Society of Illustrators hand raisingLogoHarlem Link celebration
Harlem Link Ink Title

Fall 2010

Thank you for taking some time to read about the exciting action at our school this year. 

In our sixth year and our second charter, we're off to a smashing start.  The national educational policy scene is picking up on the action as well.

We look forward to sharing more and would be pleased to have you visit and check out our amazing teachers and students in person!


Margaret Ryan and Steven Evangelista
In This Issue
The "Superman" Moment
A Challenging Math Investigation
New Year, New Seniors
New Website and Blog Launched
Donors Choose Spotlight
The "Superman" Moment

When the process of opening Harlem Link began seven years ago, charter schools were a mere blip on the radar screen of public policy and were absent from the popular imagination.  Back then, there were fewer than two dozen charter schools in New York City, and the recruiting of teachers and families to Harlem Link invariably began with a lengthy explanation of what this new and confusing thing called a charter school was.


Waiting for "Superman" posterToday, not only have charters hit the big screen in the new documentary Waiting for "Superman", but the lessons of charter school innovation and reform are being adopted in ways big and small by the district schools that still educate the overwhelming majority of students across the state and nation.  Harlem Link is proud to be a leader in these efforts, operating at the cutting edge of curriculum and teaching practices, using data to inform classroom instruction, signing on to Race to the Top (RTTT) legislation and partnering with to raise awareness about the film and the issues that inspired it.


Race To The Top is no small achievement. The Obama administration has used the economic crisis as an opportunity to build consensus between labor and management across states on issues that even one year ago were political nonstarters.  RTTT is a competition the federal government held in 2009 and 2010 to award millions of dollars in stimulus money to states that made legislative changes to support its priorities - priorities borrowed directly from the charter school movement.  In New York, the famously dysfunctional legislature managed to agree last spring to raisWaiting for "Superman" still shote the cap on the number of charter schools allowed in the state; to tie principal and teacher evaluations to student performance, a common practice in charter schools but unheard of in most districts; to adopt the Common Core standards developed by a council of governors to raise and make uniform the level of rigor across the country; and to act aggressively in turning around failing schools by replacing their staffs and implementing new strategies.  Then the state went a step further: In July, after New York had won RTTT funding of $700 million, state education commissioner David Steiner and regents chancellor Merryl Tisch announced that New York was dramatically raising the scores required to pass standardized state tests  (for more information see right). 


Since New York's first charter schools opened in 1999, charters have enjoyed the autonomy to implement these intelligent, effective practices and have embraced the kind of accountability that the lowest performing 'dropout factory' schools in the state will now have to face.  Staying ahead of the reforms, Harlem Link will continue to innovate and serve as a leading light in the charter movement. For example, as part of the school's five-year strategic plan, Harlem Link adopted Teacher Quality Standards last spring, which coincidentally serves as the logical first step in developing the teacher evaluation system called for in the new state law. 


These reforms hold the promise providing every student with an excellent teacher and every family with the choice to attain excellent education.  Fulfilling that promise, however, requires a tremendous political will.  Please visit and consider signing the petition stating that you support these efforts.  Our most vulnerable children simply don't have time to wait.

A Challenging Math Investigation

In this first article in a yearlong series, second grade teacher Tami Vuong shares how her grade team of teachers is promoting higher-order thinking in mathematics instruction.  Each issue this school year, the Harlem Link Ink will feature an article by a teacher from our kindergarten through fifth grades providing insight into what high quality teaching means at Harlem Link.  As Richard Allington said, "Exemplary teaching is responsive to children's needs, not regurgitation of a common script."  You may find that Tami and her colleagues use unfamiliar technical terms to explain exactly how they are taking this rigorous approach to instruction.  The best way to understand the message behind this series, of course, is to see it in action by taking a tour at Harlem Link.

By Tami Vuong, Second Grade Teacher 
Students performing the inventory investigation
Students work together to inventory classroom materials

In second grade we have been using questioning as a means to activate our students' higher-order thinking skills.  For the past three weeks, our students have been engaged in an investigation into place value.  They were asked to take an inventory of our classroom materials and then told to organize their materials in efficient ways.  Through this work, students began to see the need for a five and tens structure to keep track of their inventory by using packs of ten and loose ones.  For example, several students discovered that organizing materials by tens allowed them to more efficiently count and keep track of their inventory. 


