In Summer Payne's kindergarten class,
she asks her kids to clear their throats, take a deep breath and
touch each word on the page:
"The ... girl ... said ... to
... the ... man ... let's ... go ... to ... the ... pet ... shop,"
the kids at Elm City Preparatory School in New Haven read in unison.
Payne claps her hands after each word to encourage pacing and enunciation.
Elm City opened in 2004, mirroring
the literacy-heavy academic model established by another charter
school, the Amistad Academy in New Haven. Amistad, a middle school,
generated national attention by dramatically improving test scores
of its mostly poor African American and Latino students, while posting
test scores above the state average.
Elm City, so far, is having similar
success - with a similar population. In September 2004, 26 percent
of its 100 K-1 students were reading at or above grade level. Eight
months later, that percentage reached 96 percent. Sure, it sounds
Until, of course, you visit the school
and see that reading is made into a fun daily 3-hour routine. The
little ones read at home too. The jump in reading reflects the school's
intensive focus on - surprise - reading and a school spirit that
Naturally, the folks at the Elm City
Preparatory School, made up of an elementary and middle school academy,
want to expand into a K-8. Naturally, because this is Connecticut
and because this is a program that improves the education of urban
youth, there are all kinds of excuses.
Connecticut has an ignominious distinction.
It is one of the richest states in the union with some of the best
public schools. Yet, it also has one of the widest academic achievement
gaps in America between white kids and their black and brown peers.
There's no greater shame in this state - and that includes corruption
- than this pitiful achievement gap.
The leadership void here in accelerating
the expansion of the top-notch charters is as wide as the achievement
gap itself. Few want to tick off the powerful teachers union. Charters
are independent public schools not bound by union rules, so they
have the flexibility to expand their school days and try different
Charter schools - the good ones - have
been recognized as one way to reduce the gap. Connecticut, which
has 14, is recognized as having some of the nation's best charter
schools. Yet, the state is also recognized as one of four in the
country that restricts the number of students in charter schools.
Elm City has 256 students. To add four
more grades would mean a little more than 100 kids, putting it over
the state's arbitrary 300-student per-school cap.
In her recent budget proposal, Gov.
M. Jodi Rell increased the cap to 400 students and included $1.7
million to support half of the proposed 456 new charter seats statewide.
It's a step - but just a half step.
The most damning example of Connecticut's
incremental progress is in New York. New York pounced on the Amistad
model last fall, wooed key people in Connecticut for advice and
opened two Amistad-style academies in Brooklyn this school year.
Two more are scheduled to open in the fall.
In embracing the Amistad concept, New
York also removed the barriers that have slowed Connecticut's charter
In New York the per pupil expenditure
for charter kids equals the state average per pupil. The expenditure
on charter students in Connecticut is $7,600, about $3,000 less
than the state average. New York provides free buildings, and enrollment
expansions are decided by educators, not lawmakers.
"When you look at charter schools
across the various states in terms of performance, it's a mixed
bag," said Dale Chu, 31, elementary school director at Elm
City. "But some of the highest performing schools are in Connecticut.
So, it's interesting that the state that has a lot of the great
charter schools is also a state that is the most restrictive too."
New York had no apprehension in blatantly
imitating a Connecticut success story - and making it its own.
So, Connecticut should have no
qualms in mimicking the Big Apple - and removing those shackles
on its high-achieving charter schools.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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