Charter school closes the gap

To do well at at Amistad Academy — where students clad in navy and khaki uniforms walk in single file, college pennants hang in rows above lockers, and the hallways abound with inspirational slogans reading “whatever it takes” and “success starts here and now” — you must learn to “sweat the small stuff.”

The message is one of many at the core of the school’s meticulous, structured approach to discipline and academic success, an approach which some doubt can be translated as effectively to New Haven’s bigger public schools, given their financial and personnel constraints.

Amistad Academy principal Matt Yalor sits with a student in the school cafeteria. Amistad is a public charter school that is striving to close the achievement gap between socioeconomic groups.
Rachel Engler
Amistad Academy principal Matt Yalor sits with a student in the school cafeteria. Amistad is a public charter school that is striving to close the achievement gap between socioeconomic groups.

“You get detention here for things like not doing your homework, if your pants are slung too low or if you chew gum,” said Christian Balselo, an eighth-grade student at Amistad Academy. “But the teachers are also really nice. They help you a lot when you’re struggling.”

Balselo sits at lunch with his group of friends, who are clad in identical navy polo shirts and pale khakhi slacks, a uniform that the students must earn the right to wear by upholding the school’s values. During the first week of school — a period informally called Amistad-ization — students wear a plain white T-shirt that is replaced with the official navy uniform shirt only if their transition is successful.

The cafeteria’s walls bear the school’s slogan in large block letters: “…Why are we here? To push ourselves to learn to achieve our best. And who is responsible for your success? We are responsible for our actions. We control our destinies.”

Amistad Academy is a high-performing public charter school that enrolls middle school students from throughout New Haven, 98 percent of whom are black or Latino and nearly 70 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches. The flagship school of the Achievement First organization, Amistad is dedicated to delivering the promise of equal opportunity to urban children and closing the educational achievement gap between socioeconomic groups, said Dacia Toll LAW ’99, president and co-founder of the Achievement First schools.

“The national statistics on black and Hispanic students graduating is pretty dismal,” Toll said. “What is takes to achieve that zero [percent of students left behind] is a combination of solid academic preparation and a mastery of advanced intellectual skills as well as character skills — the right attitude and orientation towards work, service and excellence.”

This philosophy seems to be working, as Amistad delivers dramatic results. Amistad students perform three to four times better on the Connecticut Test of Mastery than their counterparts in other New Haven public schools by the time they reach eighth grade.

These statistics are significant, Toll said, considering that most students enter Amistad performing several grade levels behind. At the end of their four years at Amistad, they are typically brought a year ahead of their grade, and many win prep-school scholarships and outperform their white counterparts, she said.

By law, Amistad students are selected based on a blind lottery; this year, a group of 70 was chosen from a pool of over 700.

“The charter school legislation allows a group of educators and leaders to come together and open and run a public school but to do so independent of the traditional system,” Toll said. “We can start from scratch, and do whatever is best for the kids.”

Since Amistad Academy’s founding in 1999, Achievement First has launched four new academies based on the middle school’s model in New Haven and five in Brooklyn, N.Y. Amistad Academy High School opened in New Haven in August 2006. Toll said the organization plans to continue to expand in coming years.

Ellie Appelof, development assistant for Achievement First’s Connecticut office, said the organization’s vision is to see every child in an Achievement First school attain a college degree.

“In today’s global and competitive economy, a college degree is a necessity for economic security,” Appelof said. “The faculty here won’t be satisfied until every child here graduates from a good college.”

Indeed, the school often introduces its students to the world of private and higher education, unfamiliar terrain to students who often come from communities where reading at home and graduating from high school are uncommon.

“If I hadn’t come to Amistad, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” eighth grader Christine Wright said. “I wouldn’t have thought to apply to private high schools. I wouldn’t have even known about them.”

This formidable goal, however, comes at the cost of a great deal of effort and time. Amistad’s school day begins at 7:30 a.m. sharp and runs until 5 p.m., 1.5 hours longer than the school day in an average public school, and punctuality is emphasized at all costs. Amistad students are also required to enroll in three weeks of summer school.

