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An Education Success in Harlem

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Last month I visited the Harlem Success Academy Charter School in New York City. Led by former NYC Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz, the school promotes a model of success based on individualized curriculum, merit-based teacher incentives, and specialized testing from day one. The results speak for themselves -- with students performing in the highest percentile in reading, math, and science. Parents report high satisfaction rates, and children are provided the opportunity to gain a quality education in an environment based on their needs.

The Success Academy Charter Schools program provides a core curriculum based on innovation, curiosity, accountability, and creativity. The model for each student varies on their needs, and parents are encouraged to be active participants in their child's education. This program is determined to be the change in New York City. What's not to love?

Well, for some, it may just be the change itself. Several traditional institutional forces, including the NAACP, have engaged in a death match with Harlem Success to stop their expansion and shut them down. This is occurring in spite of the fact that Harlem Success regularly outperforms most of the schools in NYC, and their mostly low-income minority parents continue to rave about the school. I saw it firsthand while visiting Harlem Success and hearing testimonial after testimonial from satisfied parents.

I visit schools all over the nation and every time I walk the halls of a good school, I can't help but wonder why we've settled with defeat. The severity of the situation and the daunting task of taking on the special interest groups have prevented our culture from facing the facts.
Well, the facts were clear on this day in February. As I spoke to over 400 engaged parents, teachers, and students, I was able to meet families who benefited from the Harlem Success program.

One mother stood out as the example of success. With about forty other parents waiting in line to speak to me after my speech, she continuously moved to the back of the line to ensure she "wanted to make sure she had my full time and attention." She was eager to share with me the joy she felt over the progress of her 9-year-old son, a fourth grader at Harlem Success.

Just three years ago, she was told by teachers and administrators at his former traditional public school that she needed to prepare herself for the fact that her son would never be in a classroom setting because of his special needs. Those administrators said her boy didn't have the requisite ability to work productively in a mainstream learning environment.

Today, at Harlem Success, he is among the best students in his class, he works patiently and studiously. While at home he regularly plays chess three days a week with a 7-year-old girl who also attends Harlem Success. Overall, her son is now achieving greatness. And because of the previous struggles he faced, his mother was intent on getting his story out there.

But the most poignant story of this particular trip involves a Harlem grandmother. During our conversation, she shared with me that just about everyone in her family grew up in Harlem and subsequently experienced the hardships of growing up in poverty and ultimately, attended failing schools. With one exception -- her granddaughter.

Today, her granddaughter attends Harlem Success and is thriving. As she eloquently states: "Four generations of Harlem women and we finally have one who may make it to college." She also shared with me that while proud of the achievements of her granddaughter she sometimes finds herself wondering "what might have been" if she too had the opportunity to learn.

This grandmother, and many other before her, attended a predictably failing school. For a century and a half, there has been little substantive change in the way we educate our children. The classic approach in America's classrooms remains essentially a one size fits all undertaking.

How can we expect this archaic system to address the dynamic and ever-changing realities of our society and better yet, our global competition? Even still, how can the system in its current form help reverse the historical education shortfalls experienced by that Harlem grandmother? Perhaps the answer lies in exploding the one size fits all paradigms and being receptive to new ideas and approaches tailored to today's student.

Visiting the Harlem Success Academy in New York City reminded me that we must do better and that we can do better. We have a moral obligation to see our children succeed, and it is only by opening ourselves to the possibility that we can reform our education system in a way in which they will truly have the opportunity to flourish.