are proficient on English language arts, compared to 21.5% for the district.

After the Rhetoric

So let’s move beyond the mayor’s history of talking loud but carrying a small stick on school reform. It really is not about charters versus district schools—at least parents don’t see it that way. And somewhere along the line I heard that this was supposed to be about parents.

It’s about good schools that treat families fairly. So please, let us move beyond the education wars in NYC, and the personal battles between the Mayor de Blasio and Ms. Moskowitz. You guys don’t like each other. We get it. We don’t care.

A good first step was the mayor’s visit to DREAM Charter (full disclosure: I was on the founding board), and I hope he goes out and sees some of the other great work happening in the community. 

These fights may make us feel important as adults but they do nothing for children. And if we are honest, there is so much need in NYC that we don’t have time to waste tearing each other down, when so many families need us to work to build something better.

Schools to Celebrate- Autism Inclusion in Harlem

New York City has a great program for autism inclusion in its district schools.  Thing was, there wasn’t one in Harlem.  We helped change that.

While folks often see charters as modeling practices for the District, we stole the District’s model and put in a charter.  And it’s working.

It all started over steak-frites.  A friend and longtime education reform advocate, introduced me to a lawyer, who worked with special education students seeking private placements.  They both saw an acute need for better services for atypical learners, particularly those on the autism spectrum in Harlem.

These were smart, committed, empathetic and steely-eyed women.  I knew this could happen, and our charter incubator program was all in.

At first, we were told that there were not as many autistic elementary students in Harlem—which technically is true.  It takes roughly 10K to get assessed.  As one of the founders stated in a Daily News Article

While the average age for identifying cases of high-functioning and mild autism ranges from three to four in upper and middle class families, the diagnosis comes closer to age eight in low income areas.

“Statistically, low income and minority kids are diagnosed later because it’s more of a subtle diagnosis,” said Soussloff. “But the later your child starts to get services, the worse off they are.”

Parents needed this, it matters for their children.  And beyond just recruiting kids, the founders went to dozens of meetings to help underserved preschool parents understand some of the early signs of autism, and also to connect them with testing.

They put together a great team, drawing from experts on autism, and developed a great plan.  After one failed application, we were approved.  The Neighborhood Charter School of Harlem opened in 2012 and it is doing great.

They brought on a very strong principal with 10 years of DoE experience.  The educational experience was meticulously designed to support and integrate, but not overload students, and to have a variety of environments within each class to meet differing needs.  You can see more about the program here

It was beautiful to see.  You just saw kids, positively relating with adults and each other, engaged in learning and having fun. In most all cases you would be hard pressed to tell who the spectrum kids were.

Staff were well trained, supported, and they were invested in reaching every child.  Here’s a video of staff getting kids ready for the test.  Something that could be very stressful is decompressed and made fun.  And the kids killed the tests.

Despite having a larger share of special education students, the school far exceeds the District City and State

  • 79% of NCSH 3rd graders are proficient in math (Level 3+Level 4), compared to 20% in District 5 and 39% in New York City.
  • 53% of NCSH 3rd graders are proficient in ELA (Level 3+Level 4), compared to 16% in District 5 and 30% in New York City.
  • NCSH 3rd graders scored in the top 10% of charter schools city-wide.

And check out the kids.

But none of this happened by accident.  It took visionary and selfless founders, great staff and families.  It also took a supportive NYC department of education (shocking in the current context I know, who would think the DoE would willingly help charters serving underserved kids).

So many things go wrong with schools, even with the best intentions, it’s great to see Neighborhood Charter of Harlem prospering, and thinking of replicating.  Ahem,  funders…

And while the test scores are great, there is something much more important happening there.  Equity talk is being walked, and children who often are left by the wayside are picked up and supported in finding their own stride.

And this is something everyone should applaud and learn from, charter or district.