Educate All Students: Larry Miller's Blog

February 25, 2010

Serious Questions Raised About Harlem Village Academy Charter School: Is This The Model For Urban Public School Reform?

Filed under: Charter Schools — millerlf @ 5:17 pm

The Harlem Village Academy (HVA)  is one of the New York schools that is being  advertised as a model for urban schools. Recently Bob Herbert, in the New York Times, raved about HVA. Following is a blog posting by Steve Koss that raises some important questions.

In his latest NY Times column, Bob Herbert has shown that he belongs to the Nick Kristof club of “journalists” who helicopter into an issue, traipse around for a few hours, get treated like royalty and receive a king’s tour, hear a one-sided pitch, watch a show being put on for their benefit, and then go write a story as if they actually know something about the broader topic.

Herbert decided to dabble for a few hours in NYC public school education, and the Potemkin village story he presents is about the marvels of Harlem Village Academy (HVA) charter school on West 144th Street. Herbert makes much of one his one selected statistic: “In 2008, when the math and science test scores come in, Ms. Kenny’s eighth graders had achieved 100 percent proficiency.” That’s commendable, of course, but here are a few figures he overlooked or failed to mention:

— In 2006-07, the first year on which DOE reports data for HVA, the school had a Grade 5 class of 66 students. HVA has no students in Grades K-4, so Grade 5 appears to be the school’s primary intake class. The next year, that same cohort as Grade 6 students numbered 45. A 32% loss of students in a single year for such a stellar school, even in the middle school crossover year, is worth explaining.

— In 2006-07, HVA had a Grade 7 class of 42 students, but the next year’s Grade 8 cohort numbered just 31, another 26% loss of students that raises an eyebrow or two.

— One-third of the school’s classes in 2008 were “taught by teachers without appropriate certification” according to the DOE’s own data, and 42% of the teachers were reported either without certification (18%) or teaching outside their area of certification (24%). HVA did not report its teacher turnover rates for the DOE’s 2007-08 report, nor does it appear to have ever disclosed those figures for the DOE’s public reporting.

— In 2006-07, HVA had zero students out of 200 classified at Limited English Proficient (LEP); in 2007-08, that number was still only three out of 233. By comparison, PS/IS 210, located just eight blocks away on West 152nd Street, had 173 LEP students out of a student population of 360 in 2007-08, or 48%.

— In 2006-07, 53% of the HVA student body qualified for free lunch, rising to 61% in 2007-08. By comparison, 91% of the student population at nearby PS/IS 210 qualified for free lunch in 2006-07 (no data reported for 2007-08).

— HVA reported an average class size of 31 for 2007-08. By comparison, PS/IS 210 reported a Grade 1-6 (common branch) average class size of 40 for the last three consecutive years.

— HVA reported 75 student suspensions in 2005-06 and 87 suspensions for 2006-07. The student body in those two years totaled 200 and 233, respectively. Nearby PS/IS 210 reported just 10 suspensions in each of those two years for student populations of 192 and 257, respectively. Both schools reported 94% attendance rates for 2006-07, the only year reported by HVA.

— For 2007-08, HVA reported a Grade 8 cohort of 31 students. Thirty took the Grade 8 Math exam, but only 25 took the Grade 8 Science exam in which 96% were rated Proficient. What happened to the other six students, almost 20% of the class? If they were all too weak academically to have reached Proficient, the school’s percentage would have dropped to 77% — still good, but not as chest-thumping as 96%. Curiously, 41 of HVA’s 43 Grade 8 student the previous year took the Science exam for 2006-07, and their proficiency percentage came in just there, at 76%.

— A recent executive search letter seeking teachers on HVA’s behalf included the following statement: The organization [Harlem Village Academies] recently completed a $67 million capital campaign to build a new high school in the heart of Harlem and has a robust pipeline of donors. Harlem Village Academies recently held its first ever gala, hosted by Hugh Jackman, with performances by John Legend, Patti LaBelle, and Joss Stone. The event, attended by Mayor Bloomber and Governor Patterson, generated net revenues of nearly $2 million. I can’t resist adding here that the DOE is still aggressively pursuing its edict that NYC public school students are forbidden from selling homemade brownies, cupcakes, or cookies to raise $50 or $100 for their clubs and activities; if they could just get Hugh Jackman and Patti LaBelle!

Other recent news items from HVA’s own website cite the involvement of Jack Welch (GE), Dick Parsons (Citigroup), Brian Williams (NBC), and Tiki Barber. Again, compare all this to the (steadily shrinking) resources DOE provides to PS/IS 210 and its much needier student population nearby. Note as well that Mayor Bloomberg is repeatedly quoted in the school’s literature and on its website as describing HVA as “the poster child for this country.” Is this really the Mayor’s vision for NYC public schools: dependent on celebrities and the feel-good charitable funding fad of the moment among NYC’s corporatocracy and its nouveau riche hedge fund managers?