Throughout this investigative process we have used our math congress, a time period in which children can share their strategies for counting and organizing, to build on the students' understanding.  As the teacher, I devise questions that will

Students performing the inventory investigation
Students use an array strategy to make counting more efficient

enhance the students' critical thinking skills by asking them to think carefully about their strategies and to see how deeply they understand the concepts they explored.  As a follow-up to their investigation, they also learned to play different math games that supported place-value concepts.  For example, scholars played Collecting Stickers, a game that gave them the opportunity to look for patterns in place value. 


In the next few weeks, we will launch another math investigation that will push our students to create and use an open number line (simply one number after another written in order across a horizontal line).  Here students will continue exploring the five and tens structure of our number system, and apply it to addition and subtraction strategies using the open number line as a tool.  During this unit of study, we encourage our students to think about when they should break down numbers, when they should keep them whole and how to make efficient jumps on the number line.  At this point, we encour
Students performing the inventory investigation
At Harlem Link students see the real-world use of mathematics instruction
age them to try new strategies.  For example, if a scholar is adding 24 + 55, he or she might keep the larger number whole and split 24 into two tens and four ones.  Then, our scholar would know to jump two tens and four ones from 55 on an open number line.  While planning for these activities, we are looking at student work daily to assess where our scholars are in their thinking and what next steps they are ready to take.  As an important part of our planning, we always are working to make sure we are not just telling them the concepts they are learning but using the right questions to guide their own conclusions and discoveries.
New Year, New Seniors

Harlem Link's first graduating class left with a flourish in July 2010, its members heading off to a variety of high- caliber middle schools in Manhattan and the Bronx.  As promised, the school has kept in touch with its alumni and will continue to follow their progress through college.  Alumni already have come back to visit the school and are looking forward to their first reunion (scheduled for October 2012). 


Meanwhile, the start of a new school year on Sept. 1 brought a new group of seniors, including students from Harlem Link's first kindergarten class, who enrolled when the school opened in 2005.  While the school's 2010 alumni were the first pupils to graduate from the school, some of this year's seniors will be the first students to go through all of Harlem Link's grades.  They will graduate from college in 2022. 


Awa, a star senior at Harlem LinkMany of the readers of this newsletter met 2010's seniors through the Fifth Grade Friday feature on Harlem Link's Facebook page.  Those students offered social commentary and told of hopes and dreams ranging from ending world poverty as diplomats to saving animals as veterinarians.  This year's seniors are no less dynamic and diverse in their interests.


Among this group is Awa, photo above at left, a three-time Spelling Bee champion at Harlem Link and one of the highest achieving students on standardized exams in the city.  Another original Linkster (and, like Awa, the child of an immigrant family) is Dontay, a star senior at Harlem LinkDontay, pictured at right, who says he lost a bit of focus in fourth grade but is back on track and aiming to receive the high grades he was accustomed to in third grade.  Also getting ready to graduate is Raqelle, below left, who has markedly improved her attendance in the first term of 2010 after struggling with it in some other years.  Raqelle's mother, Contena Davis, says of her young scholar, "She's picking up her work habits, she's catching up, she's on point.  I stay on top her and I'm very proud of her work."


Raqelle, who is making big strides in fifth gradeHarlem Link families and staff members know that, as far as formal education is concerned, the road to college doesn't begin in high school or middle school; it begins in elementary school.   Accordingly, this year Harlem Link is stepping up the emphasis on setting the goals of college enrollment and graduation for its senior class.  Fourth-grade students are assigned continents as group names in their classes; in fifth grade, the groups will be named after U.S. colleges This winter, the school will hold its first College Day, in which friends of Harlem Link will visit and talk about their college experiences with small groups of fifth graders. They will tell how their middle and high school experience prepared them for college, and how their college experience prepared them for their careers.  (If you would like to participate, please contact Steven Evangelista.)  Visits to colleges are planned as well.


Watch out world.  Here come the senior Linksters, ready to do big things!

New Website and Blog Launched

This summer Harlem Link proudly launched a new website that will serve our community by providing information in a clear and interactive way.

Screen shot of our new websiteAfter a competitive bidding process, the school selected Greenstreet Design to provide the design and coding.  Greenstreet custom built a modern-looking website that suits the school's forward-looking vision.  There is now a downloads section that includes the school's Annual Report; a calendar with alerts and updates about school activities and events; and a fully interactive weblog.  All of the Director's Blog columns from earlier issues of Harlem Link ink are archived there.  These blogs address questions of education reform, national and local policy issues and what works in the challenging field of urban education.  In the future, teachers and other school staff members will participate in the discussion.  Tune in for insights into Harlem Link's take on the education reforms that are changing the way America goes to school.


