Friday, January 26, 2018

The late Rev. Walker and his charter school in Harlem

Rev. Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker in Harlem
I didn't know the Rev. Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker personally, but I knew of him and admired his work, his dedication and brilliance as a heroic '60s civil rights movement strategist and aide to Dr. King, supporter of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, and later as Harlem community organizer. I was deeply saddened by his death.

While nothing diminishes my respect for Rev. Walker during that period, it's clear that at a later point in his life, his perspective changed. He became a community investment banker and real estate developer. His disdain for the lack of decent, affordable housing and education options in the black community led him to become a supporter of charter schools and school vouchers. In 1999 he helped establish and lent his name to the state's first charter school, the Sisulu-Walker Charter School (named also for the South African anti-apartheid leader Walter Sisulu).


As readers of this blog know, I am not a supporter of either privately-run charters or school vouchers. But back in the mid-90's our Small Schools Workshop was an incubator for some of the first small charter schools in Chicago that opened in 1997. That was back when charters were organized and led by union teachers as a hoped-for critical force for innovation within the public school system.

How times have changed. In recent years, charters have been captured by politically-connected networks run, not by teachers, but mostly by anti-union boards of wealthy, corporate, pro-privatization patrons who have garnered support from within both recent Democrat and Republican administrations and their departments of education -- from Arne Duncan to Betsy DeVos. Billions of dollars have been diverted from public schools to support these networks. Teachers have been disempowered and left without union representation and collective bargaining rights.

But I still try to seperate my critical opposition to charter expansion from my support for charter school teachers, parents and students. I'm encouraged by union organizing efforts on the part of charter teachers and by the coming merger in Chicago between the CTU with and the Chicago Assoc.of Charter School Teachers (ChiACTS).


The Sisulu-Walker Charter School of Harlem (formerly Sisulu Children's Academy-Harlem Public Charter School, and its for-profit management company, Victory Schools) initially drew rave reviews and drew backing from wealthy investors like venture capitalist Steven Klinsky. It's opening-day ceremonies were attended by Pres. George W. Bush (then Texas governor), Governor George Pataki, Secretary of State Randy Daniels and other national, state and local dignitaries. In 2009, Mayor Bloomberg celebrated the school’s 10th anniversary by demanding an end to the state cap on charters.

It was Klinsky, with no background in education, who started for-profit Victory Schools, Inc., made high-interest loans to the school and decided the curriculum for Sisulu-Walker would be Direct Instruction (DI). It was soon claimed to be one of the top performing public charter schools in all of Manhattan based on student test scores.

But it was only a matter of time before the "luster faded", ratings fell, Klinsky's money dried up and foundations backed away. Like so many charters, it was also beset with financial mis-management issues, teacher and principal turnover, and student recruitment violations.

Sisulu-Walker had five principals in its first decade, and the state put the school on probation in 2004. After the charter was renewed, a 6th principal, Michelle Haynes, came in 2012.
[Victory's]show place charter school, Sisulu-Walker Charter School of Harlem, received the 15th-lowest score on the 2010 city progress report cards, ranking in the bottom one percent of all schools. It received “F’ grades in the school environment and progress categories. Most of the school’s teachers reported problems with order and discipline and they recently voted to unionize. (Huffington)
And unionize they did. 

No need to go on. Those who have followed the ongoing saga of school privatization can anticipate the rest. Despite its name and all the ballyhoo surrounding its opening, in the final analysis Sisulu-Walker offered nothing more innovative and no better learning environment that the neighborhood schools Rev. Walker had criticized. Life conditions for the neighborhood's poorest families grew worse and many were forced to leave Harlem. If anything, Harlem's charters were used to gentrify the neighborhood rather than a serious attempt and public school reform.

Hopefully things will change under new leadership and with the empowerment of the school's teachers.

My point here is that we celebrate the life and mourn the death of Rev. Walker despite our differences. Times and conditions bring out the best and worst in all of us.

1 comment:

  1. Direct Instruction has a place, but it is very regimented and not good for all students.
    I think you are right about charters as a vehicle to gentrify a neighborhood, especially in NY where real estate is king.


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