NEW YORK DAILY NEWS (March 29, 2014) BY ERICA PEARSON, CAITLIN NOLAN, BEN CHAPMAN

While some charter schools perform no better than district-run schools on state exams, there are those charters that outperform their peers and defy expectations. The Daily News visited three such schools — Leadership Prep Ocean Hill Charter School, Icahn 2 Charter School and South Bronx Classical Charter School — to learn the secrets of their success.

The best city charter schools have long been seen as laboratories of educational innovation, where teachers can test cutting-edge theories and practices in their classrooms without constraint.

Many of the publicly funded, privately run schools are located in underserved neighborhoods, but operate free from the regulations of city bureaucracy and rules imposed by negotiated labor contracts.

But for all that freedom, many charter schools perform no better than district-run schools on state reading and math exams, the most important annual measures of student progress the state has to offer.

In 2013, students at charter schools passed math exams at a higher rate than district schools, with 35% passing in charters versus 30% in traditional public schools. But they performed slightly worse in reading, with 24% passing in charters versus 26% in traditional public schools.

“The range of charter schools runs the gamut,” said New York City Charter School Center CEO James Merriman. “Some are beating the odds and with incredible results and others, frankly, are underperforming.”

In other words, even though charters have fewer entanglements with the city and the unions, their relative autonomy is important, but it’s no guarantee of success.

With state tests for 2014 kicking off on Tuesday, it’s a good time to consider which charter schools are the true innovators that outperform the peers and defy expectations.

The Daily News recently visited three such schools. Here’s a look at what makes them work:

Leadership Prep Ocean Hill School

Located in Brownsville, Brooklyn, Leadership Prep Ocean Hill Charter School is situated in a neighborhood that’s better known for a high murder rate than it is for good schools and academic achievement.

But the small K-4 school that opened in 2010 has managed to post extraordinary passing rates on state reading and math tests in 2013 that are twice the city’s average.
Principal Nikki Bridges, a former public school teacher and Harvard grad, said the results are thanks to long hours of hard work, a focus on real-time coaching of teachers and a meticulous use of data to track student achievement and target resources where they’re needed.

“There’s deep potential, huge potential in Brownsville,” said Bridges, the school’s founding principal. “Our job is to show what’s possible, to provide consistent structure and joy.”

Leadership Prep Ocean Hill Charter School is part of the Uncommon Schools network of free, public charter schools in Boston, Newark, Brooklyn, Rochester, NY, and Troy, NY.

The chain, led by CEO Brett Peiser, a former Brooklyn high school teacher, operates 20 schools in Brooklyn that enroll nearly 5,000 kids in grades K-12.

Ocean Hill operates with an extended school day running from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays and until 1:30 p.m. on Fridays. The school also has an extended instructional year, beginning in late August and finishing up toward the end of June. That’s about two or three weeks longer than district schools.

Teachers use an ongoing cycle of tests in the classroom to measure students’ understanding of material and target tutoring and extra attention on students who need it.

“Everything we do is informed by data,” Bridges said.

The long days and tests are hard work for students, but kids such as fourth-grader Kerron Stephens say they enjoy the interesting classwork.

“I like this school and I find it to be satisfying,” said Kerron of his small-group reading lessons. “I’ve learned a lot of things here.”

Icahn 2 Charter School

Icahn 2 Charter School in the Bronx posted some of the top reading and math scores of any charter school in the city in 2013, a fact staffers attribute to small class sizes and close attention to individual kids.

The school opened in 2007, the second in a network of seven charter schools affiliated with Foundation for a Greater Opportunity, a charity funded by billionaire business tycoon Carl Icahn.

Icahn charter schools were some of the first in the city to open, and their model is based on the Tennessee Class-Size Study’s findings that small classes in the early grades have long-lasting benefits.

At Icahn 2, class sizes are limited 18 students, compared to 25 or 30 in district schools. To bolster the feeling of intimacy, teachers at the K-8 schools employ the Socratic method of teaching, where students and teachers ask questions and discuss problems together.

“Children are engaged. It’s not just about gaining the knowledge, but understanding it,” said Principal Brenda Carrasquilla. “You’re thinking about thinking, giving value to the children’s opinions.”

Starting in kindergarten, the school uses what Carrasquilla calls an integrated approach to test taking, burying lessons that apply to state exams into normal classroom instruction.

The technique helps teachers avoid giving too many drills and memorization exercises in class. Besides the core subject of math and reading, all kids at Icahn 2 take classical literature classes and drama.

“This helps them with confidence, to lose their fear,” Carrasquilla said.

Eighth grader Errol Phillips, 13, said the small classes and blended curriculum keep him interested in learning. “Here, they make us feel like we’re part of a family,” he added. “Teachers always are willing to give extra help and stay after school.”

South Bronx Classical Charter School

The “classical” in South Bronx Classical Charter School is more than just an adjective — it’s part of the K-6 facility’s philosophy.

Students, whom staffers call “scholars,” learn Latin every day starting in third grade, and study debate starting in fourth grade.

“The elite schools offer Latin, and why can’t we too?” asked charter executive director Lester Long. “So many English words are Latin-derived… we find it particularly advantages our Spanish-speaking population.”

The Hunts Point school opened in 2006 and shares a large building — with a metal detector at the entrance — with two district-run middle schools.

In the hallway, a bulletin board highlights the school’s focus on character education, which aims to give students a thorough understanding of six character “pillars” — “caring, fairness, respect, citizenship, trustworthiness and responsibility.” Students get an hour of character education every week.

They use a lottery system for admissions, and for next year the school has about 1,400 applications for 80 slots, Long said.

He described the school’s data-driven philosophy inside a conference room dubbed “The War Room,” with charts — tracking things like each student’s reading comprehension growth, the tardy rate, and suspensions and detentions per kid per day — plastered along the walls.

Class sizes average about 18 to 20 students, Long said, and each grade has an extra teacher — a learning specialist, who tutors and gives special instruction to kids who need it throughout the day.

They’re also very strict — requiring kids to sit in the “scholar position,” sitting up straight with hands folded in front of them on their desk, legs under the desk and eyes always on the person talking.

It’s silent in the hallways, even during the day’s dismissal — kids quietly and quickly file in orderly rows of two. Structure is important, Long believes.

“We sweat the small stuff, like many high-performing charter schools,” Long said. “You won’t see in this school kids running around and smiling and laughing. But you will see a smile of safety, and the joy of accomplishment. They’re not worried about getting into a fight at lunch — we’ve never had a fight.”

Sixth graders who have attended the school since kindergarten say they’re used to the long hours and the rigid rules.

“I was a little bit surprised that we had to wear a tie in kindergarten,” said Christian Tovar, 11, who wants to become a lawyer someday. “I think it’s really nice. It’s different from other schools.”