Democracy Prep Charter High School
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Students learn Korean and receive support throughout the college process
Strict rules and high suspension rate
Democracy Prep Charter High School combines rigorous academics with strict discipline. For those who do well in a regimented environment, the school offers the opportunity to study Korean language and culture, to develop civic engagement skills and to write lengthy independent research papers.
The pace is fast and the environment is competitive. Students who cannot keep up may be asked to repeat a grade, and some become discouraged and leave each year. But those who persevere are admitted to top colleges and get advice and support from other Democracy Prep alumni during their college years.
The Democracy Prep network was founded by Seth Andrews, a graduate of Bronx High School of Science and the Harvard School of Education who taught in South Korea. His schools, which serve mostly black and Latino students, aim to replicate what Andrews saw as the Korean values of hard work and respect for teachers.
Most students come from northern Manhattan and the Bronx. They all take four years of Korean language as well as the Korean Regents exam. Students learn about Korean culture through traditional music, dance and practices. Some even go on the school’s annual trip to South Korea. Teachers hope that learning Korean will instill confidence in students and help them stand out in the college process.
Students we met on our visit had mixed feelings about the Korean program. One student, who plans to attend the State University of New York in Korea next year, said he explored his longtime interest in Korean “entertainment, movies, music and language.” Another student was more skeptical of the program, saying that the fast pace leaves students feeling stressed and behind. She added that English language learners often experience particular difficulties in Korean language classes.
As part of the school’s efforts to foster civic engagement, seniors are required to complete a Change the World Project, which culminates in a 30-page paper on a topic of the student’s choice. One student wrote on female empowerment in the Muslim community. Seniors complete 100 internship hours throughout the year. On the annual “day of service,” students volunteer in parks, at the Salvation Army, in soup kitchens and on animal farms. On Election Day students register people to vote. According to Chalkbeat, students who attend Democracy Prep are much more likely to vote than students who applied but weren’t admitted.
Rules are strict, and principal Elisa DiMauro says expectations are very clear so there are “no excuses” when it comes to improper behavior. Students get demerits for chewing gum, eating in class or not wearing the full school uniform. Students who come to school missing a belt or a necktie may be sent home to change. If a student is sent home and stays home, the student may get detention.
In detention, only seniors are allowed to do work; other students just sit. Students who skip detention are suspended. The suspension rate was 28 percent in 2015-16, well above the citywide average of 3 percent.
Students who misbehave in class are assigned to a separate room for a “send-out,” where teachers, called “dream coaches,” help them reflect on their actions. One student we spoke to said the discipline system was “a little flawed” but that the school “was open to conversations about it.”
Class size ranges from 15 to 28 students, significantly smaller than the typical class size in New York City. Students are enrolled in Advanced Placement classes, seminars that investigate topics such as feminism and Chicana literature, and more traditional courses where they are seated in rows with timers keeping them on a schedule.
Democracy Prep occupies half a floor in a building shared with two other schools. One of those is an elementary school, so Democracy Prep students can only use the bathroom at certain times. Students have to travel next door for gym class. Only freshman and sophomores are required to take gym; for juniors and seniors, it is an elective.
Other electives include journalism, art and action, and video. After-school activities include Latino dance club, code interactive club, Caribbean Student Association and a handful of sports teams. The school's facilities are basic, and there is no money for extras. For instance, the girls soccer team practices on an outdoor basketball court, and students in an art elective spent class time visiting local stores asking them to donate supplies.
Students attend a range of CUNY, SUNY and private colleges, including Bryn Mawr, Columbia, University of Pennsylvania, Wellesley, Kenyon and Harvard. Graduates may participate in the Alumni Captains Program. Captains, with the help of professionals from Democracy Prep, stay in touch with a group of 10 to 12 alumni and help support them throughout their time in college.
COLLEGE ADMISSIONS: There is a college office with four counselors: one designated for juniors, two for seniors and one for alumni. In 12th grade, students take a college application class twice a week to help them with different aspects of the process, including filling out forms like the FAFSA.
ADMISSIONS: By lottery. Most students have attended Democracy Prep middle schools. Students are admitted in all grades. Transfer students who haven’t passed the requisite Regents exams may be asked to repeat a grade. (Katharine Safter, May 2018)Read more