Icahn Charter School
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Creative lessons and a good track record
Long school day may not be for everyone
The Icahn Charter School, opened in 2001 with the support of billionaire financier Carl Icahn, has energetic teachers and hard-working children. The days are long, from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and run into July. Children who need extra help spend Saturday mornings at the school. Classes have only 18 students, much smaller than a typical public school, and attendance and test scores are high.
The school began as an elementary program housed in a pre-fabricated building placed on a vacant lot across the street from a homeless shelter also supported by Icahn, and now includes a middle school on the same block. During recess, on nice weather days, the younger children play on an outdoor yard but the older ones rotate between the computer lab, the gym and the library.
Classrooms have a cozy, verging-on-cluttered look with student work and posters covering the walls and even sometimes suspended from the ceiling. The science room is filled with charts, a skeleton, skulls, plants, animals and the odd musical instrument. Several children said social studies is their favorite subject, an area in which the school excels since it follows the work of educator E.D. Hirsch, who emphasizes history and geography from a young age. He wrote books outlining a base of “core knowledge” he believes every well-educated person should know.
On our visit, kids were serious and engaged, but also smiling and chatting as they worked. Teachers have the freedom to decide how they want to deliver the core knowledge lessons. “We don’t dictate pedagogy, we dictate results,” said Icahn Deputy Superintendent Daniel Garcia. We saw kids reading, composing essays on laptops, researching animals in the computer lab, cutting paper to depict the Pythagorean Theorem, and practicing for - and taking - tests. There are no bells or intercoms to interrupt them and class changes were orderly and quick.
Children arrive with low skills and some of the challenges were evident as we listened in. A child given the task of comparing and contrasting North Carolina and London said they were similar because both had “food” and “cars” and were “places to go.” In the 8th grade Regents Algebra class a girl had trouble spelling “sore.” Written reports and essays, according to 8th graders we spoke to, are usually no more than two pages long and some of the work on display was widely spaced with big font. But staffers embrace the challenge: “We like the South Bronx,” said Garcia. “It really is going after kids who are needy.”
At Icahn students are nurtured by a rich cultural curriculum. As for discussions and group work, teachers try to pair a bright child who scored Level 4, the highest, with at least a Level 3, so “everyone gains,” according to Garcia. The artistic projects look like fun, expectations are high and test scores show that children make remarkable progress. Every year students perform in a Shakespeare play with help from professionals in the field. And instead of electives like knitting or cartooning, the last period of the day is devoted to a favorite subject like history or math. In the history elective each student chooses an era in U.S. History then creates an informational poster about eight people who defined that era.
Guidance counselors try to ensure that children move on to safe high schools with good reputations. Bronx Centerfor Science and Math is a popular choice, as are parochial schools. One student got a full scholarshipto Phillips Exeter Academy, a New Hampshire boarding school. The hope is to get more students into Bronx High School of Science: one teen finally cracked it in 2012, Garcia said.
Special education: Teachers are able to give children personal attention in general education classes because of the small numbers. Icahn staff pride themselves on their low referral rates to special education.
Admissions: Admission is by lottery. The waiting list is well over one thousand names for 20 spots in kindergarten. Only one or two spots open up in middle school (Lydie Raschka, May 2013).