Society of Illustrators hand raisingLogoHarlem Link celebration
Harlem Link Ink Title

November 2009

Thank you for taking a few minutes to review our first full 2009-10 issue of The Harlem Link ink, our small bimonthly newsletter.  Please pass it along to those who might be interested!

Founded in 2005, Harlem Link is a 501(c)3 nonprofit, public school.  Students are admitted by lottery, we collaborate with the New York City Department of Education on a number of issues and policies, and the demographics of our student population closely resemble the district public schools in our neighborhood.

These are exciting times at Harlem Link.  In this issue you'll read about our renewal process, which marks our school reaching a point of full maturity.  We now serve over 300 students in Grades K-5, and are concluding our first five year charter, or contract, with New York State.  In the coming months we will learn, in an affirmation of the progress we have made as a school and the high quality education we are offering, the length of our next charter agreement.  Stay tuned for details!


Margaret Ryan and Steven Evangelista
In This Issue
Renewal: The Promise
CitiField Essay Contest
New Neighbors: A Successful Move!
A Little LIP: Link Improvement Plan
Volunteer Mentors Needed!
Renewal: The Promise
In 2004, Harlem Link made a promise to 108 families that the school would hold itself to the highest standard.  The founding team chose, from among three possible government bodies, an authorizer that was in the process of closing a school in the neighborhood for poor performance.  To date, that authorizer, the undefined, has closed about 6 other schools and remains the only among the three authorizers to do so.  Its rigorous Renewal Benchmarks, which describe best practices shared by top performing schools, are the basis for its decisions.
The Charter Schools Institute is Harlem Link's authorizer

Charter operators as well as many supporters know that this high level of scrutiny and accountability is the flip side of the movement's celebrated autonomy.  While charter schools are free to make personnel, curriculum and other policy decisions in-house, they must also comply at least every five years with this strenuous, lengthy renewal process to justify their very existence.  Charters have a discreet set of goals written into their agreements with the state, and if clear progress toward meeting those goals, which always include standardized test results and often include other measures as well, is not sufficient, the school will not continue to be authorized to use public funds to educate students.
At Harlem Link, we are in the midst of this renewal process right now, and in a sense we have been preparing for it since the day we opened our doors in 2005.  Guided by our Accountability Plan, toward which we submit a state progress report each year, and the Renewal Benchmarks, each year we have added systems and elements to build the kind of school anticipated by the charter.  In the last week of October 2009, eight inspectors descended upon the school for a total of four days, interviewing every board member, teacher and administrator as well as other staff members, and observing every classroom.  In December the school will receive its renewal recommendation from the Charter Schools Institute, which will see the school be renewed for a full five years (the most difficult bar to clear), a short-term period such as three years, or not at all.  Given some positive feedback from the Institute, we believe that Harlem Link is substantially meeting its goals and will receive some form of renewal. 
Institute inspecting teams have visited the school every year.  As in the past, the team issued some guidance to shape the sBinders for our Renewal Visitchool's continued improvement.  The process was thorough and the feedback extremely useful to guide the next steps for our faculty and administration.  The school prepared a set of more than 10 large binders filled with documentation of the teaching and learning, assessment, governance, planning and operation of the school (left) for the visiting time to peruse, in a process that lends itself to reflection and self-analysis.  As our administration is fond of saying, "If every school received this kind of treatment, we wouldn't have an education problem in this country." 
In short, the renewal process underscores the urgency with which we undertake our work.  There is no time to lose, and a school that is not performing at an extremely high level does not deserve the "high privilege of education the children of New York State" (those aer SUNY's words in their guidance for schools going through renewal).  For a school that is functioning well, however, the renewal process is nothing short of an affirmation that the promise to families is alive and well.
CitiField Essay Contest

"We're rich!"  That was the unscripted exclamation of glee from one of the nine Harlem Link fifth graders who won our essay contest and attended the Mets game in a donated Citi Field luxury box on September 20, upon entering the box.

