WORK WITH PARENTS & THE COMMUNITY
K–8 Charter Schools: Closing the Achievement Gap
Innovations in Education
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Amistad Academy, New Haven, Conn.

School Profile: Selected Variables a

Year First Chartered1999
Grades ServedK, 5–9
Enrollment 405
Student Ethnicity b 61% African-American, 31% Hispanic, 2% White
Special Education Less than 5%
Free or Reduced-price Lunch b 84%
Annual Cost per Student$11,000

a Unless otherwise indicated, these data are reported by the school and are for the school year 2006–07.
b These data are drawn from the Amistad Academy school report card for 2005–06 posted on Connecticut State Department of Education Web site.

Mission and Founding

In 1998, a group of Yale law students began studying urban education issues and became inspired by civil rights leader and mathematics educator Bob Moses, who views the realms of civil rights and mathematics education as intertwined: "The absence of mathematics literacy in urban and rural communities throughout this country is an issue as urgent as the lack of registered black voters in Mississippi was in 1961."21 Inspired by Moses’ words and work, the Yale students concluded that closing the achievement gap is the civil rights issue of today. In exploring how they could help to close achievement gaps in Connecticut, they decided that the most powerful way would be to open a public charter school to prove that urban students can achieve at extraordinarily high levels. Critics told them it could not be done and certainly not without the expertise of a veteran principal. Others cautioned against starting a middle school, advising that it is the hardest nut to crack. But a few visionary leaders offered hope and said they would support the idea.

Led by the two Yale law students, Dacia Toll, a former teacher and Rhodes scholar, and Stefan Pryor, a former New Haven City alderman and policy advisor to the mayor, a 32-member team worked for 18 months to plan the school. On the planning team were teachers, parents, philanthropists, bankers, lawyers, government leaders, foundation and university representatives, and six additional Yale law students.

Charles Terrell, chief executive officer of New Haven Savings Bank, helped to galvanize the business community and worked to get the school financing. Carroll Stevens of Yale Law School and Rod Lane of Southern Connecticut State University provided needed support from connecting Amistad with potential donors to helping to recruit teachers and serving as resources developing the education program. Local leaders and philanthropists offered financial and strategic support, as did the New Haven County Bar Association and the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce. The approval process was challenging because, while this charter school application was ranked number one in the state’s charter approval process (i.e., it would have been the first school to receive a charter), at the time there was no funding for new charter schools. Applicants were forced to appeal to members of the Connecticut General Assembly to get the necessary funding. They did so successfully.

The doors of Amistad Academy opened in 1999 to serve New Haven middle school students in grades 5–8. The school started with 84 fifth- and sixth-graders and subsequently expanded to 270 students. The school is named after the schooner La Amistad, which became a symbol in the abolition movement after 53 West African captives on the ship staged a rebellion in 1839. A replica of the ship is based in the New Haven harbor.

In its first five years, the school received a deluge of applications—eight for every available seat. "I didn’t like having to explain to parents that getting a good education was based on luck in the lottery," says Toll, who served as Amistad’s first principal. In 2003, as it became clear that more seats were needed to meet the demand, Amistad’s school leaders formed a separate nonprofit, Achievement First (see the box on p. 51, Replicating Amistad’s Successes: The Role of Achievement First, A Charter Management Organization), which replicated the Amistad Academy model and established Elm City Preparatory School in New Haven, a K–8 school. The nonprofit later launched several additional schools in Brooklyn, N.Y. Toll subsequently gave up the principalship to become president and CEO of Achievement First. In what was reportedly a smooth transition, seasoned Amistad teacher Matthew Taylor stepped in to replace her as principal.

Amistad Academy’s mission is three-fold: academic excellence, public citizenship, and public school reform. The school seeks to educate students so they will graduate prepared for successfully tackling academic challenges in high school, college, and beyond. The school also works to foster responsibility among students so that they take care of themselves, their school, and their community according to REACH values (i.e., respect, enthusiasm, achievement, citizenship, and hard work). Doug McCurry, the superintendent of Achievement First schools, explains that the mission is to "change the life options of kids so they can succeed in college and life. It’s not about raising [scores] from the 20th percentile to the 35th. That’s still poor. We want dramatic gains, in academics and in character."

