Jun 12 2012

It takes a village

Probably the worst part about being an opponent of bad education reform is when I have to ‘debunk’ a potential ‘miracle school.’  A ‘miracle’ school is one that gets extremely high test scores despite having the same types of students as the nearby failing school.  The miracle school, if it exists, would prove that poverty does not, in fact, matter.  All you need is harder working teachers.

Debunking schools is not bad because it is difficult.  Finding the incriminating data usually takes less than an hour.  What’s bad about it is that I know some people will misunderstand my intentions.  The reason I need to debunk miracle schools is because lawmakers use them as examples of why it is good education reform practice to close down failing schools and fire their teachers.  My purpose is to show that the good test scores, if they really have them, come at an even greater cost.  The more I can show that the ‘miracle’ schools aren’t any better than the failing schools, maybe people will be more outraged when ‘failing’ schools are shut down.

The latest ‘miracle’ school getting a lot of attention is Harlem Village Academy Charter School.  The founder of the school, Deborah Kenny, recently published a book about her experience, called ‘Born To Rise.’  The school was featured on NBC with Brian Williams.

On their homepage, Harlem Village Academy shares their results, which include #1 school in Harlem for 8th grade reading and math, with 100% proficient in math for three straight years.  They also have a near perfect New York Regents passing rate.

Throughout the years, though, this school has been criticized for its high attrition rate of both students and teachers.  Two good posts from about two years ago are here and here.  With the release of the new book, I thought I’d check the most recent 2010-2011 data to see what is happening there.

I downloaded the recent state and city report cards from here and also the state report cards for New York City district 5 here, and found some interesting information.

In 2010-2011, HVA had 55% free lunch and 13% reduced lunch.  The district, that year, had 74% free with 5% reduced.

In 2010-2011, HVA had 3% LEP vs. 11% for the whole district.

In 2010-2011 38% of the students at HVA were suspended for at least one day while 7% were suspended for the whole district.

Student attrition at HVA is huge.  For example, the 66 5th graders in 2007-2008 have shrunk to just 16 9th graders in the 2010-2011 school year.  This is a 75% attrition.  In that same time, the district that the school is in went from 904 5th graders in 2007-2008 to 1313 9th graders in 2010-2011.  That is a 45% growth.

Though these are different cohorts, the graph below from The Charter Center show HVA’s enrollment by grade for 2010-2011.  This is not what this graph would look like in a regular school.

As far as their achievement, it is true that the students had a high passing rate on their state tests, particularly in math.  But when I looked at their Regents grades, I noticed that, according to their state report card, no students took the Geometry or the Algebra II / Trigonometry Regents.  So their 100% passing rate seems to come from all their students, through 12th grade, only taking the 9th grade level Algebra Regents.  When I asked the school, though a mutual acquaintance, why this was, they wrote back that the state didn’t include all the data and they actually had 90 students take Geometry (nothing about Algebra II), and that 82% passed.  But since they only had 80 students who could feasibly qualify to take that test, this seems unlikely.  I currently have a data request into the NYC DOE to clear this up, so I will update if I get new information.

When a school is truly great, teachers want to keep teaching there year after year.  So it should be telling that in this school over the past three years the amount of staff turnover was 2007-2008 53%, for 2008-2009, 38%, and for 2009-2010, a whopping 61%.  By comparison, the teacher attrition for the entire district in 2009-2010 was just 19%.

To me, this teacher turnover is the most alarming statistic of all.  So I tracked down a TFA alum named Sabrina Strand who taught for one year there.  Sabrina wrote an excellent blog post called ‘I’m no Superman.’  I asked her if she would give more details about her experience, and here is what she wrote:

I’m really glad you’re dedicated to exposing the truth behind the whole TFA/charter school charade. It is very much a charade, an elaborate, expensive smoke & mirrors. HVA, as I knew it, was one of the worst offenders of creating and sustaining the myth that teachers can solve everything. Waiting for Superman infuriated me because just like HVA – just like Deborah Kenny – it sent the message that good teachers should be martyrs, not people with lives and passions of their own that happen to also be talented and passionate about educating children. I am not a martyr, and as I titled my op-ed, I am also not superman. But yet many would say I am a very good teacher. In Deborah Kenny’s world, that would be impossible.

During the 2006-2007 school year at HVA, I taught huge classes of 5th graders who were poorly behaved. The administration was weak and ineffective. Everyone, including the principal and the dean, was so stressed out that there were often medical problems. I used to take the bus up to Harlem with my co-teacher and best friend at the school, Johanna Fishbein, and we would often cry on our way to work.

