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9th December

First Published in The New York Sun, December 9, 2002
By Andrew Wolf

Today’s scheduled groundbreaking for the new Bronx Preparatory Charter School will reflect the hope — and the problems — facing the charter school movement in New York.

Operating in space leased from the Catholic Church, Bronx Prep demonstrated impressive results in its first two years. But to fulfill its mandate to provide a quality middle and high school education, Bronx Prep needs a new building, the space in which to make dreams into reality.
It has been found on Third Avenue at 172nd Street in the southwest Bronx.

Despite the scheduled participation this morning of Mayor Bloomberg, Chancellor Joel Klein, and New York Secretary of State Randy Daniels, representing Governor Pataki, Bronx Prep has had to look to the private sector for help.

There is little available in the way of public funding sources to pay for the bricks and mortar to back up the vision of the founders and the energy of the teachers and staff. Charter schools are independently run entities that are publicly funded. Freed of many of the bureaucratic constraints of the public school system, charter schools hold the promise of being incubators of educational reform and innovation. But under state law, they are only funded at 80% of the level of conventional public schools. And there is no funding for building new facilities or acquiring old ones. New York State has lagged behind much of the nation in establishing charter schools.

Key help for the Bronx Prep construction has come in the form of a $1 million donation from Merrill Lynch, whose CEO, Stan O’Neal, will participate in the ceremony.

Enough has been raised to fund the first phase of construction, but an additional $6.5 million is needed to complete the building.

Founded three years ago, Bronx Prep educates about 200 fifth through eighth graders.

The school is the brainchild of Kristen Kearns Jordan, who was a junior at Brown University in 1990 when she decided that she might like to start a “break the mold” school. After stints at Center for Educational Outreach and Innovation at Teachers College, Columbia University, and the School Choice Scholarships Foundation, she got the opportunity to fulfill her vision.

Bronx Prep is located in School District 9 in the Bronx, and is one of four extraordinarily troubled Bronx districts that make up the lowest performing academic area in the state.

It is no accident that Ms. Jordan has designed Bronx Prep to cover just the middle and high school grades. Standardized state tests in the fourth and eighth grades in reading and math reveal a precipitous drop-off in performance during the middle grades in the state’s poorest communities. Many of these children will never graduate from high school. The four-year graduation of nearby Taft High School is only about 35%.
The centerpiece of the Bronx Prep program is a longer school year (200 days as opposed to the 180 days required by the public schools) and a longer school day (7:55 a.m. to 5:15 p.m.). This translates into 50% more instructional time. Like the public schools, children not meeting standards must attend summer school.

“The goals are to achieve our mission with every child,” Ms. Jordan said. “That mission is to prepare kids to have access to college and then to be successful when they get there, to be contributive to their community and to enjoy successful lives.”

After a little more than two years in business, the results have been impressive. Scores have increased, but for the school to continue to expand at the rate of one grade per year, enabling the current students to graduate high school at Bronx Prep, the new building must be completed.

Ms. Jordan is excited that her dream has come so far, but she knows the school is at a crossroads. “We’ve all been worried about how we’re going to provide for the high school that we promised the kids, how we’re going to expand. We’re having success and want to serve more kids. The only way we could do it is this building. It’s hard to believe that that moment has actually arrived.

“We’ve raised enough money to start the building, though not enough money to complete the second phase. It has to all come from additional philanthropy.”

Coordinating Merrill Lynch’s involvement is its first vice president, Eddy Bayardelle, the head of global philanthropy & community relations and secretary of the Merrill Lynch Foundation. Mr. Bayardelle oversees more than $35 million the firm donates each year.

This particular educational initiative is very much within her area of expertise. Before coming to Merrill Lynch, Mr. Bayardelle was superintendent for the Hempstead Public Schools and executive director of the Division of Special Education for the New York City public Schools.

“I think it’s pretty historic, if you ask me,” Mr. Bayardelle said. “The conditions there, in the classrooms they are in, show certainly that the kids there could use a different facility, especially as the school continues to grow.”

Advocates for expansion of charter school initiatives in the city will be carefully studying what, if anything, Mr. Bloomberg and Mr. Klein say this morning. They will be searching for clues that might reveal whether this administration will look to charter schools as a possible solution to the city’s troubled educational system.

One thing is clear. As satisfying as the groundbreaking is for the future of one promising school, philanthropy alone will not remake the hundreds of the city’s underperforming schools. And that is why so many eyes will be on the mayor and chancellor. Rules to convert existing New York City public schools to charter status are so onerous that no such conversion has occurred. But many feel that this model offers great promise for systemic reform.

For Kristen Kearns Jordan and the children of Bronx Prep, today the larger future of the charter school movement takes a back seat to the celebration of the start of construction on their new home.
“I’m elated,” she said. “Two and a half years ago we opened the school and that was a fairly extraordinary moment. But today is a very, very joyful day.”

© 2002 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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