During the day, Amistad students spend over three hours on language arts and over an hour on math, typically receiving one to two hours of homework a night.

“Now I actually do my homework,” Thalia Feliciano, one of the girls sitting beside Christian, piped up. “Before, I didn’t do nothing.”

A handful among Thalia’s group of friends wore small paw-print pins on the front pockets of their uniform polos. The pins, Appelof said, are given to students in the grade who best display the school’s core values of REACH — an acronym that stands for Respect, Enthusiasm, Achievement, Citizenship and Hard work.

Such systems of positive reinforcement exemplify its approach to changing behavior, a method that Toll said administrators believe to be more effective than punishment.

“Behavior changes more significantly in response to positive reinforcement than in response to negative reinforcement,” she said. “We build on that idea [at Amistad].”

The key to providing this environment of growth, Toll said, is good teachers.

“The secret of our school is that there’s a great teacher in every classroom,” Appelof said. “The adults embody the culture of the school and this filters down to the students.”

Amistad’s teachers, she said, are recruited from a “wide net” of applicants as part of Amistad’s comprehensive recruitment effort to attract teachers “who really want to teach.” Most teachers, Appelof said, spend time before and after school tutoring children who are having trouble in class. As a charter school, Amistad’s teachers are non-unionized. The school’s student to teacher ratio is 9.7 students to every teacher.

But despite the school’s success, its approach to education may be difficult to replicate at existing public schools in New Haven, Ward 7 Alderwoman Frances Clark said.

“It’s an interesting puzzle,” Clark said. “We’re very fortunate to have Amistad among us here as a role model — other public schools can see it, aspire to it and learn from it. But trying to duplicate it within the structure of a public school is not an easy thing to do, due to factors such as size, funds, lack of autonomy, and unionization issues.”

She said that the philosophy and dedication of Amistad teachers, and the extra effort they put in, likely could not be practically introduced into the public school system, which serves over 2,700 children.

“We have these charter schools who are demonstrating that they can rescue a handful of kids,” she said. “Now can this be done for thousands? Where do you find the staff and wherewithal to do that? Do enough teachers like that even exist?”

Clark added that while the scenario is not “impossible,” it is highly complex.

Charter schools “are like any other type of school,” she said. While some, like Amistad, are highly successful, others close within their first year of operation, a distinction Clark said is contingent on the quality of their leadership.

A January review submitted by the Connecticut Education Association, the teachers’ union, agreed with Clark’s assessment of the variability of charter school quality, arguing that the performance of charter schools varies as much as the performance of different public schools. The review was submitted as a rebuttal to the findings of a September report released by the nonprofit Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now that identified a 10-point “achievement gap” between charter schools and public schools.

Toll said that Amistad is highly interested in maintaining a relationship with public schools in New Haven, a step she sees as integral to the organization’s long-term goal of closing the statewide educational achievement gap along racial and social lines. She said the relationship between Amistad and its neighboring public school is bidirectional: While the city’s public school system provides material support for Amistad, Amistad often partners with schools from lower-income areas to share its educational practices.

The Achievement First network, Appelof said, also has a “great relationship” with Yale.

“I don’t know where we’d be without Yale,” she said. “Especially for Amistad High, the collegiate exposure is a phenomenal experience. With so much politics in the city, it’s so important to have such a powerful force on our side.”

She said students from Amistad High frequent Yale’s facilities, including its dining halls and Payne Whitney Gymnasium. Yale students also tutor in both Amistad High and the organizations’ middle schools.

As lunch period at Amistad comes to a close, the clusters of eight graders quickly fall silent as their attention is commanded by Amistad’s principal, Matt Taylor. The many students who chose to quietly read instead of talk after finishing lunch look up from behind the pages of books.

The class assembles into a single file, and students are instructed to stand tall and walk straight. Above the door through which they disappear, a banner reads: “Education = Freedom.”

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