Several social media posts, including Charles Phillips tweets and many different Facebook posts, talk about Harlem Village Academies, progressive, urban public school districts that consist of five public charter schools along with a college support program. Students in grades Kindergarten through 12th grade are provided a progressive education that provides a sophisticated experience in an effort to create a more equitable society.
Founder Deborah Kenny
One day in 1999, Deborah Kenny’s husband, Joel, complained that he was dizzy. Just 18 months later, he had died of leukemia, leaving Kenny and their three children in a haze of grief. Kenny, just 38 years old, decided to turn her grief into something positive. She decided that she would use her education, skills and talent to help those who needed it most. Kenny held a Ph.D. from Columbia University in comparative international education and had taught public school in three states before leaving for the corporate world after becoming disillusioned with the educational system. She eventually became head of Sesame Street Publishing. After her husband’s death, she knew that she would need to use her business knowledge as well as her teaching skills. She developed a business plan for Harlem Village Academies that had no bureaucracy but was heavily influenced by leadership analysis and accountability. The first school opened in 2003, made up of students from areas where severe poverty has existed for generations.
Recreation of Urban Education
Her plan focused on teaching critical thinking rather than standardized-test compliance. Even today, student progress is monitored daily and a rapid-response approach is used should a problem arise in order to keep students on track. There is also a strict code of behavior and Kenny insists on relentless discipline. Students are required to attend long days, complete intensive homework and be respectful in class at all times. However, the behavior and discipline are filled with love and a balance of rights. Students know that education is every child’s birthright but that education is their full-time job. Kenny achieves this by hiring teachers who share her passion. Many of those teaching at Harlem Village Academies left districts where bureaucracy stifled their teaching ambition. Although Kenny has rigorous accountability standards for her staff, she provides teachers with a significant amount of freedom, allowing them the opportunity to succeed just as much as the students they teach. Uniforms are required of all students who attend classes in rooms labeled “Duke,” “Syracuse” and “Berkeley,” names chosen purposely to provide students with goals Kenny knows they can achieve.
Harlem Village Academies have shown remarkable success under Kenny’s guidance. Students are accepted by lottery from neighborhoods where seventh-grade passing rates in math are around 30 percent. Her students have a rate of 96 percent. The students who attend move on to higher education, despite statistics that indicate that poverty and poor home lives often lead students to dismiss the need for furthering their education. In 2010-11, Harlem Village Academies experienced less than six percent attrition while one New York City public school district saw an almost 21 percent attrition rate during the same period. There are no academic admissions criteria and all students are admitted to the school through an open, public lottery.
Harlem Village Academies consist of two elementary schools, two middle schools and one high school, all located in or near Harlem. It appears that their vision is coming to fruition. Since their first graduating class in 2011, 100 percent of their students have scored proficient on the Regents examinations in Algebra and Biology.