This is it! As we send this email newsletter, we are only hours away from our first fifth grade graduation. We are so proud of our founding scholars, the community they have built this year and the work they have done over the last five years. Our assessments and their admissions status at competitive middle schools show that they will start sixth grade among the most well-prepared middle school students in all of Harlem.
They are the real evidence that we are meeting our mission of graduating articulate scholars and active citizens.
In this issue, we close our year by sharing how New York State politics, which we work very hard to ensure stay out of our classrooms, do touch us in a meaningful way.
We also highlight more of the inspiring and highly relevant social studies work that forms the core of our curriculum. Just a few days prior to this writing the state Board of Regents in a cost-cutting move voted to eliminate the fifth grade state social studies exam, an exam in which Harlem Link students outscored not only the average district public school city wide, but the average charter school city wide as well. We plan to remain true to our vision and continue to emphasize content. Our kids deserve nothing less than what kids in Scarsdale get - and you can bet social studies is still on the curriculum map there!
Join us in celebrating our graduating seniors. See you as alumni!
Margaret Ryan and Steven Evangelista
|Race to the Finish Line|
As another successful school year comes to a close, history is being made in New York State and at Harlem Link. Two events in June highlight the tremendous educational change occurring in our state in 2010.
At the beginning of the month, Harlem Link signed New York State's Race To The Top (RTTT) Memorandum of Understanding. The school agreed to support the state application to the federal Department of Education's competitive grant program, which offers hundreds of millions of dollars to shape school reform across the country. By signing on, Harlem Link joined a movement that includes hundreds of school districts and charter schools across the state. It is this movement that led the state legislature to enact a bevy of changes at the end of May to comply with the RTTT rules, including vastly increasing the number of charter schools authorized in the state.
What's most exciting is that Harlem Link is already complying with the spirit of RTTT. The school tracks its students over time (see the sidebar at right for more information about Harlem Link's long-term plans in this area), uses student achievement data to improve instruction, considers student achievement in teacher evaluations and, perhaps most important, focuses resources on recruiting, training and retaining high quality teachers for at-risk students. These concepts, which together sharply focus school efforts on the mission of student achievement, are changing the face of American education, and Harlem Link is at the heart of that change.
RTTT began the month for Harlem Link, and the school's inaugural fifth
-grade graduation will finish it. The first group of Harlem Link enrollees are reaching the crescendo of their five years as the pioneer group. These students will walk across the stage on June 30 prepared for the many rigorous middle schools to which they have gained admission with the Harlem Link mission of scholarship and citizenship embedded in their hearts.
Indeed, it was both academic achievement and a strong sense of community that helped the students gain admission to some highly competitive schools after a strenuous interview and application process. The Harlem Linksters now enrolling in schools like the competitive CORE and Hudson Honors programs in the Upper West Side's Community School District 3 can point to their state exam scores, which were better than those of the average District 3 school, as having demonstrated they are prepared for the rigor that awaits. While the 2010 Math and English Language Arts scores will not be released until late summer, we do now have the fall 2009 fifth grade social studies scores. With 82.5% of its students passing, Harlem Link outperformed not only the average New York City district school but also outscored the average charter school in the city. In terms of citizenship, we at Harlem Link hear from the competitive middle schools that the students' propensity to look adults in the eye and shake their hands certainly helped their admission as well!
For those students who went directly from day care programs to first grade five years ago, Harlem Link is the only public school they have attended. These students have been at the school for nearly half their lives. With all this history behind the students and all this momentum driving them forward, Graduation 2010 is certain to be both a tearful and joyful event.
|First Grade Is a World of Work!|
SOCIAL STUDIES SPOTLIGHT
By Stephanie da Costa, First Grade Teacher
In social studies this school year, first graders have spent a lot of time surveying the rich Harlem community. They have researched, discussed and explored the different ways that people in this community work together to make it a safe, fun place to live and work.
During the spring semester, the first graders have found a variety of ways to bring their learning to life, as part of the social studies unit called The World of Work. In March and April, they studied the businesses in the community that sell goods and services. To show off what they learned, each first-grade class created businesses in their classrooms. To start, each class brainstormed a list of goods that community members would find useful. Then, the students voted on the type of goods they would manufacture and sell in their stores. Once all the votes were in, the stores had their grand openings. Class 1-364 was the site of the Super Star Frame Shop, which sold hand-crafted picture frames. Class 1-373 offered for sale beautifully designed greeting cards in their Rock Star Card Company. The stores did brisk business, with students working as cashiers, salespeople, inventory managers and greeters. Together, the classes raised about $125. Our first graders dazzled us even further by revealing their philanthropic side. Rather than use the money to buy treats for themselves, the students decided to donate the money to a local food bank as a way to help the people in their community.
