Don Pesci: An education flower blooms in New Haven


Some teachers and school administrators wait an entire lifetime to receive the kind of accolades liberally bestowed by Kaylani Rosado on the Amistad Academy, in New Haven, the mother-school of Achievement First, a network of 32 public charter schools in Connecticut, New York and Rhode Island serving students in grades K-12.

“Too many people,” Ms. Rosado writes, “lower the bar of expectations for students like me. They accept substandard work and objectionable behavior because, deep down, they don't think we can do it, or worse, they believe we aren't worthy of the effort needed to prepare us for college and life. I benefited from a higher bar of expectation from the adults my family entrusted with my education.”

From its very first year, Amistad Academy has shown its students how they might best lift themselves up by their own bootstraps, and the school was and remains the fairest pedagogical flower in Connecticut. – so much so that it has sent out roots far and wide.

We know that the unemployment rate, particularly ruinous in cities, increases in direct proportion to the level of education. A recent presentation sponsored by the Yankee Institute featuring Dacia Toll, co-CEO of Achievement First charter schools and the co-founder of Amistad Academy, vividly underscores the importance of strong schools, particularly in inner cities.

Consider: The unemployment rate among students with less than a high school education is 11 percent -- but only 2 percent among those who have acquired more than a high school degree; 100 percent of the students enrolled in an Achievement First public charter school will gain acceptance to a college or university; 97 percent will matriculate; 50 percent are projected to graduate from college. This last figure may seem slight to some, but in fact the percentage is larger than that of college graduates who had attended school at some of Connecticut's most prestigious and successful high schools. 

A number of factors have contributed to the success of Achievement First schools. Most important, according to Ms. Toll, are highly energized teachers, strong success-affirming principals and superintendents invested with the authority to shape a winning staff – though Achievement First is extremely reluctant to let go of any of its teachers, much preferring remediation -- and a team of educators willing to take seriously the advice of the late 19th Century Chancellor Otto von Bismarck: “Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.”

It may be a sign of the times that the near miraculous success of the Achievement First paradigm is not more widely replicated. Ms. Toll, a pedagogue on fire, devoted some of her presentation to batting away common misassumptions: No, Achievement First does not skim the crème de la crème of students from the public education system. Access to Achievement First schools is non-discriminatory and much the same as that of public schools; in fact, charter schools are public schools, with one important financing difference. In Connecticut – but significantly not in New York and Rhode Island – state financing is set about 17 percent lower than public-school financing. And that is why Achievement First will not in the future be expanding in Connecticut. This underfunding was hard-wired into the legislation that launched charter schools, and might be corrected were it not for…

But let Ms. Rosado tell the story: “I am continually astounded by the attacks on schools like Amistad and on students like me. What I find most disheartening, and frankly offensive, in all of the conversations about charter schools, and, specifically, Achievement First, is the opposition and outright dismissal of real results…  Charter schools have a target on their backs because they unapologetically do what is in the best interest of children. I believe that says more about our country than it does about organizations like Achievement First. When you disrupt the status quo and produce excellence and equity in a country built on the oppression of others, powerful people who rely on the status quo become threatened. While many jump to publicly bash charters, very few make it a point to speak to those of us who have experienced them. Attending an Achievement First school was the difference between surviving and thriving for me, I will never deny that fact because it makes other people feel uncomfortable.”

In an inner-city public school system in which failure is tolerated – inadequate education in such failing schools has been accommodated for the last half century -- any success that threatens the status quo must be resisted: Your success calls attention to my failure. When the last Catholic school in Hartford closed this year, those in Hartford who might have saved such successful schools by instituting a system in which dollars that finance education follow the student breathed a huge sigh of relief. Pedagogical failure can only succeed by the elimination of one’s successful competitors – and THIS is what the under-financing of successful pedagogical enterprises such as the Achievement First network accomplishes.

That under-financing was hardwired into contractual statutes that established charter schools in Connecticut, virtually assuring financial failure, and the doom can only be undone through a change in statutory law. Unless Connecticut adopts a system of school financing in which money follows the child, the pedagogical success of Achievement First will continue to leach from Connecticut to New York and Rhode Island.

Don Pesci, of Vernon, Conn., writes columns on politics and society.