— Principal Deborah Kenny, as chief executive of Harlem Village Network (which includes one other school in East Harlem, the Leadership Village Academy Charter School), commanded a neat little compensation package totaling slightly under $420,000 last year. She is not the acting principal of any of her network’s three schools, yet her compensation, spread over the 400-odd students in her network, adds a $1,000 per student overhead burden. If the entire NYC public school system operated in the same manner for its one million students, the combined compensation for all the comparable “network chief executives” would add one billion dollars to the city’s education budget!

I should state here that I am not categorically opposed to charter schools in principle, any more than I have ever been opposed to parochial schools (from which, in Indianapolis, I am a partial product). What I object to is the unthinking, unquestioning acceptance by people like Mr. Herbert, who are supposed to know better, that privatizing public education based on hidden investors (with potentially their own agendas), paying outsized salaries to members of the club, dumping at will any kids who are difficult to teach or control, ignoring kids with English language or special education needs, and then blindly comparing these cream-skimmed apples to a wholly different and far more inclusive set of underfunded oranges somehow represents “the answer” for urban education in America. Mr. Herbert owes us much better than the misleading storyline he has provided in this instance, whatever his personal feelings and connections are.

Schools like Harlem Village Academy may indeed work well for the population they create for themselves after dumping the kids they don’t want back into the “traditional” public school system, and they deserve to be credited for what they achieve as a result since their students appear to be benefiting. But that’s not public education, that’s just a tuition-free private school operating on public money in public space, supplemented by lots and lots of private money and making a few more, mostly white people like Ms. Kenny and Ms. Moskowitz shamefully well-paid.

Posted by Steve Koss



  1. Maybe we should get some famous people to supplement MPS’ deficit.

    Comment by Marilyn — February 25, 2010 @ 7:20 pm | Reply

  2. I am most pleased to read through Larry’s blog providing information concerning school reform, and how it has been worked in certain high profile urban charter schools. Yes, statistics can be misleading, and funding is vital. I hope you are sincere in your call for a debate, yes, one that finally really addresses what needs to be done. Having been a teacher, union president, and retired as a site administrator I have had the honor of working with great and good teachers, and unfortunately a few very bad teachers. In our efforts to raise student achievement significantly I was supported by our District who made the hard choice to buy out the very bad teachers out. Our public school system is not nearly as bad as its critics claim, not as good as its protectors believe. We need to work together, and I am coming to a belief, long time in coming, that local educational and parent communities working in collaboration can make the most difference (tough for a liberal like myself to state that). Many of the elements in the well funded Harlem experience are needed in our current schools; longer days, longer school years, targeted common assessment based interventions and for those behind more time and more interventions, coaching and collaboration time for teachers. What makes these types of reforms difficult are first and foremost funds, but also the structure of collective bargaining agreements. Having worked before cb, and being a president at the outset of cb I realize that is important to protect teachers from unfair practices, but we most also at the same time be advocates for children, especially poor children that need us the most. All of this is compounded by the tough economic times, but as most of us already know, there are NO EXCUSES. Let’s work together, let’s all be advocates for kids. Let’s find ways to keep those kids who left the Harlem Experience in the system and being successful.

    Comment by Russ Antracoli — October 12, 2010 @ 5:27 pm | Reply

  3. Harlem Village Academy … I know the school and had a relative in attendance. Check out their military style of discipline. Children acquire demerits for things like not wearing white long johns unde their uniforms, changing slowly for gym and other non-behavoriable things. If they acquire 9 demerits between Monday and Friday, they then must sit still for 2 1/2 hours of still time in a classroom with their hands clasped on the desk looking straight ahead. No reading. No homework. No ability to be productive. Just sitting still. Unbelieveable. Imagine a good kid that is disciplined like that. My child began to hate school. Striping kids of their individuality by not allowing them to interact in the classroom setting. No questions can be asked during a lesson. Parent involvment in decision making is prohibited.

    Comment by Janie — February 1, 2011 @ 12:56 pm | Reply

    • I am stunned by the many teaching positions advertised by Harlem Village Academies. Is this a reflection of poor management? There is this notion that when the administration needs reforming the first thing they get rid off is their teachers instead of reforming the management. Any thoughts? I have just sent my resume to apply for a teaching position with HVA.