Once the stores closed, it was time for the food to fly in first grade...fly through the restaurant kitchen, that is! The first graders' last major social studies unit for the year is their fabulous restaurant. The students thew themselves into this unit with tremendous enthusiasm. For the past two months they have traveled around the neighborhood carefully examining and visiting local restaurants, such as Lolita's and Ottomanelli's. During these visits, they have discovered the different types of workers and tools it takes for a restaurant to work smoothly. Now, these young restaurateurs are hard at work preparing to open their own eating establishments. They have diligently written menus, created décor, put together advertisements, and prepared their classrooms to accommodate customers. Students have also spent lots of time honing their jobs skills as chefs, bus boys and girls, maitre d's, waiters, and waitresses.
The grand opening for each first-grade restaurant took place on Friday, June 18. Parents, staff members and students from other grades saw first hand all the hard work that has gone into this endeavor. They got to experience a five-star first-grade restaurant! Who knows, the kid in the kitchen might be a future Top Chef!
|Keepin' It Colonial|
SOCIAL STUDIES SPOTLIGHT
By Noah Green, Fourth Grade Teacher
Walking into a fourth grade classroom during Social Studies class feels a bit like walking onto a construction site these days. Both classes, 402 and 404, are consistently abuzz with the sounds of students discussing, debating, gathering and constructing.
I suppose this makes sense, considering the task that has been placed before the students. Last month, we informed the Linksters that they would be charged, as a class, with constructing a model of a town from Colonial New England. Each student would work in a group and each group would construct one building of this town. Students had an opportunity to vote for their building of choice. Each classroom will be constructing: a church, an inn, a farmhouse, a town hall, a schoolhouse and a residential colonial house.
"Teachers will design thematic units that will take students through the history and geography of various peoples and places. Harlem Link will place a strong emphasis upon vocabulary to enrich the content, culture (government, economy, language, way of life) to develop students' thinking about each unique community of study, chronology to help students establish a sense of time, and geography for students to gain a sense of place and location." This quote is taken directly from the Harlem Link charter and has guided our planning and instruction.
In order to meet this challenge, we designed a thematic unit on Colonial Times. Throughout this unit, we have focused on four major themes to describe the colonies: geography, religion, social structure, and economy. After reading about and analyzing the New England Colonies, we posted a picture of a village map and distributed pictures of the different types of structures to students. We discussed how these structures fit into the themes that we have been discussing.
As the students construct, they have had to work together to create strategic plans for how to do their work. They started by looking at pictures and sketching the structures that they wanted to build. Then, they needed to select materials. Students have been using boxes as the foundation and will then be able to design the outside of their structures using popsicle sticks and wooden flats. Finally, they will have an opportunity to decorate their structures. Some groups have decided to create the ground on which their structures will sit and want to carve trees and landscape to make our town more realistic.
Following an educational approach called cooperative learning, the students are building positive interdependence because they have the freedom to determine their own roles within their groups.
This has also led to a wonderful side effect: students walking from group to group, asking what others are doing. From a conversation about how to construct a cross to go on top of the church steeple, to debates and discussions about how to secure a cardboard chimney so that it stays standing, fourth graders are fully engaged in exciting learning, even in June. Come by to check it out!!
|Thanks to our Volunteers!|
As we close out the 2009-10 school year, we celebrate not only the graduation of our first class of seniors but also a major influx of on-site volunteers to inspire our scholars and help them learn. In the coming year we anticipate another increase in volunteers, for opportunities including the activities described below and more. We encourage all of our readers to stay tuned to the launch of our new website over the summer, on which we will be posting these opportunities.
In the meantime, we offer our heartfelt and sincere thanks to our cadre of on-site volunteers, only some of whom are cited below. Volunteers, a Harlem Link shout-out to you:
- Thanks to trustee emeritus K.C. Hyland for teaching an accelerated novels section to a group of our academically advanced fifth graders. K.C. came twice a week for most of the year!
- Thanks to French-American Charter School founder Corinne Bal for teaching several eight-week French courses as part of Friends and Family Friday!
- Thanks to returning volunteer Laura Beck for tutoring third graders in reading!
- Thanks to trustee Peter Carry for editing this newsletter and for spending two Fridays a month in the fall and winter mentoring some of our seniors for the middle school placement process!
- Thanks to City National Bank for sending two teams of volunteers to read with our students and celebrate their Reading Is The Way Up program (above).
- Thanks to Barbara Graves-Poller, Hal Uyger and parent expert Idrissa Bamba (below) for coming to teach our third graders about different aspects of Africa as part of their final social studies unit.
- Thanks to a team of JP Morgan Chase bankers for enduring the parent gauntlet known as the Spelling Bee judging team.
- Thanks to the many notable community members and authors who joined us for Read Across America on March 2nd in celebration of Dr. Seuss's birthday (bottom).
