Harlem Charter School First in 2008 Wave

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The New York Sun

The first day of school came early yesterday for 150 students entering the new St. HOPE Leadership Academy, a Harlem school that is the first in a wave of new charter schools opening in New York this year.

The state Legislature had capped the number of charter schools in the state at 100, but lawmakers lifted the cap last year, and there is now room for 100 more. Eighteen are opening in New York City this year.

Charter schools are public schools that are run independently of the Department of Education and face stricter consequences for failure in exchange for the freedom.

Some community leaders are scoffing at the new charter schools, saying they steal resources away from regular public schools. Thirty leaders on the city’s 32 community education councils signed a letter recently asking the state’s education commissioner, Richard Mills, to join a fight to remove charter schools from public school buildings.

Other parents are signing up for the schools in droves, saying they are desperate for alternatives to the traditional public system.

St. HOPE, which is being housed on the second and third floors of a public school building on 134th Street, opened in response to demands that traveled almost 3,000 miles.

The principal of St. HOPE Leadership Academy, Ventura Rodriguez, said he can name the exact date the message was conceived: April 24, 2006.

That day, “The Oprah Winfrey Show” aired a special episode titled “American Schools in Crisis,” profiling several schools fighting what Ms. Winfrey called the overall “devastation” in America’s public schools.

One of the profiles was of St. HOPE, a set of schools in Sacramento, Calif., created by a former NBA star, Kevin Johnson, who transformed not only his high school alma mater but also the surrounding neighborhood, which now includes a spacious Starbucks, an art gallery, and a theater. (Mr. Johnson is now running for mayor of Sacramento.)

Among those watching “Oprah” that day were a group of mothers in Harlem, who managed to reach Mr. Johnson with the help of their pastor. “Can you do the same thing for us here in Harlem?” they asked him, according to Mr. Rodriguez.

Two and a half years later, the school is in Harlem, and the pastor, the Reverend Luonne Rouse, is a board member.

Yesterday, Rev. Rouse sat in a back corner of St. HOPE’s auditorium, watching as Messrs. Rodriguez and Johnson spoke to the gathered students from a stage. He was dressed in a white pinstripe suit and white saddle shoes, and though he sat in the back, he got up from his seat repeatedly to take photographs. He said he was so excited he called both of his daughters to ask them to pray for the special day.

On the stage, Mr. Rodriguez began with the basics. “What is a charter school?” he asked the students, asking them to stand as they gave their answers.

“A charter school is a school that’s good,” one boy said.

“Less kids,” another boy said.

“More hours,” a girl said.

“A charter school has a better education than a public school,” a boy said.

Mr. Rodriguez clarified that St. HOPE actually is a public school, but no one denied the idea that it would be good.

“When you walk down the streets of Harlem, you’re going to walk different than everyone else,” Mr. Johnson told the students. “You’re going to talk different. You’re going to talk about leadership. You’re going to talk about your futures.”

Then Mr. Johnson asked a student to take a photograph of the gathered faculty to commemorate the moment.

The New York Sun

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