Innovate Manhattan Charter School

Phone: (212) 432-4310
Website: Click here
Admissions: District 1
Wheelchair accessible
Principal: David Penberg
Neighborhood: Lower Manhattan
District: 1
Grade range: 06 thru 08

What's special:

Students have freedom to work at their own pace

The downside:

Serious staffing and leadership problems

The InsideStats


Our review

Innovate Manhattan has a pretty building, lots of computers and kids who enjoy the freedom the school gives them. But it has serious staffing and organizational problems that need to be resolved if it is to become successful.

The school, opened in 2011, had three principals its first year. A scandal erupted after it hired a convicted drug dealer as a school aide and a science teacher who had been fired from another school for making sexually suggestive comments to a student. (Both have since been fired and, at the time of our visit, the principal said the school's hiring practices are under review.) Over half the staff left the first year. Students said bullying and fighting were common and parents said they mistrusted the administration, according to the Learning Environment Survey. Students performed very poorly on state reading and math tests in the spring of 2012.

“Last year was a challenge,” the 2012-13 school leader, Gayla Thompson, acknowledged when she gave us a tour as the school began its second year. Thompson was optimistic that the school would have fewer discipline problems now that it has moved to a bright-colored new space from the Department of Education headquarters in the basement of the Tweed Courthouse. On our visit kids seemed mostly engaged and the atmosphere was orderly.

The school went through a fourth, fifth and sixth leadership change in fall and winter of 2013: Thompson left after the 2012-13 school year and was replaced by Simmi Bindra; Bindra stepped down in October and Peg Hoey, who runs the US division of the school's parent organization -- the Swedish for-profit company Kunskapsskolan -- was acting principal; in late December, 2013, Dr. David Penberg, an educational consultant, became principal. 

Innovate Manhattan is an experimental charter school where children set their own goals and work at their own pace, either in a large open space or a conventional classroom. Each child has a locker and iPods, iPads and Kindles are encouraged, as is listening to music on headphones. A child may work individually on a computer, solve math problems with a group of other children, or learn in a more traditional class from a teacher.

Innovate is the first American school based on the KED program developed by Kunskapsskolan (roughly translated as “knowledge schools”) that operates 33 schools in Sweden and three in the UK that promote a personalized approach to students achievement. (Innovate was the last school to be authorized by SUNY under the expired charter school law, which allowed for-profit company involvement in charter schools. Innovate operates as a not-for-profit in the United States, but it has Kunskapsskolan as a management company.)

The 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. school day includes core subjects – ELA, math and social studies – in small classes and about an hour and half of unstructured time (to complete projects at their own pace), along with a weekly rotation of art, music and physical activity. Teachers serve as "coaches" for about 15 students, helping them plan their schedules and set personal goals.

Thompson says students may choose how to best use their time; they may listen to music, draw, or take a walk around the school’s sun-lit circular space. The unstructured time may appear disorganized, with children scattered about the open space working individually or in small groups, but teachers say students understand their routines and deadlines.

The only downside to the new space is that it lacks a gymnasium or outdoor playground. Thompson says students have physical education a few times a week in a room that doubles as a cafeteria at lunchtime and a learning space at other times.

Special education: Innovate had two certified special education teachers at the time of our visit. One quarter of the students receive special education services. It is wheelchair accessible.

Admissions: By lottery, preference to District 1. The school accepted students from all five boroughs in its first year. (Anna Schneider, September 2012. Updated January 2014.)


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