The school’s mission is embedded in many of its daily routines. A daily, student-run morning circle at which the whole school gathers is an opportunity to publicly recognize students for good work and positive citizenship. On a monthly basis, students complete a REACH rubric, rating themselves on the five REACH values. Upon teacher corroboration of their self-assessment, students can earn awards and privileges, such as invitation to a formal breakfast at the end of the school year. Within the school, staff take care to "sweat the small stuff," with the intent of preventing small issues from escalating into larger problems. Likewise, teachers use timers to keep classes on task and ensure that no time is wasted. Administrators demonstrate their commitment to academic excellence by teaching classes, and parents are asked to affirm their own devotion to Amistad’s goals by signing a contract pledging support of their children and the school.

School Operations and Educational Program

"Rigorous" and "relentless" are two words that staff, parents, and community members frequently use to describe this school’s academic and behavioral environment. Expectations are clearly communicated, verbally and visually, to students. Within the clean and bright school, hallways are decorated with art, college pennants, inspirational phrases, and signed parent contracts. Bulletin boards draw attention to famous Latinos and African-Americans who can serve as role models to the 95 percent Latino and African-American student body. Amistad demonstrates its commitment to all of its students by providing free lunch to everyone, not just the 84 percent who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

A large "Commitment to Excellence" poster hangs on the wall of every classroom. The poster begins with a preamble that states, "I have the power to create a great life for myself. I have high standards and always behave in a way that brings me closer to my goals of success in high school, college, and life. I follow the rules to keep my community safe and strong. To achieve my goals, I will follow the REACH values. … " Beneath this opening, the five REACH values are listed with specific methods of achieving them. For example, under Respect, one of the instructions is "Treat Teachers Like PLATINUM: My teachers care about me and my family. I never talk back, roll my eyes, or suck my teeth. My teachers are here to help me be my best, so I treat them with TOTAL RESPECT." The focus on helping these middle school students aspire to college appears twice within this pledge. For example, under Enthusiasm are the words"Bring an A+ Attitude: I’m excited to climb the mountain to college. I always bring a positive attitude. I never whine, pout, or act out when things don’t go my way."

Just as the classroom poster is explicit about behavioral expectations, so, too, are Amistad staff honest with students about their achievement. They talk to students directly about their level of performance in order to inculcate a sense of urgency regarding achievement. "We’re up front with them," says dean of students William Johnson. "We tell them, ‘You are behind.’ We congratulate them when they do well, but not when they’re behind." This attitude feeds into school policy. For example, if students get in trouble and are removed from class for breaking rules, they cannot avoid schoolwork. They must make up any missed work.

Amistad Academy prides itself on using data to inform teaching and learning. All Amistad students are selected by a blind lottery run by the New Haven Public Schools; as a result, there is no "creaming," that is, taking only higher-performing students. On average, Amistad’s incoming fifth-graders test two years below grade level in reading and mathematics. Every six weeks, the school conducts interim assessments based on, but more rigorous than, the Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT), to evaluate student progress and identify areas in need of improvement. Using these data help Amistad staff teach for mastery because they can find out whether or not students understand underlying concepts and, if not, refine their teaching accordingly. Sue Harmon, Amistad’s academic dean, brags that all Amistad teachers are excellent but says that she assigns the "best of the excellent" to teach struggling students in small groups. This staffing decision differentiates Amistad from many public schools where the least experienced or prepared teachers frequently are assigned to the most challenging students. Amistad also has a group of teachers known as the "Whatever It Takes" team that provides intensive help for struggling readers. "The goal," says Toll, "is to close the achievement gap with the wealthiest districts." This takes "audacity and focus," she adds. Amistad offers before- and after-school tutoring for struggling students, as well as Saturday classes and a three-week summer school.

From Monday to Thursday, Amistad students attend school from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., a school day that is an hour and a half longer than that of typical public schools. On Fridays, students start at 7:30 a.m. but are dismissed at 1 p.m., giving teachers time to plan together and engage in professional development. During the nine-and-a-half-hour school day, students spend three and a half hours on reading and writing; after school, all students have homework assignments that include independent reading. In all of their work, the emphasis is on conceptual learning. "We teach for mastery, not for coverage," says Harmon.

Amistad uses an unconventional form of tracking to push students forward: staff divide students into four academic groups and differentiate teaching and support to ensure that members of each group get what they need to succeed. Unlike in traditional tracking where low performers get less attention and low expectations, Amistad teachers expect all students to work to their capacity and constantly push all students in all groups to do better. Some fifth-graders enter performing at a kindergarten or first-grade level. That group gets the best teachers, those described by Harmon as being "experts at moving kids forward."