The working conditions at the school were plainly unreasonable. They took advantage of young, idealistic, competent teachers; they squeezed and squeezed until there was nothing left to give, even our dignity. Deborah Kenny is LARGELY to blame for this, as we were all desperately trying to play our parts in the Deborah Kenny play – one where she produced and directed but never wrote or starred in the productions. I have zero respect for that woman. The only time she actually came into the trenches is when she was preparing the kids for some dignitary’s visit. At that time, she would talk to them like they were slow kindergarteners, and when she left, they would all ask me who she was. That’s how connected she is to the school. Yet when President Bush came to laud our teachers’ efforts for earning the highest math test scores in the city, it was Deborah who schmoozed and gave the tour, Deborah who took the credit.

Deborah Kenny and her Village Academies take advantage of budding teachers, often crushing their spirits in the process. Though we barely made more than NYC public school teachers while working seven weeks over the summer, teaching on multiple Saturdays, and averaging 12-hour work days during the week, Deborah pays herself the HIGHEST SALARY out of any charter school executive in NYC (that stat was recently published in The New York Post). She makes almost nine times as much as her teachers who are doing all the real work, the hard work, that lands her in the press so often and helps her send her own kids to tony private schools. Her “vision” is a bunch of bullshit – basically, work your teachers to death, and you’ll see results. Sure, and you’ll also see a lot of unhappy teachers, and a lot of people leaving your school and vowing to never come back.

The year I left, my entire fifth grade team left with me. Deborah refused to write letters of recommendation for any of us. Contrary to what she preaches, teachers are her lowest priority and she never has their best interests at heart.

No school with a 60% teacher turnover rate should be praised in the press as the model for other schools to follow. Now that I’ve taught in a relatively stable independent school for four years, I see that a school’s real success comes from its sense of community. When teachers are leaving left and right because they’re being asked to perform superhuman feats for little compensation, the idea of “community” essentially vanishes. All that holds Village Academies together is Deborah Kenny’s unrelenting ambition and greed.

In summary:  HVA,  No miracle for you!

32 Responses

  1. HVA Dropout

    As someone who worked in the Executive Office side by side with DK, I can vouch for everything Sabrina said and worse. The school is a PR project. There is no heart in that Village.

  2. Tee

    I have a student who recently left HVA to come to my public middle school in February. He didn’t volunteer the circumstances of his departure and I didn’t ask, but he is super-bright and told me he thought HVA was a “terrible place”. However, he had nothing but praise for his teachers.

  3. Justin

    How silly this is!!

    Come visit my classroom today and we can talk about this. I can tell you how currently student attrition is less than 10%, how teacher retention statistics don’t factor in promotions, and how Deborah Kenny is a brilliant visionary that trusts and respects everyone who works here.

    Is a disgruntled teacher from six years ago with an obvious vendetta for our schools and our founder really your best source?

    • Gary Rubinstein

      Could you explain a bit about the teacher retention statistic. There are about 25 teachers there, I think. How many were new, this year. I do want to get accurate info and if you want to write a lengthy ‘rebuttal,’ you are definitely welcome to.

      • Jeff

        Yeah, I didn’t think he would.

    • Michael Polidori

      You have been given an opportunity to repond in what seems to be a very reasonable discourse about the education of our children… where are you?

      • Lesley Muray

        still no answer, not surprising really

  4. Sabrina Strand


    Well, yes, I am disgruntled in terms of my experience at HVA. However, I am far from disgruntled in terms of my teaching career as a whole. I love teaching, I love children, and I’ll be entering my fifth year at my current school next year. I am nowhere near burnt out, and I have nothing but respect and admiration for the educators in ALL schools who work incredibly hard to teach, motivate, and inspire their students (including you — as a former commenter wrote, I think my colleagues were simply awesome, and I’m sure the kids at HVA benefit from having such dedicated teachers at the helm).

    However, most teachers – most people – do not have the stamina to work year after year in such demanding environments. This goes not only for Harlem Village Academy, but for most charter schools that overtax their teachers. I do not and cannot endorse a system that is not designed for long-term solutions or sustainability. I don’t think it’s fair to the teachers who really do care and really do work their a**es off in the classroom day in and day out. And it’s not fair for the students when those same teachers decide to leave, so they can pursue normal lives.

