Excellent school series: Harlem Village Academy Middle School

What makes a school outstanding? At this high-performing, highly lauded charter, the golden rule is: Teachers are tops.

By Leslie Crawford

Judge a book by its cover, and the entrance to Harlem Village Academy Middle School  might not appear such a great read. The academically rigorous charter, which has been the recipient of generous donations from Bill Gates and fund-raising galas hosted by Hugh Jackman, is squirreled away on the top floor of Harlem's run-down PS 194. Before arriving at Harlem Village Academy, you walk up several floors of a traditional public New York school that's brimming with typical American kids in their loudly chaotic, slouchy, and attitude-laden glamour. But the moment you step foot onto the fourth floor, you arrive at a different world entirely.

The absolute quiet in the hallways is almost unnerving. Students, in uniforms of light blue button down shirts and tan pants, walk quietly in straight lines to their next class, passing through hallways festooned with colorful artwork and encouraging slogans (e.g. "Education is every child's birthright.") Yet for all its monastic calm, Harlem Village radiates a rare exuberance. Despite – or perhaps because of – its extremely high standards, staff and students seem happy. Kids look you in the eye when you meet them. Teachers address students with obvious affection. When an administrator calls out an enthusiastic, "Hello!" to a classroom of fifth graders, every one of them beams back.

Skyrocketing to the top

If the story of Harlem’s success can be translated into numbers, it’s not a difficult tale to understand. In 2008-2009, the New York City Department of Education gave the school a stunning rating of 99.2. Even more remarkable is how far these students, many from low-income, low-achieving East Harlem school districts, have come.

When the first class of fifth graders started at Harlem Village, they ranked in the nation's bottom 20th percentile. Three years later, they ranked #1 in eighth grade math of all New York State public schools. In fact, test scores in science, social studies, and math rank Harlem Village and its two sister schools, Harlem Village Academy Leadership Middle School and Harlem Village Academy High School,  in the same league as many top schools nationwide. Harlem Village earned the New York State Education Department's "High Performing" designation. Educators and politicians have extolled Harlem Village as a model that traditional public and other charter schools would do well to emulate. New York's Mayor Bloomberg dubbed it "the poster child for this country."

What's Harlem Village's secret formula? Dr. Deborah Kenny, a former teacher and Time Warner executive, founded the Harlem Village Schools with a crystal-clear vision: to create "schools designed for teachers."

Where teachers are king

Reverence for teachers remains the driving philosophy of the school, according to Operations Director Clesont Mitchell, who also serves on GreatSchools' Board of Directors. "We love, love, love our teachers," he says. "My job is to keep teachers happy." [Note: Mitchell is a member of GreatSchools’ Board of Directors]. This means teacher receive full support, supplies, and free reign to design their own curricula, rather than have a teaching-to-the-test curriculum foisted on them. "Empowerment is perhaps the most important element of our schools designed for teachers," reads the school's website. ". . . We believed that teachers, not programs, are the key drivers of student achievement – and by tapping into the knowledge, talent and passion of teachers, we could achieve ground-breaking results."

As with many charters, a majority of the instructors are young and energetic, with sizable numbers coming from Teach for America, which trains teachers to approach their profession with an almost religious dedication. Perhaps because the school is designed as much for teachers as for students, every year, says Mitchell, they receive "applications in the thousands" from teachers for the three Harlem Village Academy schools.

Good kings never rest

While teachers receive "whatever they ask for," be it a new camera or a field trip to a museum, in return they are expected to approach their job with a missionary's zeal, doing nothing less than rewriting the future for kids who come from poverty-stricken neighborhoods.

This means being available to students almost 24/7. Students and parents alike have the teachers' cell phone numbers (as well as the dean's, principal's, and the operation director's, whom parents can call any time), and are welcome to call usually as late as 9:00 p.m. and on weekends. Work days can often last as long as 12 hours. At minimum, teachers are at school by 7:45 a.m., when students arrive for breakfast, until the school day's end at 4:45 p.m., along with four Saturday test-preparation sessions and a new-student Saturday orientation. They participate in Tuesday "workouts," gathering with fellow teachers and the principal to refine curricula and solve problems that have arisen during the week; a full week-long "workout;" and a gathering of teachers from all three schools. And, exhale! Every summer they take part in a five-week training seminar.

On top of this, they're expected to check in with students during the weekends or holidays if they haven't been keeping up, or simply to remind them of an upcoming test. In short, they never leave their job behind. (The intensive commitment may explain their turnover rate, which, according to an article at The Huffington Post, is unusually high, with one charter having annual attrition rates of 60 percent and 53 percent and at another 71 percent and 42 percent.) But for a dedicated Harlem Village teacher, this is absolutely "normal" says Mitchell. "If education is your avocation, then you do what's needed."

Great expectations

The school expects a lot from its students as well. Along with nine-hour school days, kids grind through two more hours of nightly home work, weekends included, in addition to reading at least 50 books a year. (A particularly breathtaking achievement for many of the kids who enter the school at fifth grade testing at first and second grade reading levels.) Holiday breaks and summer? More homework! The intense academic schedule has a goal: "We don't tell kids they are going to college," says Mitchell. "We tell them they're going to graduate from college."

