HCZ Responds to Brookings

This is a guest post by Harlem Children’s Zone President and CEO Geoffrey Canada.

The Harlem Children’s Zone response to the Brookings Institute’s report: “The Harlem Children’s Zone, Promise Neighborhoods, and the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education”

By Geoffrey Canada, President and CEO, Harlem Children’s Zone

With all due respect to the Brookings Institute, we believe that the report by Grover Whitehurst and Michelle Croft is a wrong-headed take on the work of the Harlem Children’s Zone, one which is further compromised by several statistical misrepresentations of our Promise Academy charter school’s test results.

In 2004, the Harlem Children’s Zone opened the Promise Academy charter school with the intention of closing the black-white achievement gap.  In just a few short years we have accomplished that.  With the American education landscape littered with schools in poor communities that have failed to accomplish this important task for decades, we feel that the Whitehurst and Croft report trivializes what we have done in a relatively short time.  This is certainly not a trivial issue to poor children, and particularly to poor children of color, because getting a good education is their only reliable way out of poverty.

The report equates the Harlem Children’s Zone with our Promise Academy public charter school as if they were one and the same.  This is inaccurate and misleading.  Anyone who has even a basic understanding of our work would realize that the Harlem Children’s Zone is a comprehensive place-based strategy that has a goal of working with all children that reside in our Zone, whether they go to our public charter schools or traditional public schools.  Last year we worked with over 8,000 children in the Children’s Zone.  The Whitehurst and Croft report looked at only one school – and only the 500-plus students who took the 2007-2009 statewide tests – to make its conclusions about the entire Harlem Children’s Zone.

The Harlem Children’s Zone has one basic goal: to get our children into and through college.  We have the same standards for children who go to traditional public schools as we do for those who go to the Promise Academy charter schools.  In fact, this fall we are thrilled to have more than 700 of our students in college who went to traditional public high schools and participated in HCZ afterschool programs.

We believe that even the best schools in impoverished neighborhoods would be significantly improved if there were wraparound support services for their students, families and community.  If your mission is about all of the students in a community, then dealing with family crises, gangs, drugs, violence, and health all become part of your strategy to support development of the whole child, not just how they perform on standardized tests.  When a community becomes too violent or the schools too lousy, families – if they have the means – will move out.  Poor families don’t have that option; that is why you need a comprehensive strategy.

Even while misunderstanding the basic premise of the Harlem Children’s Zone, the Whitehurst and Croft analysis has several weaknesses. First, it looks at only one of our charter schools, Promise Academy I.  If Whitehurst and Croft had decided to look instead at our other charter school, Promise Academy II, which started with children in kindergarten and first grade, they would have found that Promise Academy II was not in the middle of Bronx and Manhattan charter schools, but in the top quarter.  The decision to exclude Promise II students, in our opinion, is a fatal flaw in their report. Second, they do not look at progress of the students over time, which we believe is a better measure of the added value of a school. In contrast, the Harvard University study of our work by researchers Will Dobbie and Dr. Roland Fryer looked at progress over time. The analysis of Dobbie and Fryer showed that Promise Academy middle-school students entered our school with lower scores on average than all black children in New York City. Despite starting out below the average for black students in New York City, the middle school students closed the achievement gap with white students over their first three years. If you take this approach you reach a totally different conclusion: you see highly significant progress with our middle schools students.

There are also several misrepresentations in the report that we are obliged to correct.

1) The report states that the Promise Academy charter-school students who live outside the Zone do not receive the full complement of HCZ services, which is wrong. The report concludes that since there is no difference between the charter school students who live outside the Zone and those who live inside the Zone, the effects of the services are nil. However, all of our public charter school students, regardless of where they live, have access to all of our services. There is no difference because they are not treated differently. These services include free medical, dental and mental-health services; access to social workers and counseling; afterschool tutoring; healthy meals; test prep; college tours; after-school, weekend and summer enrichment classes; and recreational opportunities, among others.

2) The authors give equal weight to each grade without looking at the progress each cohort has made over their time with us. In other words, middle-school students who improved in the school over three years had those accomplishments minimized by averaging their scores.

3) The authors arbitrarily tossed out the achievements of our Promise Academy II charter school. They state they used Promise Academy I because it was “the longest established HCZ public charter school.” In fact, Promise Academy I has been in operation for only one year more than PAII.  They also said it would be “confusing” to include both schools, though they included three KIPP schools in their findings. The two cohorts of third and fourth grade tests scores at PAII were the best in our organization. Our own calculations of how Promise Academy II would fare under the authors’ methodology indicate that the school would be in the top quarter among the charter schools they use as comparisons. Leaving them out and then using only PAI’s scores to evaluate the entire Children’s Zone is disingenuous.

4) The report used incorrect demographic data about HCZ’s charter schools. The authors used the Promise Academy I charter school’s reported percentages of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch to compare our students to other “similar” populations. However, the numbers they used do not accurately portray our school population, which is due to our own reporting errors. Because we provide free lunch to all of our students, regardless of income, many parents did not turn in the federal reimbursement forms during our first few years of operation. Though it meant we were losing out on some federal meal reimbursements, we did not push parents to give in the forms. Consequently the public records used by the authors showed Promise Academy I with only 33-52 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch from 2007-2009. After several years in operation, we realized that the subsidized-lunch forms were also being used as evaluation data and that consequently, government officials were considering our population to be wealthier than it actually was. Therefore, we improved our system and we submitted more-accurate data last year to the state that showed we have, in fact, over 80 percent of our children qualifying for free or reduced lunch.

We applaud Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein for bringing the best charter schools in the country here to New York City, and we are thrilled to be part of the charter-school movement, which is bringing the opportunity for a great education to so many children who have not had that chance. However, charter schools are not the only answer. We must improve our traditional public school system since that is where the overwhelming majority of our students are. A crucial part of that effort must be making sure that poor children and families have the support services that so many of us in America have as a matter of course.

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