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High-Demand Charter School: Staying the Course in Washington Heights

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The narrow walkway leading to The Equity Project (TEP) charter school in Washington Heights was jammed with custodial workers shoveling snow into large bins one early February morning.

Anatea Carpenter, a small 28-year-old special education teacher, darted between them, coffee in one hand, backpack swinging behind her. She was rushing down the hill to buy Valentine's Day treats for her eighth graders who were expected in an hour.

The local deli was closed; Dunkin' Donuts was out of munchkins. Finally, Fine Foods grocery had a limited supply of Chips Ahoy cookies. With each obstacle, her quiet determination grew. The former philosophy major seemed to thrive on challenges, not the least of which would be capturing students' attention on this last day before a three-week winter break.

Despite the long hours and endless challenges of teaching middle school students in this high-octane charter school, Carpenter has shown no signs of becoming discouraged by the obstacles. According to TEP officials, 25 percent of TEP's teachers do not return each year. Half are let go; the other half simply leave. That rate is better than other charters, but worse than the rate for city public school teachers.

According to a survey of 136 charters conducted by the nonprofit New York City Charter School Center, one-third of charter teachers leave ever year compared to 15 percent of those in city schools.

Much of Carpenter's inner toughness may be attributed to her mother who balanced emotional days dealing with young people with traumatic brain injuries and tough weekends supporting families at domestic violence shelters.

Sprinting back up Audubon Avenue, Carpenter dashed into Trailer 8, one of 15 red trailers that make up the high-profile charter school, to prepare her lesson plans -- one on "1929 Delta Blues," which she co-teaches with 11-year teaching veteran Kristin Pisacreta, another on the Autobiography of Frederick Douglass, which she teaches on her own.

One by one, her dozen 8th grade literacy students filed in dressed in different shades of red and pink, not their usual uniform of blue polo shirt and khaki pants.

Her last-minute focus on Valentine's Day seemed fortuitous.

Some students arrived with gifts for their significant others. "Oh...this is for my girl," said Jose Corcino through a faint grin. Two pink teddy bear ears peeked out of his extra-large crimson red gift bag. "It was $30. I had some money," said Corcino with an easy smile.

When students' attention to Frederick Douglass' book lagged, she passed around cookies, and let them select background music to lighten the mood. Jose Reyes-Lopez acted as resident DJ, choosing One Direction music from her laptop.

"I allow the students to control the music," said Carpenter, keeping an eye on the young man.

Reyes-Lopez had spent much of the previous day with Carpenter under what TEP refers to as Teacher Shadow Suspension. He had made a vulgar gesture towards her, and TEP's discipline policy called for the student to follow their subject of offense for a day. Carpenter embraced the day with her student whom she had once taken on an ice skating trip. Reyes-Lopez had grown on Carpenter and she more than understood the challenges he faced not just in school but at home.

Carpenter is in her first year at TEP, which opened in 2009 with much national fanfare for its fresh ideas -- most prominently its promise to pay starting teachers $125,000 a year, 40 percent more than the city's starting rate. The mission, according to founder Zeke Vanderhoek, was to give low-income students in Washington Heights access to top-tier teachers.

Today, its 480 fifth through eighth graders are 20 percent special education and 19 percent English Language Learners -- primarily of Dominican descent. The school pulls from the surrounding Washington Heights neighborhood for its student population that is 89 percent Latino, 10 percent African American, and 1 percent white and other.

According to the Department of Education, TEP is among the top 10 percent of middle schools in the city, and ranked in the top five of charter schools overall making TEP one of four charters to rank in the top 10 percent in consecutive years. Much can be attributed to its high teacher standards.

At TEP, teachers go through a rigorous evaluation system. Teachers are evaluated via scholar and peer teacher surveys, attendance, traditional evaluations, classroom visits, and end of year results. More specifically, TEP incorporates other teachers' perspectives into evaluations. Also TEP uses student feedback as a means for added teaching evaluations overall. Yet officials have said that, "[we] are looking to decrease attrition as much as possible."

Currently TEP has 32 teachers, six are special education. A full third come from alternative routes such as Teach for America, or New York City Teachers. Carpenter is one of the youngest, with only six years of teaching in a school where the range is five to 15 years.

In many ways, Carpenter always had set her sights on teaching. She grew up one of 12 children altogether, including her brother and 10 half brothers and sisters. Her mother's work in a group home for teens with traumatic brain injury influenced her desire to work with special needs students. "She never imposed anything on me. It was always a choice," said Carpenter. On the weekends Carpenter often helped her mother volunteering in shelters for battered women.

"By the time I got to high school I knew I wanted to be a teacher," Carpenter said. She took some detours along the way. She began thinking she would major in education while at Clark Atlanta University in Georgia. She soon grew restless and moved back to State University of New York Purchase near her childhood home of Poughkeepsie. There she switched to history and philosophy.

While at SUNY Purchase, during her year abroad in Paris, Carpenter grew more determined to teach. She entered the New York Teacher's Fellows program, and eventually received her master's in education at City College. Carpenter's first job in the summer of 2008 was teaching sixth through eighth grade at Knowledge and Power Preparatory Academy (KAPPA) 3 in the Bronx.

At KAPPA3 she found herself navigating through the early anxieties of being a new teacher while facing summer school students who were tough.

"For some students there was no difference between being on the streets vs. with teachers," said Carpenter.

Yet Carpenter said that her years there allowed her to grow as teacher and learn the value of engaging with students.

Carpenter then stumbled on a site for nonprofit jobs and initiatives called Idealistcareers.org. She had learned quite a bit as a teacher at KAPPA but Carpenter feared getting stagnant or depleted. TEP seemed like a good new fit for her. She was drawn to its promise to push teachers to always do their best. The application process was rigorous, and she was surprised by the end, when she was offered the job.

One thing she appreciates about TEP is the room she has to work with students' strengths. Their artistic expressions adorn the walls of Carpenter's class. A student named Jadae Rodriguez challenged just about anyone to philosophical debates on the importance of his many animated drawings. One way to connect with students like Rodriguez, Carpenter said, is to allow them to freely express themselves through art.

When the last school bell rang just after 3 p.m. on Valentine's Day, Carpenter prepared herself for the second half of her school day. First there would be the extended school day activities which sometimes meant tutoring, then work from home, reaching out to parents, reviewing papers, and preparing lessons for the next day.

Carpenter admits that though TEP consumes much of her personal life she has happily incorporated it. "I have close friends who are teachers here," Carpenter said.

But the weekend after Valentine's Day would be quite different. It was the beginning of a three-week break. Before the break, she instructed her students on how to complete their packets for break.

Afterwards Carpenter admitted that some student may not complete the packet and would have to face the consequences when they returned from break. Carpenter did not elaborate much but she expected that students would get the work done. She would also be reaching out to them over break.

For now Carpenter is looking forward to taking some time to herself while contemplating the remainder of the semester. Though she has not thought about her career beyond this year she is certain about one thing, after the break she will be returning to TEP re-energized and with a full heart.