Society of Illustrators hand raisingLogoHarlem Link celebration
Harlem Link Ink Title

February 2010

We have another exciting issue to present to you, sharing dispatches from our small but impactful school in Harlem.  

We are thrilled that our staff's hard work and constant improvement has been validated with a charter renewal from SUNY, one of the most rigorous charter authorizers in the country.  We are closing Black History Month with a bang (the celebration will go on for us; our special event was postponed till March 5 due to snow!).  And we continue to highlight the social studies work our students do in an effort to promote authentic, meaningful curriculum, a challenge to pull off in today's high-stakes test-focused world.  Enjoy and please visit our school; our kids would love to meet you!


Margaret Ryan and Steven Evangelista
In This Issue
The Triumph of Charter Renewal
Skyscrapers to Longhouses
Bring On the Books
Fifth Grade Fridays
The Triumph of Charter Renewal

In 2004, the trustees of the State University of New York (SUNY) took a chance on behalf of the residents of Harlem on a new, unproven school and gave approval for Harlem Link Charter School to open and operate for a period of five years.  After five years of growth and change and a steadfast commitment to its mission, Harlem Link received from SUNY a Short-Term Renewal. There was clear acknowledgement in the renewal report that the school had substantially met all of SUNY's challenging Renewal Benchmarks.  The report says, "Approving the school for another three years is likely to improve student learning and achievement."  
Two scholars with a few more years until graduationHarlem Link began with the ambitious goal of graduating students imbued with not only the basic competence in math and reading that has proven so elusive to pupils in at-risk communities but also with the kinds of critical thinking skills and deep content knowledge that are hallmarks of education in wealthier communities.  This approach required a complex curriculum and pedagogy that could serve children at a wide range of levels and push each of them to high degrees of achievement.  This sort of education can't be achieved by using ready-made teaching formulas or by giving children instruction that's designed only to help them pass standardized tests.  At Harlem Link teachers have collaborated with administrators to produce a one-of-a-kind curriculum.  The school also has presaged the emerging national trend of focusing on teacher quality (see a recent opinion piece by Melinda Gates as an example) by providing high levels of professional development for its teachers and making them full partners with administrators and board members in curriculum development.
Starting such an ambitious program from scratch entailed risk.  After the visit by the SUNY Charter Schools Institute during Harlem Link's first year, the reviewing team  expressed skepticism about the school's ability to attain its ambitious goals in light of the charter's short duration and the long list of routines, policies and curriculum documents that needed to be built from scratch to reach those goals.  But as the 2010 renewal report notes, "Instructional leadership has improved...resulting in ongoing and systematic support being provided to teachers."  The report states that Harlem Link's rigor and effectiveness have improved markedly in the last three years of the charter, and the challenge facing the school now is not to set up new structures or change what it is doing, but continue to execute and maintain the pace of improvement in the years to come.
At the core of the charter movement is the promise that its schools would be held accountable for improving the education of their students. If a school did not live up to that promise, it would not be granted a renewal of its charter. SUNY is rare among charter authorizers nationwide. It has lived up to the charter promise by closing schools regularly and without fear.  In contrast, the shutting of under-performing district public schools in New York City recently became a controversial issue, partly because it hadn't been tried before as an intervention strategy on the district level.  This year 19 New York City district schools, out of more than 1,400 schools citywide,  were slated for closure. This led to marathon public hearings and voluminous protests from those who prefer to keep the schools open regardless of their failure to adequately serve their students.  But since reviewing its first charter renewal applications in 2003, SUNY has closed an amazing 25% of its first-time renewal applicants, according to Cynthia Proctor, director of public affairs for the Charter Schools Institute.  It's easy to see why those first reviewers to visit Harlem Link questioned the school's ambitions and challenged its ability to meet SUNY's rigorous benchmarks. They knew the school faced a difficult challenge in meeting those benchmarks. They also knew that, if the school succeeded, its students would benefit mightily from that success.
No one likes to see a school close.  But those in charter movement - parents, educators and supporters -agree that the public school system needs drastic change.  The success of Harlem Link and the other charter schools that have arisen in the wake of SUNY's school closures demonstrates the potential for the charter movement to be a powerful part of that change.  And SUNY's approval of Harlem Link's renewal application stands as a testament to the hard work of students, parents, staff and board members over the past five years.
Skyscrapers to Longhouses