Our suite at CitiFieldRich indeed: While the Yankees were on their way to duking it out with the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series, the Mets were winding down a disappointing season, but thanks to a generous donor they were able to give a tremendous lift to nine lucky and hard working Harlem Link students.
The children were treated to an excellent game (the Mets actually won as Daniel Murphy treated the crowd to a double, triple and two RBIs), quality out-of-school time with their teachers, an abundance A visit from Mr. Metof high-end stadium food, and even a special visit from Mr. Met.  But even more so, the game was a chance to reflect on the school's Core Values of kindness, responsibility, integrity, wonder, courage and patience and how they could lead to material, as well as character, success.  In the essay contest, students were challenged to connect the opportunity to attend the game in a luxury box to the school's core values and mission goals of scholarship and citizenship.  
Mariah and Troy at CitiFieldThe winning entries covered the full range of core values, and used an extremely brerse set of approaches.  For some students, being on the same level as people successful enough to regularly attend a game in a luxury box was an opportunity to observe habits that would lead to success in the business world or the culture of power in our society.  For others, watching the players on the ball field, where a simple mistake could change the game or the entire season, was aRaymond shows his souvenir in front of CitiFieldn inspiration to work hard - whatever one's pursuit - and practice, practice, practice.
Whatever the takeaways, for nine Harlem Link scholars, it was nine innings of pure bliss (punctuated with a few minutes here and there in the suite, watching SpongeBob SquarePants on one of its three TVs).
New Neighbors: A Successful Move!

This summer, Harlem Link worked with the New York City Department of Education (DOE) to pull off the large and complex move of our school from our two prior sites into a single, consolidated tandem set of buildings.  We are now located at 20 West 112th Street, sharing space with three other hard-working elementary schools: PS 185, PS 208 and PS 226.  Beginning with meetings with these schools in June, Harlem Link has had the good fortune of being welcomed by three schools that are all providing a strong learning environment for students in the community.
PS 185In the past few years, as the DOE has split large school buildings into smaller inbridual schools, creating "campuses" where were once single schools, it has also developed a campus planning and space sharing protocol.  Harlem Link is proud to be part of a school building community that is following those protocols appropriately.  The wider school building team has created an environment with strong communication, effective problem solving and a celebration of student success.  The leaders of all four schools in the building are committed to the success of the students that attend their schools, as well as that of all the students that attend the co-habitant schools.  It's clear that the ground is laid for a successful year working together!

Fifth graders at workFor the last two years, Harlem Link has been located in two separate school buildings, approximately one mile apart.  With the move to a single site, for the first time all of our grades from kindergarten to fifth grade (pictured) are under the same roof.  To the many families who had children attending Harlem Link's upper and lower grades in the last two years, we offer our heartfelt gratitude for their patience while we worked with our community partners to arrange the move to our new site.  Now, Tyquan and Emani, Qu'ran and Zaaire, Qiana and Jason, and all the other upper-lower grade siblings get to walk in to our building together, and learn together, every day.
A Little LIP: Link Improvement Plan

In July 2009, for the first time, Harlem Link's board approved a school-wide Link Improvement Plan (LIP).  The purpose of the LIP is to create alignment across all stakeholder groups, to set shared organizational priorities for the next five years, and to delineate action plans to meet specific goals in the 2009-10 school year.
The LIP was developed over a two-month process that began with a cross-stakeholder retreat in May, where five priority areas and general goals were established.  These priority areas are:
  • Curriculum, Assessment and Student Support
  • Professional Development
  • School Culture
  • Parent Involvement
  • School Operations
In the ensuing six weeks, each staff member joined a Design Team for one of the five priority areas, wrote a clear and challenging five-year goal, and designed the action plan for the 2009-10 school year.  At the beginning of each month beginning October 2009, Design Teams re-convene to mark progress against the action plans and, in the spring, to re-evaluate the five year goals and one year action plans.
The LIP has already borne fruit, with improved budget transparency for staff members, a comprehensive curriculum overhaul and alignment completed over the summer (come for a visit and you can see the thick, 700+ page document that was a product of a LIP action plan!), and two new Professional Development structures: a dedicated lesson study program the school is calling Content Groups, and regular teacher-driven and teacher-led Inquiry Groups based on a set of protocols called Critical Friends (look for a related story in our next Harlem Link ink issue in December). 
Harlem Link has set priorities and had organizational goals in the past, but never have the stars been aligned such that every stakeholder group - board members, faculty, non-teaching staff, parents and administrators - has an opportunity for representation and real ownership of the plan.  With the planning and execution of the LIP, Harlem Link is giving more than lip service to the notion that through collaboration, the school will move forward!
Volunteer Mentors Needed!
This year represents the first year Harlem Link will be graduating fifth graders, and we are looking for mentors!
Fifth graders at workBelieve it or not, the middle school application process is as daunting as the college admissions process (and it's good practice for our young scholars).  With the leadership of Catrina Horton, our Parent Coordinator, we have set up a comprehensive Middle School Placement program to ensure that 100% of our graduating scholars have access to an excellent middle school.

