The Democracy Prep charter schools in Harlem will more than double their current enrollment of 2,000 students over the next five years, thanks to a $9.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education announced last month. The department gave another $10.3 million to the nationwide network of KIPP charter schools, four of them in Harlem and two in Washington Heights.
Democracy Prep plans to open 15 new charter schools, most in Harlem, bringing its student population to about 5,000.
“We’re excited about the grant,” said Steven Cunning, Democracy Prep’s external affairs manager. “There are thousands of kids on the waiting list, and this brings them one step closer to getting off it.”
The KIPP network of 125 schools, dividing its grant among the 20 states in which it operates, will add two more schools in New York City by 2015 but has not yet decided where they will be, said Director of Public Affairs Steve Mancini said.
KIPP, which enrolls 39,000 students across the country, will use the grant to increase its start-up schools, which begin with one grade and add more as students grow older. Such schools need funds “to get off the ground until they can become sustainable on public funds,” said Mancini.
The KIPP Washington Heights middle school, which opened this year, will add more grades by 2015, for example, increasing its enrollment from the current 90 to 360.
“We’re grateful that the Department of Education and the Obama administration have given us this grant and the tools to educate a lot more students and open more doors of opportunity,” Mancini said.
The federal Department of Education’s budget totals about $68 billion, including Pell grants, covering nearly 16,000 school districts and 49 million students nationally. To date, 98,000 public schools have received funding, according to its 2013 budget request.
Democracy Prep had applied for the grant in the past, but wasn’t successful. Then a few months ago, administrators received an email from Congressman Charles Rangel’s office asking for certain documents.
“KIPP is like the grandfather of charter schools,” said Democracy Prep Chief Operating Officer Katie Duffy. “Seeing our name in print next to KIPP, who’s been working for 10 years longer than we have, was a real validation for what our teachers and our scholars do every day.”
The first Democracy Prep school, Democracy Prep Charter School, opened in August 2006 at 2230 Fifth Avenue in central Harlem. It was a middle school, but in 2009 founder Seth Andrew opened a high school for its graduating eighth-graders. The network now has six schools, but next year will add elementary and high schools in Harlem, as well as New Jersey.
Democracy Prep houses two of its schools in private buildings at the moment, but co-location – sharing space with another school, often a traditional public school – usually represents a better option, Duffy said. It costs $1 million every year to maintain a private space for a school.
“We’re not messing with private spaces,” Duffy said. “I believe these are public schools and public school kids, and they have every right to take advantage of the facilities New York has provided for them.”
In September, the Bloomberg administration listed 36 schools that could be closed if they don’t improve. The Panel for Education Policy eventually reduced the list to 24 schoolspart of the latest attempt by the Bloomberg administration to phase out struggling large schools and replace them with smaller schools.
Of the four threatened schools in Manhattan, three are in Harlem: J.H.S. 013 Jackie Robinson, M.S. 45/S.T.A.R.S. Academy and P.S. 133 Fred R. Moore. The fourth, P.S. 32 Juan Pablo Duarte, is not far away in Washington Heights.
“It’s like looking through the obits in a newspaper,” Duffy said. “I always feel guilty looking for schools on the verge of collapse, but ultimately we need to look for schools that may need us.”
But Democracy Prep has made no solid plans to take over one of these schools as part of its expansion, said Duffy.
Part of Democracy Prep’s mission is to train future school leaders through its Leader U fellowship. This fall Margaret Marrer, a Leader U fellow, became its first graduate to open a school, Democracy Prep Endurance on West 127th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue.
“We aim to train one leader at a time for one new school,” Duffy said. “This grant will help us with our need for more leaders in the pipeline.”
Duffy described the awe she felt when she first visited ten students who had been accepted through the lottery to a Democracy Prep school.
“I didn’t know what was possible until I saw how, in some of the worst school halls I have ever seen, kids could still be serious about their schoolwork and getting into college,” she said.
KIPP schools also aim to send students to college and keep them there, beginning with a school environment that Mancini described as “demanding but warm.”
Though charter schools date to the early 1990s, they’re still subject to criticism by those skeptical that they do a better job than traditional public schools. Charter schools receive public funding, but aren’t subject to the same rules and regulations as public schools. Families can choose to send their children to charters, which often admit students through lotteries.
“High-quality charter schools across the country are making tremendous differences in our children’s lives, particularly children from low-income families,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement in September. “These grants will provide high-quality K-12 educational opportunities to students, preparing them for success in college and careers.”
In 2009, however, a study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes reported that only 17 per cent of charter schools performed better academically than traditional public schools.
Harvard economist Caroline Hoxby, a critic of charter schools, further argued that this advantage was found only ”among white non-Hispanics, males, and students who have a parent with at least a high school diploma.”
Charter schools also generally receive more funding than traditional public schools, although advocates argue that they have limited access to funds allocated through districts.
KIPP in particular spends less per pupil – around $14,000 to $15,000 – than most public schools in New York, Mancini said. In 2010, New York spent $18,618 per pupil, according to the Census Bureau.
Duffy argues that “what is passing for education” in some public schools is “criminal.”
“We don’t think we know everything about running schools, but we believe in one per cent solutions in tackling the problems at urban schools,” she said. “And we’re doing it bit by bit, piece by piece.”