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Commentary By Nicole Gelinas

Graduation Puts Charter School On Map

Education Pre K-12

Harlem's pioneering Class of '05 shows experiment can work

Gotham's first generation of charter school kids is on its way to middle school. Seventy-three kids who entered one of the city's first charter schools, Sisulu-Walker Charter School of Harlem, as kindergartners in 1999 left as newly minted fifth-grade graduates last month. The kids have done quite well, as Principal Norma Figueroa-Hurwitz reminded cheering parents, grandparents, siblings and friends during the graduation ceremony.

A full 90% could read at or above grade level. Only 69% of the fifth-graders who attended the regular public schools citywide did as well. In math, 77% of Sisulu-Walker's kids scored well, compared with 54% of regular public-school kids.

Sisulu chose its kindergartners through a lottery. Nearly 90% of the kids are poor; many would have attended failing local schools. Why did they outperform their neighbors? Just listen to their 'cheers. Their teachers got standing ovations, but the fifth-graders also expressed gratitude to their principal and the education entrepreneurs who took a chance on them. Sisulu's teachers and principal are accountable to a board of directors, which contracts with Victory Schools Inc. It was started by Steve Klinsky, a veteran of Goldman Sachs (and a City Journal publication committee member), to attract talent that might otherwise have gone into banking or law.

Sisulu, like any city charter school, must live or die by its performance. Some schools have done poorly — the state has already closed the other charter school that opened in 1999. Does this mean New York's first two charter schools already have a 50% failure rate? No. The system worked. The state held a failing school accountable and shut it down. How often does that happen with traditional public schools?

Sisulu's managers, teachers and parents know they must make do with what they've got: They don't waste time agitating about class size, for example, as Gotham's teachers union does. "Smaller classes would be nice, but you do with what you can," said one administrator.

Several students are on their way to New York's best traditional middle schools, where they'll challenge their fellow students — and their teachers — to perform. They'll challenge, too, the Department of Education, which must now ensure their continued success.