With the exception of the Reading Mastery program for the poorest readers, Amistad does not use packaged curricula and, instead, develops its own standards-based and rigorously taught curriculum. Director of Curriculum Development Kathleen Porter-Magee describes the Amistad curriculum as "state standards plus." For the past two years, Amistad has focused on science and mathematics, and it is currently going through what one staff member calls "writing revolution." Upon opening, the school’s writing curriculum centered on expository and persuasive writing; now it is broadening to include personal narratives, poetry, research pa53 pers, compare-and-contrast analyses, and literary analysis essays.

Members of the school management team, including the principal and academic dean, teach classes. Harmon says that as an instructional leader, she loves being in the classroom because it shows her what teachers need to do in order to be successful with Amistad students. One tool employed in every classroom is using a timer to keep students on task and push them to be productive. In a low-level reading class, for example, a teacher eyed a student who had been dragging his feet and said, "You’ve been picking through those books for 12 minutes." She then selected a book and offered it to the student, telling him that he would "love it." This teacher also demonstrated her ability to push and compliment lagging and ambitious students, alike. To a student who picked out the slimmest book available, she said, "You won’t read anything over 100 pages. That’s a wimpy way out of things. Challenge yourself. I’m not asking you to read a 700-page book. At least get to a 200-page book." To another student who selected the 352-page biography of Medgar Evers, she offered accolades: "I’m very proud of you. That’s a tough book."

Amistad teachers are attuned to habits and changes among individual students, but are also responsive to the class as a whole. In one mathematics class, a teacher asked the students to individually complete a timed mathematics exercise and then swap papers with a partner to check answers and explain the problem-solving techniques used. When she saw how lethargic students were in working together, she stopped the class, told everyone to stand up, and said, "You need a warm-up." She then engaged them in a game in which she calls out types of angles (e.g., right, left, acute) that students have to form with their arms. Students who miss the angle sit down, and the teacher gives instructions faster and faster until there is one student left standing. At the end of the game, everyone was energized.

Family Involvement and External Partnerships

Parents, students, and school staff sign a contract that outlines their shared commitment to hard work and consistent support of one another. In addition, Amistad staff members meet with new families over the summer to ensure they understand the school’s expectations. The school also communicates regularly with parents throughout the year. Every Monday, students bring home a "scholar dollar paycheck." Scholar dollars are points earned through good attendance, good work, and good behavior; they can be used for such things as pizza lunches and fun after-school activities one Friday a month. The paycheck provides detailed information about a student’s attendance, work, and behavior.

Every Wednesday, parents receive a more general school update with information about schedules and upcoming events. Parents are required to sign the monthly REACH rubrics that students and teachers complete, as well as to attend a progress report conference every trimester.

Parents appreciate the effort the school makes to involve them. One parent says, "The school is open and they welcome you anytime. They value parent input. Every time I’ve raised an issue, it’s been addressed." Amistad gives parents various opportunities to be directly involved in school leadership, in such ways as participating on the Parent Leader Council or as the parent member of the board of directors. They also encourage parents to be involved with the classroom, in such ways as chaperoning field trips. One of the school’s newest parent-school activities is the Big Job Seminar at which the entire school staff and parents gather three times a year to discuss parenting challenges and to offer one another advice and support. According to the parent satisfaction survey completed at the end of the 2005–06 school year, 97 percent of parents gave Amistad an A or A+. One parent commented, "This is a good institution. They stress the importance of education. They have high standards and push people toward those standards. … It should be a model everywhere. Every child deserves what they have here at Amistad."

Within the community, Amistad has maintained the close relationship its founders had to Yale University and the surrounding area. The volunteer tutor program, for example, draws over 30 volunteers from Yale, local churches, and businesses.

Governing for Accountability

The state of Connecticut authorizes Amistad’s charter, which is, in turn, overseen by a 19-member board of directors. The board includes representatives from the business, legal, philanthropic, and education worlds. Two teachers and a parent also have spots on the board, which meets about five times a year. Amistad’s board of directors works in partnership with Achievement First to provide support, oversight, and leadership to the school.

The Amistad management team consists of the principal, the academic dean, and the dean of students. Since 1999, the school has had only two principals, Toll and, now, Matthew Taylor. Teacher recruitment plays a large role in Amistad’s success. There are two full-time staff dedicated to recruiting teachers for Achievement First’s New Haven schools. When hiring teachers, Amistad looks for those with a strong commitment to closing the achievement gap, interest in being in an urban school, comfort with data-driven decision-making, receptiveness to feedback, and dedication to working as part of a team. The hiring process includes an extensive written application, phone interviews, school visits, guest teaching, and a debriefing to gauge how well the candidate receives feedback. "We put them through the ringer to make sure we find the right people," says recruiter Carla Seeger. Toll also notes that she hires "for attitude as opposed to experience. With the right attitude, we can teach them how to teach."

