Gov. Cuomo has urged the state Legislature to lift the cap on the number of charter schools allowed to open in New York City, but has been met with resistance from legislators who oppose charters on the grounds that they are the playgrounds of wealthy hedge funders bent on privatizing education. Tell that to the church in Queens that built a charter from the ground up with the support of volunteers and the community.
Rochdale Early Advantage Charter School is currently recognized by the New York State Education Department as a “Reward School for High Academic Achievement and Showing the Most Progress in the State.” According to the Department of Education’s school surveys, parents are well pleased with the school, which currently has 680 kids on its waiting list for admission.
The school is housed within New Jerusalem Baptist Church, having sprung from the community it now serves, across the street from Rochdale Village, the largest housing cooperative in the city when it was built in the early 1960s. The church has 2,600 members and is led by Bishop Calvin Rice, a South Carolina native who graduated from the last segregated class of his high school. Many of the congregation’s families have similar histories grounded in the American South, and it was these memories that led a group of them to conceive of the plan for the school in 2008.
They did not have financial backing, but they had a strong community and the resolve to create a school that could do better for their children than the local public schools.
The planning process undertaken by the volunteers was long and difficult. My former colleague in the Industrial Areas Foundation-Metro New York, Ojeda Hall, invited me to get involved, and I served first as an adviser to the team and later as a member of the school’s board in the year before it opened. Our first proposal did not pass muster with the charter authorizers and another year of volunteer work ensued, but it paid off when the state finally granted the school its charter to operate.
Student recruitment was done out in the open and in the community. Volunteers from the congregation posted flyers announcing the school in local preschools, day-care centers, beauty shops and anywhere they might attract the attention of young parents. The school filled its opening class for September 2010 and began a waiting list for the children who did not get a seat in the lottery.
Despite all the planning, the school got off to a rocky academic start and struggled in its first few years. Still, the community backed the school and sustained its board and staff. A change in leadership eventually put the school back on track; in 2016, results on the state’s annual exams jumped in both English Language Arts and Math and have gone up every year since.
In the latest results from 2018, the school is scoring above the local district’s average for all students and is creating a strong advantage for black students, who comprise 92% of the school’s enrollment. They outperform the district average for black students by 20 points or more and are also much more likely to score at the tests’ highest level than black students in the local district.
The local community and congregation’s support sustained this school through its difficult early days and today is allowing it to grow. Originally designed to operate in the church’s lower level, the school has grown to the point where it occupies nearly the entire building. In order to expand and meet the demonstrated need for a high-performing middle school, Bishop Rice has identified private financing for the purchase, retrofitting and expansion of a building that formerly housed a synagogue located right behind the church.
Rochdale Early Advantage Charter School defies the stereotypes that charter school opponents so often employ. Its service and attachment to the community goes both ways, as neighbors support the school in many tangible and non-tangible ways. According to the New York City Charter School Center, 135 charter schools in the city are run independently of a network and 110 are affiliated with charter networks such as Success Academy, KIPP, Achievement First and others.
Increasingly, experts are noting the importance of local, non-governmental institutions such as churches to the creation and maintenance of strong communities — and, by extension, successful schools. At least six other charter schools in the city have sprung from efforts led by churches or congregations. Other independent charter schools have been started by parent or community groups, other community based organizations and teams of teachers and other educators. The stereotype of the hedge-fund driven charter schools is greatly exaggerated in the city’s diverse charter sector.. The city needs more of these collaborations—and others are already stepping up, like the nearby church community that visited Rochdale and, impressed by what they saw, have been planning their own application for a charter school.
That application, and many others, will go nowhere if the state legislature does not raise the arbitrary cap on the number of charter schools allowed to operate in New York City. Let’s hope that Albany sees the light — or at least opens its eyes to what many charters mean to their communities.