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A New Charter School, A New Approach to Escaping Poverty

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Despite the hard work of the thousands of dedicated and talented professionals that fill public schools, systemic problems contribute to a growing achievement gap that often leaves minority and low-income families at a serious disadvantage. While there is no one solution, community schools that provide high-quality academic instruction and offer comprehensive social, health, recreational and family services can help level the playing field between rich and poor.

A study published in 2009 shows that the New York State black-white achievement score gap for public school students in fourth grade is 26 points in both mathematics and reading. The 2009 Hispanic-white gap for New York fourth graders is only slightly better at 17 points for mathematics and 25 points for reading.

The Children's Aid Society has partnered with the New York City Department of Education for decades to establish dozens of community schools in NYC's most impoverished neighborhoods. The Department of Education is responsible for the core instructional programs in these schools while Children's Aid provides wraparound services including medical, mental health and dental services, after-school and recreational programming and family engagement activities. Integrating health, social and educational services has generated positive outcomes, particularly for students from low-income families. Children's Aid community schools produce better student and teacher attendance, increased grade retention, more appropriate referrals to special education services, improved test scores and higher parent involvement than similar schools. The model has won national and international recognition, as well as numerous awards.

Now, Children's Aid will be expanding its reach and implementing best practices codified over many years when it opens its first community charter school in the Morrisania section of the South Bronx in August 2012. Like all charters, Children's Aid College Prep is a public school. Its mission is to prepare elementary school students for success in middle school, high school, college and life by providing them with a rigorous instructional experience; addressing their physical, emotional and social needs; fostering a sense of pride and hope; and serving as a safe and engaging community hub. At Children's Aid College Prep, unlike our other community schools, we will be responsible for all aspects of the school -- including the academic program.

The vision of Children's Aid College Prep is to ensure that all children have the opportunity to achieve the American dream. To help reach this aspiration and close the economic achievement gap, the new school will remove the barriers to learning frequently associated with poverty and deliver programs and services to children and families that are comprehensive and embedded within the school. The rigorous instructional program is the centerpiece of the design, and it is supported by high expectations and a full set of supports for students and families, thus allowing students to focus on learning, academic achievement and preparation for college entrance and graduation.

The school day will be longer than that of a traditional public school, and the school year will extend from August until the end of June. The extended time allows increased learning and creative exploration, promotes physical activity and exercise and builds community. After-school, weekend and holiday programs will be an integral part of Children's Aid's holistic approach to children's developmental needs at the school. The programs will cover a wide variety of disciplines and interests, so that every child will find a program that builds on strengths, fills a learning gap or just sounds like fun.

Children's Aid will provide workshops for parents focusing on developing the skills, strategies and supports to reduce barriers to their children's success and to improve the school's operations. Children's Aid summer camps will be available to College Prep students, and students will have the opportunity to participate in year-round programming in sports and the arts.

Intensive case management provided by Children's Aid life coaches will be critical to the success of College Prep students. Starting with a home visit before the school year begins, the life coach and the school leadership staff will identify the family's needs and develop a plan to address those needs throughout the year.

While charter schools currently only serve 5% of all public school students, they can be valuable alternatives to existing options for the students they serve, particularly those charter schools focused on serving traditionally under-served groups of students like English Language Learners, foster children or children living in temporary housing. Children's Aid College Prep's comprehensive, multi-tier support systems more precisely address the needs of children in poverty as well as children who must grapple with an underfunded education system that lacks the resources to effectively address barriers to learning. The unique features of this school go beyond simply preparing students for tests--they will prepare students for life.

The lessons we have learned from community schools demonstrate that addressing the growing achievement gap requires a holistic and legitimate effort to refocus the system on children and their needs. These valuable lessons show that with extended opportunities for learning, proper health and medical care, engaged parents and an educational program that demands excellence, all students -- regardless of economic circumstance, race or place of birth -- can receive a solid education and a chance at a future free from poverty.