Please note: If your child turns 5 in 2013 and you're considering LGCS, be sure your application is in by THIS Monday. In fact, all charter apps are due that day. The common app for all charters is here. Selection for seats, at least the official first round, happens by lottery not long after. A charter school IS a public school, operated with City funds, with its own Board of Directors ultimately responsible, though it must comply with all City and State regulations when it comes to educating its students. Most charters are non-union, though a few are coming on line now with union teachers.For a relatively unbiased history and description of charter schools, I'd go to the good ol' Wikipedia page, where you get slightly less propaganda for or against. LGCS is somewhat unique among local charter school options, in that it was started by a small group of local parents and is not part of a local, regional or national network of schools. It is essentially a mom-and-pop start-up school, and as far as I can tell has no plans to expand beyond its flagship.
Now nearing the end of its third year of operation, the Lefferts Gardens Charter School (LGCS) is in many ways poised to hit a major new level of maturity this coming fall. After speaking with founding board member Renata Gomes last week, taking a tour of the classrooms in action, and attending an Open House led by LGCS Finance Director Marc Dicus, I can honestly say that this little engine that could really can, and is really starting to show signs of a new vigor and confidence as it shakes off a rough year of leadership turnover. If you haven't checked in with LGCS in awhile, I suggest getting to know them better in the coming months as they perhaps integrate more fully into the broader community. That's what the Q's crystal ball is telling him anyway. But first, a little history.
Imagine this scene if you will. A few years ago, Renata sat with friend and fellow mom Allison Jack, and together, worrying (maybe like you) about their own newborn's school possibilities said to themselves "wouldn't it be nice to have a strong school with a rich hands-on scientific method based "green" curriculum right here in the neighborhood?" Sure a lot of people say things like that. But then they drew in friends to form a charter committee, one being neighbor Renee Ciccone who took over lead applicant duties to apply for the charter (no small feat that - I sat on an unsuccessful charter committee myself and know it's no walk in the park), were awarded a charter, moved into the top floor of PS92 on Parkside near Rogers (the DoE calls it co-location), and have essentially created, with lots of help from teachers-parents-DOE-administrators-etc a model for learning, practically from scratch. With lots of successes and bumps along the way, and plenty of lessons to learn from, I think it's safe to say that school is poised to hit its stride this fall. Why am I so confident? Well, let's start with the basics.
First off, the school itself is gorgeous. Huge windows, lots of light, cheery atmosphere, nice gym, decent auditorium. It's a real SCHOOL school, and you feel it the minute you enter. They really used to know how to "school it up" back during the Great Depression. The stock market tanked, but it was a good time to be a brick mason! It's a keeper, and in just a few weeks, LGCS will find out whether it receives permanent permission to stay in the building. Soon it will be K-5, three grades per class. Folks, LGCS is no longer an idea or a start-up. It's a real school and will quite possibly outlive us all.
Second, the curriculum really is awesome. The kids go on field trips once a week (crazy, right?) to the zoo, garden, park, you name it, all with a mission and as part of the week's lesson plan. The recently hired curriculum coordinator Katrina Raben gets raves from staff and parents alike for stepping things up a notch all around.
Third, there are some solid teachers at the school. This I've heard first hand from the parents of attendees, but I also got to watch a couple teachers in action, and I was very impressed. The kids too were warm, inquisitive and engaged, whether in group settings or in break-out "choice" time. Here's a pic of a teach in one classroom where the vibe was pitch perfect:
|Allison Greene in her cozy 2nd grad classrom|
Now I ask you, is that not the most teachiest teacher and classroomiest classroom you've seen in awhile? Check out all the pets. Hey it's a science oriented curriculum, so you've got to have some Madagascar Cockroaches, courtesy of Miss Carmen, of course. Classrooms are team-taught, with a main teacher and a special education specialist, and from what this layman can ascertain, it works great, and the student/teacher ratio was super low. The kids came right up to me (at the appropriate choice time of course) and asked questions and wanted to show me their compost. Another couple kids acted out a conflict resolution play. Very cute.
But the main reason the Q is bullish on LGCS has to do with some of its stumbles in the first couple years, and I think the school has learned some hard lessons the hard way, perhaps to its longterm advantage. It lost its first principal after just two years, due some parents have said (off the record) to inexperience on all sides. That is to say, as with any new venture, it's tough to hit the ground firing on all cylinders (I don't really know whether that's an appropriate metaphor, but I like that word cylinder!) For the parents and kids that stayed through the growing pains of start-up mode, things got rough again when principal two turned out to be terrible fit, and was fired abruptly. They've been under a temporary leader ever since, and despite some turmoil for the adults, the kids are doing just fine. THIS time, the board has outsourced the hiring process to an expert firm using a national search, and the results could be a whole new kettle of fish, or maybe just one really nice fish wearing a well-fitted kettle. Or something to that effect. Because ultimately it is the school leader, her relationship with teachers/students/board/community that will make the single biggest difference. The Parent Association is already kickin' it (hi Siobhan; hi Sandra; hi Kathryn). The operations are happening, pro and responsive. The curriculum is ringing. The building is rocking. The kids are adorable. What's missing? A super strong leader and maybe, just maybe, a larger more diversified board with broader strengths. Too much of the weight has fallen on too few shoulders, in my professional opinion (as development director, not blogger. they don't pay me to write the Q, and as of yet no one has asked me to "consult" on blogging, Nate Silver I'm talking to you).
Visit the school. The application's coming right up so I chose it first for the series. But LGCS is well worth your consideration, and there's a pretty swell playground adjacent to boot. And it's close. Look, I know you might be looking at schools in Park Slope, Ft. Greene, Williamsburg, Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill, Carrol Gardens. But do you really want your kid on a bus a couple hours a day, or drive or MTA-it every day? For kindergarten? It's a question worth asking, and one I ask myself frequently.
And those Smart Boards everyone's talking about? How come every school I've been too there's just a bunch of stuff taped to them or hanging off them? Never fails to crack me up...
Note: Plenty of vitriol gets thrown around in the anti-charter movement. And lots of wild claims get made by charter advocates. I'm going to try to stay clear of that discussion here, because I'm trying to present a "pro schools" and "pro children" and "pro parents" attitude in my posts. There are significant issues to be raised, some of which I've raised on the Q, about fairness, segregation, unions...most of these, at least to many families, will have little bearing on the actual experience of attending the school, and are much more about the infrastructure behind the schools. And so for now, I'm sticking to the school "experience" as much as possible.