By Yojairy Sands, Second Grade Teacher
The "New York City Past and Present" unit in Harlem Link's second grade got off to a great Big Apple start!  The students began their study by visiting Times Square.  As they walked around the heart of the city, they made many observations.  "That's a skyscraper!" exclaimed Skye upon emerging from the 42nd Street subway station.  The other students looked up in wonder as they saw many other buildings towering above them.  Needless to say, the second graders returned to school with a lot of information about the city's busy landscape.
The second trip was to the Museum of the City of New York.  There the students got a glimpse of the city's past.  They learned that the Dutch settled New York.  They also learned that Native Americans originally inhabited the area where the city is now.  "Where did the Native Americans go?" one inquisitive student asked.  That question prompted a lively discussion on fairness, on a topic they will explore in much greater depth at Harlem Link in fourth grade.   
City National Bank donatesThe second graders wrapped up the unit by forms of shelter from New York City's past and present.  They built Native American longhouses, tenements (complete with clotheslines!), Dutch homes (example at right), brownstones and high rises.  The second-grade rooms were turned into a miniature Museum of the City of New York, and guests were invited to take a walking tour of the buildings. 
The second grade's next social studies unit will compare rural and suburban environments.  The students can't wait to see what discoveries they'll make.
Bring On the Books

Harlem Link has enjoyed a preponderance of literary contributions from friends and supporters in the past few months. 
In November, the Society of Illustrators once again donated to Harlem Link first graders high quality picture books it had received as submissions for its annual "Original Art" exhibition, honoring the best in children's book art each fall.  
City National Bank donatesDecember saw a book drive specifically for Harlem Link by City National Bank and one New York City branch of Barnes and Noble that brought the school nearly 500 books, and a check from the bank for over $5,000 to purchase more!  Diona Moore and Luis Rodriguez came from the bank to read to a third grade class and present the check.
City National Bank donatesIn addition, we have just learned that the $500 grant proposal submitted to the same bank by Mike Cassaro, third grade teacher, for more classroom library books, was fully funded!
Finally, in March each Harlem Link second graders will receive a brand new book of their choosing through the generosity of preeminent Internet publisher Bartleby.  The donation is inspired by Reading is Fundamental, a program that values individual choice by having students select their own books. 
City National Bank donatesFinally, we'll be reading with public officials, authors and friends of the school this coming week as part of Read Across America.  See a photo with Harlem Link board members Kesha Young and John Reddick at our 2009 event, at left.  Harlem Link is once again celebrating Dr. Seuss's birthday by inviting several authors, local elected officials, and other friends to read with our students on Tuesday, March 2nd.

Thanks to all for the tremendous contributions, and keep them coming.  Our readers have insatiable appetites!
Fifth Grade Fridays!
You may have heard of Follow Friday on Twitter. At Harlem Link we're continuing our year-long celebration of our senior scholars by profiling fifth graders every Friday, in what we are calling Fifth Grade Fridays.
City National Bank donatesCity National Bank donatesEach week, we will publish brief profiles of two of our graduating seniors.  The profiles are based on the "Questions For" format used by Deborah Solomon in her weekly column for the New York Times Magazine.  For most of our seniors, saying goodbye at graduation on July 1st will mark the end of a five year journey with Harlem Link.  After five years together, we will find it very hard to say goodbye.  Memorializing their personal stories to this point is one small way for us to continue to celebrate them as we count down to their next step in a life full of learning.

The profiles are available throughout the rest of the school year on our Harlem Link Facebook page.
Follow Us on Twitter
Twitter LogoHarlem Link has joined the online, instant-communication, social revolution represented by Twitter.  Dozens of followers have already signed on, hearing: exciting occasional updates of goings-on at the school; incisive commentary on public policy issues such as school funding debates and state and national standards; a glimpse into the school life through the Harlem Link Quote of the Day, which appears at the top of our internal staff memo called Day-at-a-Glance; and, beginning in the spring, a semi-weekly capsule profile of one of our graduating fifth graders.  Join us!
Support Our Cause
City National Bank donatesYou 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 - and now, appreciated securities - can be made to our fund by clicking here.