Amistad utilizes ongoing professional development to advance its teachers’ skills. Frequent classroom observations, combined with twice yearly comprehensive evaluations, yield feedback for teachers, who, in exchange for working longer days, earn about 10 percent more than those in other public schools in the area. Teachers also are eligible for a $1,500 attendance bonus if they are present every day and a prorated amount based on the number of missed days.

The state provides about $8,000 of the $11,000 Amistad spends per student. To fill the gap, Amistad uses a combination of categorical federal funding (e.g., Title I, special education), government grants, and philanthropic gifts. The Achievement First development office helps raise money, and the school has successfully petitioned the state to increase charter school allocations.

Student Achievement at Amistad Academy

  • Based on Amistad Academy’s successes, the Connecticut State Department of Education selected the school as one of the first four Connecticut Vanguard School Award winners, which gave the instructional leadership group a chance to mentor the staff of a nearby middle school.
  • Amistad Academy was named Connecticut’s 2006 Title I Distinguished School for showing the greatest academic performance gains of any school in the state.
  • As shown in tables 2 and 3, Amistad Academy sixth-graders in the classes of 2004, 2005, and 2006 consistently tested ahead of students at the district level, but behind those at the state level, in reading and mathematics on the Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT). Yet, when tested again in eighth grade, the 2004, 2005, and 2006 Amistad Academy cohorts exceeded the district and state in reading and mathematics.
Table 2. Percentage of Amistad Students Scoring Proficient or Above on CMT Reading
Class of 2004 in 6th Grade Class of 2004 in 8th Grade Class of 2005 in 6th Grade Class of 2005 in 8th Grade Class of 2006 in 6th Grade Class of 2006 in 8th Grade
Amistad Academy 37 80 46 69 33 68
New Haven Public Schools 25 31 27 33 29 35
State (Conn.) 64 67 64 65 62 67

Source: Connecticut State Department of Education, Strategic School Profile 2005-06

Table 3. Percentage of Amistad Students Scoring Proficient or Above on CMT Mathematics
Class of 2004 in 6th Grade Class of 2004 in 8th Grade Class of 2005 in 6th Grade Class of 2005 in 8th Grade Class of 2006 in 6th Grade Class of 2006 in 8th Grade
Amistad Academy 35 75 43 62 41 69
New Haven Public Schools 24 19 29 22 28 28
State (Conn.) 61 56 61 56 62 58

Source: Connecticut State Department of Education, Strategic School Profile 2005-06

Replicating Amistad’s Successes: The Role of Achievement First, A Charter Management Organization

In Amistad’s fourth year, the leaders and board began carefully planning a way to maintain excellence at Amistad while building a new school reform effort. In June 2003, Amistad’s leaders created a separate 501(c)3 nonprofit, Achievement First, with the mission of bringing Amistad’s model and best practices to scale by creating a network of high-performing public charter schools to effect dramatic student achievement gains in low-performing urban districts. Their goal was to create a replicable system that can generate positive educational opportunities and outcomes for thousands of urban students by sharing effective practices and growing a network of high-performing charter schools in New York and Connecticut.

As a charter management organization (CMO), Achievement First provides a range of organizational and institutional supports for its member schools. The support it offers network schools is extensive, including but not limited to, developing curriculum; creating a technology-based interim assessment system; providing monthly budget reports for each school; purchasing staff benefits and insurance; fund-raising; providing access to audit and legal services; recruiting teachers and school leaders, providing a two-year sequence of professional development opportunities for all teachers and leadership training for all prospective principals; conducting principal evaluations twice a year and an intensive school inspection once every two years; and coordinating special services, such as food service, maintenance and custodial service, and transportation. Achievement First also handles marketing to potential parents, students, and teachers, and manages the student lottery and enrollment process for its network schools.

As a network, Achievement First can leverage resources to provide high-quality systems for which individual schools might not have the resources on their own. By providing these services, Achievement First frees the principal to focus on instructional leadership and ensuring high-quality school programs. For example, Achievement First does all of the fund-raising, so that principals do not have to engage in such time-consuming activities. While the local school site pays the salary for each school site’s director of operations, Achievement First manages this staff member, providing training and oversight. All teachers and administrators from Achievement First schools come together two days a year for focused seminars, professional development, and exchange of best practices with colleagues.


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Last Modified: 11/17/2009