- Thanks to professional photographer Angela Gaspar for donating her services for our kids.
We hope to be thanking YOU at this time a year from now!
|Donors Choose Spotlight|
This year, our first grade students smashed the targets we set for their performance on internal standardized math assessments. Please click on the link to help our first grade teachers add needed puzzles, games and study tools to further bolster their math instruction in the coming year!
Help our fourth grade teachers extend their social studies instruction even farther in 2010-11. Social studies is at the heart of our curriculum. The state may say it's less important in an era of budget cuts, but content in context remains king at Harlem Link!
|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 - and now, appreciated securities - can be made to our fund by clicking here.
The summer is upon us. After all the balloons are deflated, the cake is eaten, and our graduates are off to their summer projects, we will turn our attention fully to the coming year and all the excitement that awaits a school that for the first time is not expanding! We are
going to have the time and space to focus on improving everything we do, for the first time in our history.
Keep an eye out for our new website, launching this summer, and more news about our outstanding graduates. They may be leaving the Harlem Link school this week, but they will remain part of the Harlem Link family for life.
The Most Important Link
My friends Barbara and Jane were with me that Sunday afternoon when I answered the call from 718-777-4300. "Just pick it up, see who it is," said Barbara, over my protests that I'd already had about 10 missed calls from the same number that morning and didn't want to deal with any telemarketers over the weekend. When I grudgingly answered, I heard, "Please hold," and as the Rikers Island switchboard put through the call, a saga 10 years long began a new chapter.
It was my former student Tom calling, responding to my letter to him and my entreaty to his Legal Aid lawyer to have him get in touch with me and allow me to visit him in jail. That phone call on Memorial Day weekend 2010 was the first time I had spoken to Tom since 2001, when he was in the fourth grade, I was a young teacher, and we were about to lose touch - he by bouncing around from PS 192, where I met him, to special education school to detention center to jail on Rikers Island, I by leaving the school where he had been in my third grade class to look for a better environment in which to teach and, a few years later, by leaving the district altogether and starting Harlem Link with Margaret Ryan.
In the third grade, Tom touched me as few people have because it was clear that he had special gifts but without consistent and serious guidance he was headed for trouble. By the time he was eight, he had about every risk factor you could name: orphaned, neglected, disabled, hyperactive. With more agency identification numbers than birthdays, it's no wonder he landed in the tracked "bottom class" that was assigned to me, the lowest ranked among six or seven sections of third graders at my gargantuan elementary school. Though he never seemed to sit still or attend to his lessons, though he ran circles around the routines his novice teacher was trying to put in place, Tom was a sponge for knowledge and somehow, through sheer eagerness to learn and some uncanny survival skills, met the academic standards in reading and arithmetic that year.
In the nine years between his transfer to what I had heard was a "special education school downtown" ("He was scared" was all another teacher could tell me about the situation as he left) and the Memorial Day phone call, I used every tool I could find to search for him: phone calls to colleagues, new lists of special education schools and Google and other resources on the Internet.
In about 2007 I found him registered at a detention center in the Bronx. Concerned but elated that he was seemingly back in the system where I could contact him, I called the school office there to ask about him. "No recollection of that one," said the person responsible for registration there. "He's probably already gone, if he was ever even here. We have 300 students in this facility, and they come and go all the time. You can't expect me to know them all."
In the nine years since I last saw him, Tom has made a series of poor choices. At the apex of these choices he committed a felony: robbery in the first degree. As a consequence he spent his 16th through 18th birthdays in a variety of jail and prison facilities from Rikers to the Bronx to upstate Goshen. In December 2009, three years after imprisonment for this act, he was released on parole. Within three months, he was back in jail for violating parole.
While Tom alone is responsible for his behavior, I've seen the long arc of his life since 1999 and understand that the truth is a bit more complicated. As he told me over the phone, he has lacked adult guidance over the years. That's as gross an understatement as I've ever heard.
Each year, through various public and private agencies, our educational and correctional systems have spent tens of thousands of public dollars on Tom's education and rehabilitation. Talking with him on that phone call from jail, I learned that the pattern I first observed with him in 2001 - when well-meaning social workers, psychologists and teachers based both at his school and the Administration for Children's Services disappeared from his life with the stroke of a pen and a transfer to a new setting - would continue as service providers continued to flit in and out of his life.
Coming of age behind bars, having no family support to speak of and lacking a consistent adult authority figure, Tom was simply unprepared for life on his own. To make matters worse, when his parole began Tom also learned what it means to be homeless. It came as no surprise to this observer to learn that soon after being released, he made a thoughtless and self-destructive decision to skip a parole hearing. The sad tale thus continued in March 2010, when Tom was picked up by the police on that infraction and wound up back in jail, the one place he didn't want to go.