      Comment by Felipe — March 3, 2011 @ 1:26 pm | Reply

    • No matter how reputable or high-achieving a school is, there will always be individuals complaining about it one way or the other. Let’s be honest – every school has its faults. But as someone who recently student taught at HVA for a semester (and is now working with its afterschool programs for another couple months), let me be the first to say that Janie’s comments are NOT representative of the complete picture at HVA.

      Yes, it is true that the demerit system can seem a bit draconian at times. However, her claim that kids are forced to sit for 2 1/2 hrs in complete stasis is exaggerated – maybe this was so several years ago in HVA’s test stages, but I have always seen administrators and teachers use this disciplinary time (more like an hour, not two) effectively. trying to understand why a student had a difficult week and seeing what they can do to help. Overall, the discipline system in place is not much more uncompromising than the standards at, say, a top-notch private boarding school. And the reason for this system is practical – as any teacher knows, you can only accomplish so much if there is constant interruption of the learning process, and many of these kids have come from places where classroom discipline was nonexistent. As regards to her child who “began to hate school”…the students who earned the fewest demerits at HVA did not try to actively fight the system, while the repeat offenders continuously disrupted their peers’ learning and clearly had trouble regarding their teachers with respect. I would further question why this parent entered her child into the HVA lottery if she was already a “good kid” who enjoyed going to school.

      As for the positives at HVA (of which there are many):

      I have never seen a school that embraces each student within the context of a tight-knit, caring community. I often heard the word “family” being used amongst the kids and teachers at HVA, and it was not for show. Many of the students I talked with confided to me that, while their teachers were quite strict, they knew that they were being challenged because the former cared about them and truly believed in their potential.

      I have never seen teachers help a student jump three reading levels in one year – certainly not at the public school level. Far from hating school, the love of learning here is contagious. If a student seems lethargic, it is usually due to prep for an upcoming standardized test (which, let’s be honest, would put any kid to sleep).

      Contrary to Janie’s claims of a cold, callous atmosphere where kids are “stripped of their individuality,” I have rarely seen as much palpable energy in a classroom as I have at HVA. Discussions are brimming with raised hands. Students are given assignments that draw upon their creativity, not just their memory banks. Wrong answers are never mocked, questions are encouraged, and bullying is far less of an issue than at your typical public school. The field trips and excursions are wonderful and far more frequent as well (e.g. exploring the AMNH at night, attending a play downtown, visiting Harvard and MIT, etc).

      As for those students who fall through the cracks – while it wasn’t entirely their fault, it definitely wasn’t the school’s. I saw teachers and admins do everything they could to help kids who were having trouble adjusting to HVA culture. Most of the time, things worked out for both parties. Unfortunately, some of them just couldn’t escape their barriers outside the classroom. The following quote reflects the general consensus on the impact parents have on their kids: “The most consistent predictors of children’s academic achievement and social adjustment are parent expectations of the child’s academic attainment and satisfaction with their child’s education at school.” ( From my experiences observing HVA’s parent-teacher conferences, it was evident that the kids who weren’t making enough progress clearly did not have a positive support network outside of school. Parents of HVA students are expected to work actively with the school in ensuring their child is focused (ie. check their homework every night, attend meetings, communicate regularly w/ teachers, etc). Those parents whose kids could not meet HVA’s academic standards clearly had no one to blame but themselves and their own negligence.

      Despite my positive experiences at HVA, it isn’t the type of school I envision myself working at once I complete my degree and earn my license (that would still be a public high school). However, the 250+ hours I spent observing and teaching in that environment proved that it is a unique and remarkable place of learning and living, and it rightly deserves the accolades educators across the spectrum have bestowed upon it. No school is perfect, but the teachers at HVA continuously refine their efforts in the pursuit of perfection for their students, and take great pride not in the statistics, but the small day to day victories of their profession – from the thank you letters a child sends you for giving him a newfound appreciation for history to a tearful parent sharing her gratitude for helping her daughter get her first A, these kind of examples are the rule here, not the exception.

      Comment by LC — October 19, 2011 @ 2:46 am | Reply

  4. I went for an interview here and was hired with little regard for my lack of background in education and of NYC (and state) teaching certifications. One thing I noticed is that all the staff members were frowning. I would even go so far as to say they looked downright ornery. Then, right before I was set to begin teaching, the person who hired me (and was supposed to be managing my “team”) resigned and my start date was pushed back for a minimum of two weeks, which put me into a terrible position financially as I’d already quite my previous job. Overall, I got a picture of absolute disorganization and that most staff members were unsatisfied with their jobs. Who would want their child to be educated in an environment like this?

    Comment by Al Falfa — February 13, 2012 @ 9:39 pm | Reply

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