With classrooms named after prestigious universities (Harvard, Howard, Yale, Berkeley), the university names on classroom doors serve as constant reminders of the ultimate goal of all the hard work. During their four years at Harlem Village Middle School, students visit at least four colleges and do at least one over night visit – essential, says Mitchell, given that many of these kids don't know what college is. Whether sitting in rows with the teacher in front quizzing kids on algebra, in a lively (and occasionally downright loud) poker game to learn about European trade during Colonial times, or gathered in small groups to discuss Roald Dahl's The Curious Crocodile, the kids seem more than simply passive recipients of disciplined teaching. At every moment, students seem genuinely challenged and engaged. They answer quickly and respectfully when called on. They participate.

Yet academic rigor doesn’t circumscribe the limits of the school’s philosophy. "We want well-rounded kids," Mitchell says. During school hours, extracurriculars include music, art, and P.E. During their after-school programs, kids choose from a broad offering of "find your passion" classes, including theater, journalism, sculpture, flag football, and soccer. There are also dozens of field trips, from museums and ice skating rinks to overnight campouts.

Taking the high road, 24/7

Like many charter schools, inspirational words like compassion, integrity, respect, community, leadership, and effort are plastered on hallways and classroom walls. Yet at Harlem Village, such not-so-subliminal messaging is so ubiquitous, it frames every moment inside the school. "We teach them math and reading, yes, but we teach them to have integrity," says Director of Student Affairs Jason Epting, pointing out that that instilling a strong moral code is as important as teaching a work ethic. "We talk about the whole child, not just the academic child.”

Older students mentor younger ones, and all classrooms participate in community projects like toy drives and charity walkathons. They often speak of their school community as a family, with every member contributing to the good of the whole and well-being of each individual. A common credo: "When one of us fails, we all fail. When one of us succeeds, we all succeed."

Manners matter

Good behavior is essentially required. Those who don't behave — be it speaking back to a teacher, coming consistently late to class, even coming to school without their belt — must do detention after getting several demerits. The typical consequence for bad behavior? Sitting quietly at a desk during lunch or for two hours on Friday afternoons. Voices aren't raised, but misconduct is simply not allowed. "We've never had a fight in the eight years we've been in existence," says Mitchell.

Students who call out or disrespect a teacher or fellow student are immediately sent to the principal's office. "Students are expected to comfort themselves with dignity, to treat each other with kindness and respect, and to actively pursue academic excellence," reads the web site. Indeed, R-E-S-P-E-C-T reigns supreme here. Students don't talk back to teachers and address them as "Miss," "Mrs." And "Mr." You'll frequently hear teachers address a class with, "Ladies and gentlemen. . . . " The predictable eye-rolling that transpires on the floors below? Not happening at Harlem Village.

Not for everyone

With its take-no-prisoners academics and rigorous discipline, Harlem Village doesn’t work for every child or family. When students win a place through the city lottery (a la "Waiting for Superman"), they attend a three-hour orientation with their parents and, after reading through the hefty student handbook, sign an agreement that all are on board — student and parent alike. According to Mitchell, families are told, "We're going to give you our everything. Are you going to do the same?"

When problems arise, parents are often asked to speak on the phone or meet with teachers. They also must make sure their children complete their homework, get a good night's sleep, and arrive at school on time. Perhaps because students have to meet such high demands, there are years that many kids leave the school.  

A tough model to follow?

Harlem Village has its critics. Most salient among them the high attrition rates that winnow out less determined children. Dr. Ann Lieberman, Senior Scholar at Stanford University and Emeritus Professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, points out that charters can be more selective than public schools when it comes to retaining its students. Making a school environment so disciplinary rigorous that many kids leave, says Lieberman, seems against the public school spirit of "accepting all children and working with them."

Other observers praise Harlem Village for its accomplishments, but argue that it isn’t an easily replicated model. Lieberman finds it frustrating that so many pundits and educational experts today point to Harlem Village and other similar charters as a panacea for our failing educational system. "I think what they are doing is great and charter schools can teach us a lot, but I don't think charter schools are going to change American education," she says, citing research showing that only one "one in five [charters] work." (Read here for more on charters' effectiveness, or not.)

 

Finally, Leiberman and other detractors argue that the Harlem Village model is simply not sustainable. Most teachers can't maintain such a taxing schedule and full commitment to every student and family. As well, the school's very survival depends on large donors like the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation. "I feel it's never made clear to the public that there is an extraordinary amount of money being spent on these places that's not made available [to traditional public schools]," says Lieberman.

Moving forward

Mitchell argues that it’s a mistake to compare public and charter school funding, since charters like Harlem Village, "get only 75 percent of [the] money public schools get. We have to raise funds separately. And we aren't given a building; we have to raise funds for a building." Indeed, in almost every highly successful public school in the country, parents or schools somehow provide additional resources to the schools whether its through PTOs or high involved parent volunteers.

But Mitchell doesn’t spend much time debating the critics. He’s busy working (usually 14 hour days) with his students, and trying to reach as many as he can. According to Mitchell, Harlem Academy will be expanding its reach with two elementary schools, scheduled to open in the fall of 2012.

This is a red-letter year for the Village Academy Schools.  Their first fifth graders, who signed on in 2006, will be graduating high school this spring. Already, half of the 12th graders have gotten early college acceptance letters. Mitchell says that in a few weeks, when all the students hear back from colleges, he's anticipating that "100 percent " will be accepted into college.

As for the middle schoolers who walk silently through the halls of Harlem Village every day, they appear to be following one of the school's credos in earnest: "Education is my full-time job."
 

is a senior editor at GreatSchools.