Fifth graders at workWe are assigning volunteer mentors to small groups of two to five students to ensure that our scholars and their families have additional support to manage this daunting process.  Click here for a pdf document with more information about the mentorship program, and please pass it on if you know of someone who would be interested.
In Closing
Science Field TripIt has been an incredible four years of growth, change, challenges and success.  The Renewal process has given us a chance to reflect on all the elements that have come together to make our school community such a unique and dynamic place for students.


We hope you enjoyed a few stories about our school and would consider coming by to visit this winter
Director's Blog: 
As part of an ongoing series of thoughts inspired by the step back and reflection that is required for the Charter Renewal process, I'm thinking this month about school size.
When I started teaching in 1998, I taught at a school with 1,700 students (built for 800, my colleagues proudly told anyone who would listen).  As I'm writing, I just entertained a visitor who attended DeWitt Clinton High School when there were 7,000 attendees.  (Wow!)  Schools that big rival the sizes of some towns and make us scratch our heads and say, "How can the adults really get to know the kids there?"

We've always known, since we started researching and writing our charter in 2003, that getting to know students thoroughly would be a key idea for the success of our school.  It became embedded in our model as part of the home-school partnership that is referenced in our name.

We studied a lot of research on school size and class size, and found that with good teaching, and adherence to a strong curriculum, even a larger class size could yield success if teachers are properly skilled and supported.  But the data we found was unequivocal about school size: more than 500 students, and you reach a tipping point wherein it becomes difficult for "everyone to know each other."  So we deliberately chose a school size of no more than 500 students (if and when we expand to open a separate middle school), and, initially, no more than 325 students for grades K-5. 

Children who are at risk, families that are struggling, and, frankly, all of us who are just trying to get by and succeed in this difficult world, need to know there is a tight web of support behind us.  Indeed, parents in our early focused groups talked about making sure no kids "slipped through the cracks."

Six years later, we don't need to reference all that research because we have our experience to validate those ideas.  Students are not ostracized at our school, and with Collaborative Team Teaching on every grade, special education is simply part of the fabric at our school.  

Perhaps most importantly and dramatically, there is a preponderance of adults who do know every child at our school.  Our leadership has the privilege, thanks in part to our finally being in one site, of being able to welcome our children and families as they walk in with a handshake, a smile and a "Good morning." 
And this greeting ritual truly is a privilege.  Some of our students already have such a firm handshake and a propensity to look one in the eye, it almost makes one want to hire them rather than educate them!  For others, their infectious smile is enough to charge the weariest of batteries, and seeing the good-bye kiss of a parent dropping off a child in a school where she knows her child will be safe and cared for, a moment of true affection, is inspiring.  Most exciting might be the wait for one particular family to arrive - five siblings and cousins who come bounding up to shake hands and offer smiles like natural politicians - or perhaps for Fernando, a newly minted Linkster in kindergarten, who took to the routine by breaking away from dad's hand as soon as he entered the schoolyard, running across with a mile-wide smile and his hand outstretched, ready for those handshakes!
These small gestures are the way we officially start our day at Harlem Link.  Sure, there is a standards-based reason for teaching with action an element of citizenship, but the message we send, and receive, is that in our school community, everyone matters, everyone is known, and everyone is cared for.  And I think that's enough to put a smile on anyone's face.
Social Media
You can now follow us on Twitter, and join our Facebook group for the latest updates, photos and news about the goings-on at our special little school!
Support Our Cause
You can join our list of supporters.  As a charter school, we are our own, single-school public school district.  Because of the charter funding formula (and the mind-boggling recent decision by the state legislature to freeze charter funding while increasing overall public school aid), we depend on private donations to supplement our state tuition allocation.  In the coming years we anticipate raising as much as 25% of our budget in our Annual Fund.  Tax-deductible donations can be made to our fund by clicking here.
Calling all Volunteers!
This year represents the first year Harlem Link will be graduating fifth graders, and we are looking for mentors!

Believe it or not, the middle school application process is as daunting as the college admissions process (and it's good practice for our young scholars).  With the leadership of Catrina Horton, our Parent Coordinator, we have set up a comprehensive Middle School Placement program to ensure that 100% of our graduating scholars have access to an excellent middle school.

We are assigning volunteer mentors to small groups of two to five students to ensure that our scholars and their families have additional support to manage this daunting process.  Click here for a pdf document with more information about the mentorship program, and please pass it on if you know of someone who would be interested.
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