    I do not have a vendetta against Village Academies, though I clearly harbor resentment toward Deborah Kenny herself. I wish that one of these “visionaries” such as Deborah Kenny or Wendy Kopp would actually teach. Then they might have more perspective about what goes on in classrooms, and how the top priority of any school should be that high-quality teachers are respected, listened to, and retained.

    High-quality, happy teachers = high-achieving, happy students. Google and other tech companies have discovered this model about their own employees. It’s time for the education world to do the same!

  5. Nixon

    The teacher retention statistics on the state report card are accurate for the high school. There have been the same two administrators in the high school for several years. No teachers have been promoted to administrative posts.

    I believe the principal at the middle school was the sole teacher to be promoted, but Justin might have better info.

    Not mentioned in the article was how HVA creates a systematic incentive for the lowest skilled students to transfer out by raising the minimum grade students need to be promoted. In the middle school students need at least an 80% in each class to be promoted to the next grade. In high school students need at least a 75% in every class. If you are an HVA student that had a GPA above a 65, but below HVA’s promotion threshold there is a strong incentive to transfer to a district school where you would be allowed to move on to the next grade rather than stay at HVA to repeat a grade.

    There is also a draconian system of demerits with bar codes and scanners that your article touches upon with the suspension statistic. students can earn demerits which add up to suspensions by wearing a ring on their finger or rolling their eyes.

    One final problem with calling HVA a national model is that their fundraising could never be brought to scale. At their annual fundraising Gala they honored the gift they received from David Och (one of the forbes 100 richest people.) Katie Couric and Hugh Jackman were MCs while The Roots, the girl from Glee and Jason Mraz performed. The cost per ticket was $1,500 per person or $10,000 per table. Several hundred were in attendance and Jackman announced that by the night of the gala they had already raised $17 million dollars and were well on their way to achieve their $30 million dollar fund raising goal.

    This fundraising has allowed HVA to purchase a number of instructional resources, longer school days and a student to teacher ratio that is the envy of every public school teacher.

    Also purchased with that money was a CEO that in 2008 made $420,000 or $668 per student, more than double the per student cost of any other K-12 administrator in the state.

  6. Just Say No

    As someone who’s worked at HVA in the past, all I can say is — this post scratches the surface of the problems there. TFA and schools like HVA are creating (and entrenching) huge problems in our no-longer-really-public school system. Thanks for shining a light on this issue!

    • Ray

      If this post just scratches the surface, is there more information that you could add? I am very interested in what people who have actually worked at the school have to say.

  7. HVA teacher

    I was a former teacher at HVA as well and can say that the experience made me leave NYC and never return to the classroom. Overcrowded classrooms and leadership by a woman with no experience in the classroom (Deborah Kenny) led to a frustration and a complete inability to actually teach. They ignored learning support students and treat the students like they are in a prison. Yes, it is effective for a few, but for most, it is everything we don’t want education to be. The teachers come in passionate and enthusiastic, and leave broken. President Bush visited HVA to applaud its work and say it was “no child left behind” in action. The children and teachers were completely left behind…the only ones moving ahead were people like Deborah.

  8. Jeff

    Thank you so much for exposing this, Mr. Rubenstein.

  9. HVA Dropout

    I can’t agree with HVA Teacher’s comment more. The teachers who were hired were dedicated professionals who did their best under an inhuman and oppressive system. Students were treated as fundraising tools for the machine that is Deborah Kenny. One amazing teacher was not extended an invitation back to the school after she was quoted in a newspaper article about low teacher pay (among many others). Never mind that her students made the greatest gains on the ELA exam, the only thing that mattered to Deborah was Deborah’s reputation.