In Closing
Students at our old Lower SchoolAs we turn the page to a new year, we are looking back on successes and looking forward to a big year to come.  In 2010, Harlem Link will graduate its first class of fifth graders and begin our second charter period.  We will continue to work hard to meet our mission of graduating articulate scholars and active citizens, and to do it in a way that both celebrates the dignity and legacy of our very special neighborhood and meets the needs of its most fragile and at-risk members.  All the while, our school is building a national model for school success.

We hope you enjoyed a few stories about our school and would consider coming by to visit this winter.
Director's Blog:  
Black History Lesson
Life is an ongoing learning experience, and I learned recently that not everyone sees the ghosts I see as I walk down Lenox Avenue every day.
I was surprised to discover while speaking to a colleague from San Francisco that in most of the United States there exists, at best, a vague awareness of the cultural legacy left by the Harlem Renaissance.  Harlem, my colleague said, is known in his hometown primarily for its high rates of poverty and crime.  It took personal initiative for him to go beyond those stereotypes and come to understand a different side of this community.
Lest you think that a greater awareness about "the Black Capital of America" exists among African-Americans, consider that my colleague is African-American.
While my co-director and I were writing our charter application for Harlem Link in 2003, another colleague proudly handed me an annotated list of Harlem Renaissance luminaries that she had compiled in college. I thought, Big deal. Only now do I appreciate the fact that this simple list probably provided, in the days before the World Wide Web, a useful service at her university.
Thus I have learned that my years growing up in New York City, and going to a public school only a block away from Spanish Harlem,gave me an insight into the history of Harlem that most of the country doesn't share.  In high school I read the novels of the esteemed Harlem writer James Baldwin and Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass together with poetic response of the celebrated Harlem poet, Langston Hughes.  And I thought everyone did! 
Before founding Harlem Link, my co-director and I came to teach in Harlem almost by accident, one of us placed here in a vacant position by Teach For America and the other moving from the South Bronx in search of a smaller, more caring school community.  We stayed in Harlem partly because of the pull of families that, striving like our own families and yearning for the opportunities our forefathers promised, have yet to enjoy the schools they deserve.  But we also stayed because of the dazzling energy in the streets and because of those ghosts whispering tales of intellectual and creative force from decades ago.
With this as my inspiration and the end of Black History Month as my backdrop, I present to you a brief tutorial on the Harlem Renaissance.  It's impossible in this short space to recount the full story of the Harlem Renaissance, its contributors legion and diverse not only in their backgrounds and artistry but in their politics as well.  Instead, we'll take a short walk through the Harlem Renaissance through my eyes.
Black History Month, by the way, is often maligned for (a) occurring in the shortest month of the year, prompting protestors to say every month should be Black History Month, and (b) separating Black history from American history, thereby ghettoizing the African-American experience, which is a set of inextricable threads in the tapestry of our republic.  I think those criticisms have some bite, but they conveniently ignore some facts. 
First, it was an African-American man, historian Carter G. Woodson, who conceived of a week celebrating "Negro History," and he chose February because of the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12) and Fredrick Douglass (variously given as Feb. 7 and 14).  In 1976, as part of the U.S. bicentennial, Negro History Week was expanded to and renamed Black History Month.  (In Harlem, this sort of expansion is not unfamiliar; the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce's summer celebration, Harlem Week, is now at least a month long.)
Second, critics of Black History Month overlook the notion that one purpose of the month is to point to the achievements of African-Americans in the context of - not separate from -American history.  Woodson observed that history textbooks left out any reference to the role of African-Americans in the building of the union, and Black History Month seeks to correct that error.  Why, were it not for Black History Month, we would not be having this conversation right now.
Let's start our tour by orienting ourselves to the appropriate time period.  The Harlem Renaissance is usually limited to literary and artistic achievements of the 1920s and 1930s.  The 1920s were, of course, a boom time for leisure activities in the United States, but when the Great Depression hit the Harlem Renaissance continued to grow.