In the weeks between Tom's re-arrest and his 19th birthday in midsummer, he has found himself trapped in a Kafkaesque process in which the correctional system is doing its best to provide him with some support for life on the outside. I have joined him in the middle of this journey and gained yet another paradigm-shifting education in the process. Tom has been through a series of hearings intended to release him to a nonprofit agency that would provide him with some combination of life skills training, temporary housing and substance abuse treatment and prevention. Each hearing has seen new obstacles arise and has ended in delay and continued imprisonment.
Taken on their own, each obstacle is logical, even beneficial: An agency wasn't aware of an earlier diagnosis, and requested a screening; after an animated display by a prosecutor, a judge decided Tom would be at risk of recidivism without an escort to his destination agency, something for which he is not eligible until age 19. With Tom's maximum 45-day stay for violating parole now approaching 90 days, these hearings paint a picture of a bureaucracy that seems to refuse to coordinate information well enough both to serve justice and provide Tom with a chance to rehabilitate himself.
So for Tom, with yet another hearing scheduled in a few weeks, it's more of the same: waiting in his cell and requesting "protective custody" as much as possible to avoid the violence of the other inmates. When I visited him, Tom showed me fresh handcuff marks on his wrists. "It's not the guards, it's the other inmates," he said. Whatever Tom learned in third grade, it may have put him on the path to getting his GED before being released on parole - a glimmer of hope that he might recapture the promise I saw 10 years ago - but it did not provide the survival skills needed to stay out of jail or the social skills to deal with the target on his back that accompanies his status as one of the youngest inmates on Rikers Island.
When Margaret and I started designing our school, the word link kept coming up in our conversation, leading to the school's name. There were interdisciplinary links between subjects in the curriculum, links between home and school, collaborative links through co-teaching, links with institutional partners for field trips, and more. As the school prepares to graduate its first class of fifth graders and send them out into the world, another link is taking center stage: the special relationship between teacher and student. I know our fifth graders are prepared to navigate the challenges that come with adolescence and growing up as they move on to competitive middle schools. They have had a much more concerted, coherent and rigorous experience than Tom did when he began bouncing around the system. Perhaps equally important, we are laying the plans to keep track of, support and invite back to Harlem Link our alumni as they progress through middle school, high school and college.
Maybe there is nothing I could have done to help Tom along the way. I don't know. But I do know that I don't understand a world in which a child could be so short on support that Rikers seems an inevitable destination. I also don't understand a world in which, despite all of the agencies, all the social workers in and out of Tom's life, all the hearings, I was maybe the one person looking for him, and I couldn't find him until it seemed far too late. In the research I've done in the last month, partly to prepare to set up an alumni program for Harlem Link and partly in response to my experience with Tom, I have learned that a federal privacy law prevented me from having access to Tom's records after he left my classroom. As his former teacher, I was deemed a no longer "interested educational party." That's right: The system is set up so that when something momentous happens in a child's life, good or bad, his or her former teachers are officially not part of the educational community that can celebrate or provide succor on that occasion.
There are schools, of course, that track their alumni well. There are schools that measure their success longitudinally by finding out where their students go to college and what type of lives they lead decades after graduation (something we intend to do). There is nothing in the law preventing a school from asking alumni to stay in touch. What bothers me is the tremendous expenditure of resources that comes with dedicating staff time and technology to this effort when the most basic of this information is easily available in the New York City Department of Education's servers. As a small school, we will do what it takes to keep these strongest links alive. But because of our limited resources, I know we will struggle to do it.
I'm talking to my lawyer friends to understand the reasoning behind this law - or regulation, since this interpretation is not specifically spelled out in the law - but in the meantime I am determined that nothing momentous will happen in our alumni's educational careers without their elementary school teachers knowing about it.
Someone asked me recently why I wanted to make a big deal of Harlem Link's 90% teacher retention rate in the past two years. With the school year winding down and this big graduation approaching, it's been a time of reflection and celebration for many fifth grade families. The notion that we are a larger family as a school and the famous saying, "It takes a village to raise a child," have come up repeatedly in different settings as families and students try to cope with the idea of moving on to the next school. To my questioner I say, the fact that our teachers are sticking around means, among other things, that Harlem Link will be better able to keep those teacher-alumni links intact.
I am back in Tom's life now. I can't see him every day for 180 days as I did 10 years ago, but I'm willing to bet that in those days I learned and today I still remember more about him and what he needs than the sum of all of the specialists and case workers who have appeared and disappeared in his life since. I wish I could have participated along the way, could have spoken to some of the people who had to learn his family history (or, in some cases, not even get that far) over and over again. And I'm determined that in 2020, none of our teachers will have to say the same about any of our proud graduates.
|Join our conversation|