  10. Rephormy Little Liars | EduShyster linked to this post.
  11. Anne

    Deborah Kenney has some good ideas and she sincerely wants to help children. But she is a brittle, uptight “leader” who won’t harbor any criticsm of her ideas and methods. HVA was originally structured to involve the creation of a high school. A lease on an old Harlem department store building was acquired, so enchanted was Deborah with the idea it would take her less than a decade to expand her dream charter. But that is not what happened. The number of student drop-outs (resulting in what is cherry-picked performance–get rid of the kids who will lower your scores) are not going to get that high school up and running. It is not going to create the charter network she thinks her philosophy merits. When I was at the original school, one of the most frustrating things to see was the lack of physicial activity for the students. There was no gym, and an outside paved area was a poor substitute. Still, with the funds she raised (and the private donations to pay her inflated salary) she could have done something for these kids. Watching ten-year-olds, particularly boys, struggling to stay still for the whole school day, go home with a mound of homework (and no time for play), and then go into tutoring sessions on the weekend, was stressful on the kids and the teachers. Some of these kids were literally climbing the walls. But Deborah, who “knows” everything, brushed aside the fact that physical activity is a very important factor in childhood development. It just did not fit in with her “vision.” Deborah thought the kids should have the kind of self-discipline to live without physicial activity. Woe be the energetic child who gets slapped with demerits and is made to feel that something is wrong with him or her. Deborah is self-aggrandizing and very good at p.r. Some of the students at her schools may well succeed in ways that they would not have had they attended a “regular” public school. But she exaggerates what she does, is overpaid, and her school has not become the model she expected it to be. I know how difficult it is to teach in neighborhoods with high poverty rates, but her method is not as successful as she claims it is. I doubt that her model will go very far–if it was truly successful, she would have more charters by now. It’s been nine or ten years–she’s barely expaned.

  12. Linda Walker

    It is my understanding that the high school faculty at HVA has had a mass exodus this past summer, with very few teachers having had the opportunity to continue at HVA. Sad for the students to lose their teachers without the opportunity to say goodbye. I wonder why so much of the hard working faculty was forced out less than 12 months after the opening of the new high school facility.

  13. » Blog Archive » Miracle schools linked to this post.
  14. ally

    my kids go to a charter school that can’t keep teachers either and never supports them.

    I moved my kids from the district school to avoid the drill and kill. It’s been good for that, but bad in other ways.

    Charters are certainly not the answer to any sort of problem in education. Ending poverty is the answer.

  15. HVA retiree

    I worked at HVA Middle School for 1 year in the 2011-2012 school year. My experience falls somewhere in the middle of the two extremes I saw in the comments thread. My colleagues were really outstanding teachers and people, committed, hardworking, and reflective about their practice. I really appreciated the school leadership, and contrary to the report of Sabrina Strand, I felt extremely supported, with lots of observation, coaching, and feedback from both school leadership and peers.

    At the same time, I left after one year, and that was the end of my teaching career. (I now work for an education non-profit). I left extremely burned out. Previously I had taught at a KIPP school for 3 years, with great results, but typically 80 hour weeks year round. I thought HVA might be better, but it seemed to be more of the same. The days were very long, the Saturdays were grueling, and the work, like all teaching of high-needs students, was emotionally exhausting. I believed in what we were doing, but I couldn’t sustain it as I entered my 30′s and wanted to start a family.

    I will also add that though Deborah Kenny is a dynamic and also kind person, she is very out of touch with the day-to-day of the school. It did seem like she would swoop in for photo-ops and then go off to more fundraising galas, and I found her book to be almost offensive in its focus on herself, and its lack of emphasis on the kids and teachers who do the real work of the school. She is a decent person, but not someone who spends much time in the trenches. And I was a bit taken aback when I heard how much she gets paid.

    Nonetheless, she has created a network of schools, that do a better than average (though not amazing) job of educating students in need. And that network, while imperfect is helping people. Are they some heroic ideal that everyone else should aspire to? Give me a break. But are they working their butts off, thinking, trying and making real progress? Definitely.

    So I’d prefer less bashing of the school and more honest and fair minded critique. There is a lot of room to push HVA to improve for students and teachers. There is also a lot that the rest of the world can learn from HVA.

  16. HVA parent

    I agree with many of the comments above. My child has attended the middle school and is currently at the high school. In all cases the teachers are passionate, dedicated and somewhat overwhelmed. There is a safe environment with strong school culture.

    Operationally there are huge flaws. Some students have thrived in this environment, but many have failed,many moving on, many staying and continuing to struggle. Weak alternatives for improvement are presented for the lower performing students. The band aide solutions are basically with emphasis on self improvement, with no targeted intervention plans for failing students or sourcing solutions to prevent failure. Extremely sad for such a resource rich school.

    It is clear the money goes towards admin and maintaining acclaim, not sourcing alternatives for increased academic impact.

    The standard for passing grade was lowered to 65 in Spring of 2013, just in time for the HS senior class graduation. Following the sudden change in the HS administration and letting go of many staff came a new visionary principal, praised for past leadership at a highly acclaimed high school. He shortly resigned “for personal reasons” within months.

    The school currently remains without a principal to provide leadership. The HVA is newly dedicated to creating a teachers college. Clearly there are some larger issues worth examination as the motivation here is the resulting money making opportunities in education, not the results on education (unless they generate additional praise and dollars)!

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