Any journey through the Harlem Renaissance starts and ends, for me, with Hughes (1902-1967).  A few years ago I read his monumental, meandering memoir, I Wonder As I Wander,  which, in effect, is the second of a two-volume autobiography that begins with The Big Sea.  These books, particularly the former, take the reader on a walk through Harlem and through time with Hughes on your elbow, pointing out the sights as you go. 
Hughes's literary contributions are astounding.  For beginners, he published volume after volume of poetry, wrote a novel, two Broadway plays and a long-running satirical column in the Chicago Defender, then America's most influential black newspaper.  (These stories of Simple and his skeptical drinking buddy Boyd, which are compiled in several books, retain their incisiveness today.)  He was also a world traveler who chronicled his exploits in Paris, the Soviet Union and Spain during the civil war there in his memoirs.  He even had something in common with Harlem Link: Our building for Grades K-3 bears the name of his uncle John Mercer Langston (1829-1897), a prominent abolitionist and the first African-American elected to the United States Congress from Virginia. 
Langston Hughes' legacy is apparent throughout Harlem.  The brownstone where he spent the last decades, at 20 West 127th Street, has seen preservationists seek to open it in recent years as a cultural center.  His ashes are buried beneath an artistic interpretation of one of his poems ("The Negro Speaks of Rivers") by an artist named Houston Conwill (1947-present), at the world-famous Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at West 135th Street and Lenox Avenue. 
The Schomburg, a research branch of the New York Public Library, houses the United States' largest collection of books, manuscripts and artwork related to African-American history.  The Puerto Rican-born Arturo Schomburg (1874-1938), after whom the library is named, was himself a figure in the Harlem Renaissance as a writer and historian, but he was also one of the first to recognize the intellectual and cultural importance of the period and to collect and organize related documents and artifacts. 
Hughes' circle of literary friends included luminaries Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) and Wallace Thurman (1902-1934).  Hurston was an author and ethnographer who traveled the South with a tape recorder looking for folk stories and other oral narratives,. She is best remembered now for her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God.  They were contributors to and critics of, The Crisis, a journal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the controversial and short-lived literary journal Fire!!  Its story and demise, richly described in Hughes' memoirs, speaks to the high intensity and quality of the intellectual ferment in Harlem at the time.
Countee Cullen (1903-1946) was another famous Harlem poet from the period, and his name adorns the branch public lending library adjacent to the Schomburg.  Cullen's poetry has a romantic strand to it - he often uses traditional verse that is largely absent in Hughes's folksy, sometimes free-verse poems - but like Hughes's work, his features a heavy dose of social criticism presaging the civil rights era.  Cullen wrote protest poems while at the same time arguing that African-American artists should look to Britain and American poetry for inspiration rather than "nebulous atavistic yearnings towards an African inheritance."  The Harlem Renaissance was loaded with race controversy.  Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964), a white photographer, joined Hughes's inner circle and shot many of the most famous photographs of the era. He also published a 1926 novel called Nigger Heaven, titled after the ironic name for balconies where African-Americans were forced to sit in theaters during segregation.  Needless to say, it took Van Vechten's rich descriptions of Harlem for white people downtown to begin to make their way uptown and pay attention to the music, art and parties already in full swing.
For me, the brushstrokes of Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) will always provide for the visual arts what Hughes's words gave to the literary arts.  With the stark, haunting patterns of primary colors that he called "dynamic cubism," Lawrence evocatively depicted street life as well as the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to northern cities in the early part of the 20th century. 
The orchestra of Duke Ellington (1899-1974) enjoyed a remarkable 10-year run at Harlem's landmark Cotton Club.  Ellington's statue stands just a couple of blocks away from Harlem Link's school building, in the circle at 110th Street and 5th Avenue, at the northeast corner of Central Park and a few feet from the new Museum of African Art. 
The Cotton Club wasn't the only place to swing in 1930s Harlem.  The Apollo Theatre gradually became the most sought-after destination for African-American performers.  In 1934, Ralph Cooper (1908-1992) bought the theater and ushered in the era of Amateur Night.  He famously bought a piece of the Tree of Hope - an elm with purported lucky powers that had been chopped down when Seventh Avenue was widened - to bring good fortune to performers at the Apollo, where it is still used for that purpose today.

-Steve Evangelista
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