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CHARTER SCHOOLS TODAY www.charterschoolstoday.com

ALEXANDER Sisulu-WTHE alker Charter School WhereCOMPANY, Failure is Not INC an Option Reusing and Revitilizing

THE MAG A ZINE FOR CH ARTER SCHOOL EX ECU TIVES


Sisulu-Walker Charter School which has 260 first through fifth graders this year. The school now has 10 classrooms on three floors, with 27 students per class closely seated at desks or around tables. The School also uses a full-time certified teacher assistant in every classroom to provide the small-group instruction needed by this high-risk population of students.

Where Failure is Not an Option Produced by Todd Rodgers & Written by Jim Barlow

Sisulu-Walker Charter School Principal Karen Jones doesn’t mince words: She is “a big supporter of No Child Left Behind” and hates achievement tests but keeps her west Harlem, N.Y., classrooms always in the assessment mode. “I know what it’s like to have a school in failing mode,” said Jones, who had entered Southern Illinois University to study piano but exited with a degree in early childhood education and has been principal since January 1999. “There has to be a mechanism in place that forces teachers and principals to pay particular attention to the performance levels of the students in their schools. That is absolutely the primary agenda of charter schools in this country. If our school doesn’t perform at a high level on a yearly basis, I will be replaced as the School’s instructional leader.” Jones’ drive comes from 25 years teaching in gang-ridden westside Chicago schools where school administrators showed little interest, at that time, in high-level student performance. She has been a charter school leader since 1997 in three states, including Arizona, New Jersey, and New York. Reading literacy and writing is the cornerstone at Sisulu Walker,

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The school opened in 1999 and was the first under the umbrella of Victory Schools founded by philanthropist Steven B. Klinsky. Victory now has nine charter schools in New York, six in Philadelphia and two in Chicago. Its mission is built around achievement, honor, and service. Silulu-Walker runs on a $3.6 million state-funded budget based on average daily attendance. Private fundraising is now on the table as the school’s Board of Trustees look ahead. “In five years, I see our school in a wonderful new site as a learning center with large, sunny classrooms, the latest technology, including interactive white boards, two foreign language teachers and a beautiful, well-appointed gymnasium,” Jones said. “I’d like a spacious playground with safe equipment, with places for students to climb, play and be physically stimulated.” She also wants a modern music center, a well supplied art room, a well stocked library/media center and up-to-date computers. Of course, we will maintain our high levels of instruction and continue our ever-increasing performance trend. The school is named after South Africa’s Walter Sisulu and Harlem’s Wyatt Tee Walker. Sisulu, who died in 2003, was the son of a black mother and a white public servant father in South Africa. He recruited Nelson Mandela into the African National Congress. After years of political strife and imprisonment, Mandela rose to the presidency with Sisulu as deputy president. Walker, who turns 80 in August, was Martin Luther King Jr.’s chief of staff and long-time pastor of the Canaan Baptist Church of Christ. When speaking to parents of prospective students, “I tell parents about the importance of who these men were and how we are working to live up to their legacy,” Jones said. Sisulu-Walker, 125 W. 115th St., is located in a highly diverse community as Harlem goes through its current gentrification. About 25 percent of its students are of direct African descent. Many of their parents work long hours and most speak just enough English to participate in the work force. These parents


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are depending heavily on the school to educate and assimilate their children into the American school culture. Another 25 percent are from Caribbean families and the rest are considered African-American. As an all-minority school, there are also a few Asian students. The school has 38 staff, including 10 teachers and 10 teacher assistants, all certified. Three specialty teachers for music, art, and physical education are also on staff and are not certified but are professionals in their chosen fields. Teachers receive intensive professional development, including 14 pre-service days before school begins each year and one-afternoon each month. Jones notes that the Academic Committee, as a part of the Board of Trustees, “stay on the cutting edge of instructional research, question everything, and require continuous plans of action.”

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The academic approach uses multiple techniques, but the Reading First framework associated with NCLB, is crucial. The formula involves research-based strategies, which Jones began learning while working in an educational leadership role for a company producing customized professional development programming in Phoenix, Arizona, after leaving the Chicago schools. Her personal mantra is that if children haven’t learned, teachers haven’t taught those students well. “You must pay attention to what students need and plan toward those needs.” Progress is measured with DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills), which has roots in the University of Oregon’s College of Education. DIBELS is comprised of seven measures to function as indicators of phonemic awareness, alphabetic principle, accuracy and fluency with connected text, reading comprehension, and vocabulary. In the middle


of First Grade and beyond, oral reading fluency is the primary dynamic indicator that requires that specific numbers of words are accurately read within one minute. Children are tested three times a year. By March each year, students are expected to be reading at or above their grade levels. “The school also incorporates the tenets of Core Knowledge for all grade levels,” Jones said. “This program was chosen as the basis of our Social Studies curriculum as it covers worldly information that all scholars need to know and includes literacy, writing, and project-based learning. We use various teaching methodologies,” she said. “No one method suits the needs of all children.” Older students are moving away from basal readers and going toward a literature-rich curriculum that includes trade books, reading both fiction and non-fiction. We use a combination of old-school mathematics and a combination

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of inquiry-based instruction and activities from the more complicated Everyday Math instruction. We incorporate many different modalities. We attempt to reach all of our students’ learning styles.” Students also take required state and national assessments. “We are always analyzing student achievement results as this is necessary to help teachers plan,” said Jones. “I hate all the testing, but one of the breakdowns of the past was that educators didn’t pay enough attention to testing results until the end of a year when it’s too late to help students reach instructional benchmarks. The research says if you regularly assess your students and are using the results for planning as you go through the year, you can better meet student needs and re-teach what is necessary for academic success. True learning happens when it is connected to prior learning or a foundation of information is established.” State records show that Sisulu-Walker students are learning. Last year, 87 percent of third-graders and 78 percent of fourthgraders scored at or above grade levels on state Language Arts assessments. In math, 98 percent of students in both grades met or exceeded grade level standards. DIBELS test data show that initial testing in 2005-2006 found 40 percent of students scoring just under or far below targeted levels. At the end of that year, only 14 percent were slightly below grade level and four percent were far below grade level, with 82 percent at or above grade level. The 2nd year’s end results showed 88 percent at or above grade level, 10 percent were slightly below grade-levels, but only 2 percent were far below. In the final year implementation of the Reading First grant, students ended the year with 83 percent at or above grade level, 15 percent slightly below, and two percent far below grade level. The same trend is seen currently with 74 percent at or above grade level and 26 percent below grade level. “We have three and a half months to bring all of our students to mastery levels,” says Jones. The School also received a larger than usual number of new students for the 2008-2009 school year. “Students scoring below grade level receive special help from the school’s staff and weekly DIBELS assessments until they reach mastery,” Jones said.

c har ter schools acros s

To highlight the School’s successful implementation of Reading First strategies, after only two years of using Reading First, the school represented the state of New York at the 2007 National Reading First conference, highlighting its proficiency of small

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group and differentiated instructional methods. Sisulu-Walker also requires science projects in every grade for the annual school Science Fair. Classroom projects are required for kindergarten, first and second grades; however, each student in grades three through five must produce an individual project using the Scientific Method of investigation and experimentation. The Science Fair is one of the most exciting and academically stimulating times during the school year. Sisulu-Walker students are benefitting from this uniquely founded charter school, improving academically and entering the real world well-prepared.

SCHOOL AT A GLANCE Established : 1999 Staff : 38 Students: 260 Leading the School: Karen Jones

www.sisuluwalker.org

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Sisulu-Walker Charter School 125 W. 115th St. New York, NY 10026 United States

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