Please visit our site and feel free to provide feedback at

In Closing

In this year of raised expectations across the state, Harlem Link is leading by tightening procedures, demanding excellence from all community members, pushing higher order thinking, and getting ready to transition to the new Common Core standards.

Join us in our movement by visiting our website, visiting our school and signing the petition that has grown out of Waiting for "Superman" at
Director's Blog:
Steroids and Bubbles


The sky is falling!


That's what some observers would have you believe after the scores students around New York State attained in standardized tests plummeted this year. At Harlem Link we do not want to confuse a sense of urgency with a counterproductive panic. We know that only long-term and comprehensive solutions are going to fix the problems that have plagued our schools for generations.


Has the state of our national educational program gotten worse? The problems our schools face have been compounded by globalization, the technology revolution and a rapidly changing world, but let's face facts: Our nation has never provided equitable education, not since compulsory schooling began to take hold in the 19th century. And before then - good luck, unless you were landed, male and white.


Speaking of race, are you worried about a racial achievement gap? (I am.) In my office I have a 1950 issue of Life magazine, on which a white girl graces the cover with the headline "U.S. Schools: They Face a Crisis." Sixty years later, we've had wave after wave of educational reform driven by panic and hyperbolic assessment of this "crisis." 


Life Magazine cover

Reflecting on these facts has helped me put the change in the state test scores this summer in their proper context.  In  sum, New York State Education Department (SED) commissioner David Steiner and Board of Regents chancellor Merryl Tisch acted with a courage and an integrity rare among public officals when they decided to ratchet down scores that had been demonstrably inflated over the past five to 10 years. They noted in a July press conference that the state tests had become increasingly predictable and unchallenging. The announcement included a promise to overhaul the state exams and make them more rigorous in coming years. Moreover, the Regents and SED would be holding all students to a higher standard for tests already taken this year


In recent years, New York City's racial achievement gap had appeared to be steadily closing, at least if you believed the test scores, but overnight that gulf re-appeared in force. Suddenly there were heated reactions in the state educational community about the tests and what they had to say about student achievement. Did anyone really think that things had gotten much better?

The critics were merciless.  Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Institute was quoted in The New York Times the day after the press conference as saying, "The state test is completely unreliable." Aaron Pallas, a Columbia Teachers College professor, said in a Times article the next day, "We just really can't trust the state tests for judging whether the quality of education in New York City has really improved." New York City Mayor Bloomberg appeared ruffled by the sudden drop in scores.  "Everybody can have their definition of what it means," he said. Later, he infamously added: "The last time I checked, Lady Gaga is doing fine with just a year of college."


The furor reached a head at the August meeting of the city Department of Education's Panel for Educational Policy (PEP), during which parents protested the drop in test scores and the previously inflated scores so vociferously, bullhorns and all, that the meeting was shut down early.


My view is that for all the reforms, all the changes ebbing and flowing in curriculum and  assessment of student achievement, all the fads and the gimmicks, things have not changed all that much since the "crisis" of 1950. Proficiency rates on state tests should not be the goal; student independence and success in higher education and in life ought to be the goal.  So I see this drop in test scores as just the popping of another bubble - not unlike the home run bubble created by steroid proliferation in baseball and the stock market bubble created by an unsustainable housing boom. Do these two graphs appear to have anything in common?


 40-home run seasons year by year

Dow Jones closing values year by year

Down, up, down again, WAY up, and then, BUST!  If I were a betting man, I would bet that the New York City proficiency scores on 4th and 8th grade tests, if plotted over time, would show the same pattern. (I have searched the Internet, but this data is demonstrably harder to find than baseball and Dow Jones statistics.)


As with the dreadful state of the economy, panicking in the face of these test scores will get us nowhere. If we are going to have lasting change, we need to ignore fads and focus on what will bring long-term improvement. In the wake of the housing meltdown, hucksters sprung up to "rescue" defaulting homeowners from their crushing debt, only to be prove to be just another bunch of scam artists. There are no quick fixes.  There are no shortcuts. 


In education, we know what works.  School by school, change is possible with a committed group of competent educators focused on a clear and compelling mission, a shared community emphasis on student goals, robust home-school communication and, finally, a clear vision to which everyone subscribes to make those elements come to life. Everything else - all the bells and whistles and promises and panics - is just another manifestation of the crisis thinking that, if obeyed, will send us back into yet another false boom and bust cycle.


-Steven Evangelista

Donors Choose Spotlight 
Kindergarten: Help Us Listen!
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
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.
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