How One Charter School Network is Helping End Poverty in the Bronx


Originally published June 11, 2015. Original text below:

The Icahn Charter School network in the South Bronx has been quietly registering extraordinary test results for years, while nurturing its students in an atmosphere of "unconditional love," as its emotive leader, Jeff Litt, puts it.

"These kids are like my flesh and blood, and I would do anything for them," says Litt, who walks the halls of his schools reminding students with motherly consternation to take off their warm coats, tie their shoes, and not to come to school without socks to avoid blisters.

Though you'll rarely read or hear about, Icahn is the second highest achieving charter network in New York City, after the much larger and more heralded Success Academy. While critics of Success Academy have attributed its remarkably high test scores in part to the excessive pressure they say it puts on kids, those same critics rarely pay attention to Icahn, which has a more relaxed atmosphere and yet also posts exceptionally high test scores.

Litt, 67, spent 33 years working in the traditional public schools before coming to Icahn. He first gained wide attention for turning around a traditional public school called P.S. 67, later renamed Mohegan, which was a disaster when he arrived in 1988. "The walls and the hallways were covered with graffiti and urine," he says, "and it was probably the worst teaching staff in New York City."

Yet, like all the city's public school principals at that time, Litt was granted very little power to make changes at the school. "It was dictated to me what my staffing was going to be, but then I was responsible for the outcomes," says Litt. "I was not allowed to pick a textbook."

Nevertheless, in short order he replaced almost the entire teaching staff, brought in a rigorous new curriculum, and rehabilitated the school building. The remarkable turnaround at P.S. 67 drew national attention. "I wasn't granted permission to make any of the changes that I did," Litt says. "I just did it."

Litt left Mohegan in 1997, and then three years later, billionaire investor Carl Icahn donate money to create one of the city's first charter schools, and he hired Litt to design it from the ground up. Icahn's money would go exclusively to pay for buildings, and there would be less money spent on each student than at traditional public schools. But that didn't matter. For the first time in his career, Litt was given a free hand.

"I used to say that I was like a horse in a corral, and all of a sudden you open up the door and the horse can run free," says Litt.

Though Ican was a runaway success, Litt's was programmed early in his career not to antagonize the public education bureaucracy that he runs circles around. "We stay under the radar," he says. "Our culture is non-confrontational."

One reason Icahn gets so little attention in the press is that it has been overshadowed by Success Academy—which is anything but non-confrontational.

If Jeff Litt stands for the old guard in New York City's charter school movement, Eva Moskowitz, the founder and CEO of Success, represents the new. Moskowitz has seized the bully pulpit, loudly denouncing Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-NY), Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, and the United Federation of Teachers for trapping children in terrible schools.

And Success Academy's test scores have given Moskowitz a loud megaphone. But while Icahn's scores are not as good as Success', the comparison between the two organizations gets hazier when you take into account what's known as "backfilling."

When students leave Success Academy schools for whatever reason, the administration stops replacing them with new students after the fourth grade, so the enrollment of each class dwindles over the years. Icahn, on the other hand, replaces the kids who leave with new students from the district schools. Generally, those students have a lot of catching up to do, and they bring down Icahn's overall scores.

And while Success has been widely criticized for often suspending students and stigmatizing low achievers, Icahn has a less punitive atmosphere. In the 2013-14 school year, 11 percent of students at the Success Academy schools were suspended at least once. At Icahn, half a percent were suspended, or a total of 10 kids among all seven schools.

"I think it's no fluke that they're the two highest performing charter networks in New York City, says Charles Sahm, who's the education policy director at the Manhattan Institute. Sahm has been researching and writing about both Success Academy and Icahn, and he says the reason they've done so well is sort of a no-brainer: It's their rich curricula. "Success and Icahn both focus like a laser beam on what kids are being taught and how," says Sahm. "It sounds very simple, but actually doing it is quite difficult."

Icahn teachers tend to be more experienced than those at other charter schools, and many of its administrators are veterans of the traditional public school system who Litt lured out of retirement by offering them the opportunity for the first time in the careers to do their jobs unimpeded by union work rules and red tape.

Daniel Garcia spent 35 years in the traditional public school system, finishing his career as the principal of P.S. 130 in the Bronx. Now he's Icahn's deputy superintendent. Steve Sorokin retired from teaching in the traditional public schools to become Icahn's director of assessment.

After Marcy Glattstein retired as the principal of P.S. 204 in the Bronx, she got a call from Jeff Litt offering her a chance to be a principal yet again at the third school in the Icahn network. "I couldn't imagine the heights that I could go when I could do whatever I wanted to do," she says.

Principal Lawford Cunningham also started his career at a traditional public school—but unlike the others, he didn't leave voluntarily. He was pushed after his first year because he hadn't yet completed his master's degree. Marcy Glattstein, who coincidentally was Cunningham's first boss, still bristles at the memory of having to let him go.

"He was more qualified than teachers that I had," she says, "but because they had seniority, they were allowed to remain in my building while he was actually fired."

So Jeff Litt hired Cunningham as a teacher at Icahn. "Every single year, 100 percent of his kids passed the exam," says Litt. So he promoted Cunningham to staff developer, and then four years ago, to principal of the fifth school in the Icahn network.

Icahn is growing slowly and it's nowhere close to meeting the demand of families looking for an alternative to the district schools. This year, the 16,513 kids who applied to go to one of the Icahn Schools had less than a 1 percent chance of getting in.

"That's 16,513 parents who turned their back on the Department of Education," says Litt. "They said, 'I don't want you, I want them.'"

Shot, edited, and written by Jim Epstein

Eight minutes and 23 seconds.

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