When some 35 inner-city New Haven students entered Amistad Academy as fifth-graders four years ago, they were performing at a third-grade level.

Today, performing well above state average, they are reading Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway and Harper Lee. When they graduate from middle school this year, nearly half of them will be admitted to some of the best private college-preparatory and boarding schools and the rest will begin the honors-track at local high schools.

The academy, which was founded in 1999 as New Haven’s first charter middle school by a group of students and professors at Yale Law School and community leaders, this year became the highest performing charter school in Connecticut, according to results from the state Mastery Test — a battery of standardized exams testing analytical and creative thinking.

The results show 89 percent of the academy’s eighth-graders met the state goal in writing, 71 percent in reading and 66 percent in math. When these students took the same test two years ago in the sixth grade, those numbers were 34 percent, 22 percent and 22 percent respectively.

Amistad not only outperformed New Haven public schools, but eclipsed the state average and even bested some of the state’s most affluent suburban school districts.

The students’ writing scores beat those of top-performing schools in Greenwich, Simsbury, Westport, Hamden, Branford, Meriden and Hartford. Dacia Toll LAW ’99, the school’s executive director, said this was quite an accomplishment considering 97 percent of the school’s 220 students are either black or Latino and 84 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

“It’s very gratifying,” Toll said. “We set out to prove that New Haven students could achieve at the same high level as their more affluent suburban peers. It’s also heartening to see success year after year.”

Thomas Murphy, spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Education, said he was pleased with the rapid success of Amistad.

“What they have done with their curriculum and structural program is to have every child succeed and to have them become competent learners and confident readers,” he said. “They’ve been able to take students with great needs and help them to achieve.”

Amistad’s founders worked for more than a year designing a rigorous “standards-based” curriculum and teaching methodology and creating an ideal atmosphere to cultivate the minds of the students before the school’s doors opened four years ago, said Connecticut Superior Court Judge Clarence Jones, a tutor at the Law School and one of the academy’s founders.

“It’s almost unheard of to take these kids and in three years go from nowhere to this success,” Jones said. “It is an overwhelmingly emotionally positive experience. It’s like giving birth to a wonderful being.”

The academy on Jones Street in Fair Haven features a 10-hour school day, something Toll said is crucial to the students’ success.

Although the school is publicly funded, it operates separately from the city’s public school system and relies on millions of dollars in private donations to cover operating costs.

The dream that the founders had for Amistad to offer a quality of education and provide opportunities on par with the best schools in the state has begun to emerge as a reality, said Stefan Pryor LAW ’98, one of the academy’s founders.

Another founder said this proves the power of the idea behind Amistad: given the right setting, students can make tremendous gains.

“These kids came from so far behind, made up all that ground, and then catapulted themselves into the realm of ultra-high achievement,” said Carrol Stevens, an associate dean of Yale Law School and president of Amistad’s board of directors. “This gives us all a reason to be very confident about the potential of great gains in public education in inner-city America.”