Few things get New York City parents as heated as a conversation about the city school system. Everyone wants what’s best for their kids and, given that all schools are created equal, stress understandably ensues. The new book “A Light Shines in Harlem” documents the struggles and triumphs of the city’s first charter school, which opened in 1999 as a reaction to Harlem’s failing school system.
“The charter school movement celebrated its 15th anniversary this fall and it is kind of unbelievable how much things have changed,” author Mary C. Bounds tells us. “Right before the law was passed in 1998, there was a major report that came out classifying huge parts of the city as being ‘educational dead zones’ where the schools were failing. So that’s what parents were up against and why they’ve supported charter schools so enthusiastically.”
The success of New York’s first charter school, Sisulu-Walker, was especially crucial to the charter school movement, but the odds were stacked against it.”There was only 12 weeks to open the school after the law passed,” she explains. “That included hiring the staff, having all the furnishings and textbooks, having food services…” Of the three schools that planned on opening, Sisulu-Walker was the only one that survived.
Sisulu-Walker’s co-founders have vastly different backgrounds. Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker was Dr. Martin Luther King’s chief of staff and he moved to Harlem to pastor a Baptist church. Walker tackled Harlem’s problems one by one, building low-income housing and housing for the elderly. “Early on, he recognized that education was the unfinished piece of his work and was calling it the civil rights issue of the 21st century,” Bounds says.
His counterpart, Steve Klinsky was a wealthy Wall Street investor. After his brother died at age 29, he started an after-school program in his name. After witnessing the astounding success of the after-school program, Klinsky decided that creating a school with the same fundamentals was the next step. Once the charter school law passed in 1998, he had his opportunity.
Despite the many roadblocks — including that the law does not require public funding to cover facilities funding — Sisulu-Walker didn’t just succeed, it thrived, paving the way for more charter schools to open in the city. Now, there are 83,000 charter schools in New York City; about 7.5 percent of the public school population. Roughly, 50,000 children are on the wait-list. There is a cap on how many charter schools are allowed to open, so even though there is a need, the cap makes it impossible to meet that need.
“A Light Shines in Harlem” highlights the success charter school students go on to have, typically earning high grades and test scores that secure them spots in some of the city’s best public high schools. Given this success rate, Bounds says many people believe those caps on the number of schools “should be abolished. … There’s clearly a need for it.”
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