An incredible academic success can be found in the struggling city of New Haven, Connecticut... and I'm not talking about Yale. I'm talking about a charter school, Achievement First's Amistad Academy, that's exceeding the performance of the rich Connecticut communities with students who are otherwise struggling.
Toll earned a teaching certificate while in law school and taught in New Haven public schools as she finished her degree. While at Yale, she teamed with 31 other students in 1998 to talk about and research charter schools — publicly funded but privately operated institutions that could make their own rules about curriculum and teaching, as long as they performed at a level approved by the state. Could a charter school not mired in the quicksand of status quo help save New Haven children?
"What motivated all of us at the time is that this is a civil rights issue," says Toll, who became principal of Amistad when the middle school opened its doors in 1999 and today is president of Achievement First, the nonprofit organizing body steering its model's expansion in other areas. "In fact, the achievement gap is the civil rights issue of our generation."
Any number of statistics could be used to describe the cavernous gap of educational accomplishment between whites and some minorities, between urban and suburban students: that the average black or Latino 12th-grader now has lower basic skills than the average white eighth-grader; that white children are twice as likely as black children, and three times as likely as Latinos, to earn a college degree.
But the problem isn't race or money, co-founder McCurry says. The problem is that school systems don't expect anything more from urban students, and urban students deliver on those low expectations.
"Five, 10 years ago, people would make that argument," says McCurry, who also was a Morehead Scholar at UNC and joined Amistad a few months before it opened from a job teaching private school in his hometown of Charlotte. "They would list all the reasons why urban kids can't succeed. They'd say, 'It's not the schools. It's just the families are so tough, and the kids are so poor, and the neighborhoods are so bad — and there's a straight correlation between those things and academic performance.'
"None of us believed that framework was right, that no kid in New Haven would ever succeed," adds McCurry, now superintendent of Achievement First schools. "We chose to believe in the kids instead."
But, Toll says, "it couldn't just be a theoretical statement that kids in New Haven could perform as well as a kid from a more privileged background. We had to prove it."
And prove it they did. This charter school receives about 65% of what the New Haven public school students get. Unfortunately, Connecticut's charter school laws limit enrollment, preventing the school's model from being extended to a high school initially. Achievement First also has schools in Brooklyn.
Opponents of school choice should note that entrance into this school is strictly by lottery... there is no cherry-picking of the smartest students. Reading this article makes me wonder why we shouldn't extend this schooling program to the entire student population of New Haven.
These kids can learn. It's a matter of having great expectations... and doing a lot of work.
(The link may not be publicly accessible; if you'd like to see the whole article, contact me.)