Charter Schools

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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  1. What a great story. I hope they are allowed to continue to grow. I’m sure the Unions are terrified and will do everything they can to prevent that from happening. I think this is one of those issues where people are waking up. The BS leftest slogans aren’t going to resonate with informed parents when it comes to their children.

    1. Yes, even the hard-core progs are beginning to experience some cognitive dissonance, as with this article in a reliable prog “alternative weekly” in North Carolina:

      “There’s no doubt that, by letting charter schools proliferate and funding vouchers for private schools?while short-changing traditional public schools?Republican lawmakers intend to create separate and unequal systems of education with the traditional one distinctly inferior.

      “But their zeal to misuse charter schools isn’t a reason to abandon the good use charter schools have: to give at-risk kids the option of a different and smaller school when they’re failing in a traditional one.”…

      1. Nice. Of course they have to start with the usually horror about profiteering. Like it’s great children are finally learning but I just wish there was no other incentive for it. I know they have to throw out all that red meat to get their follower to swallow the bitter truth. It’s a start.

        1. We’re against profiteering too. What do you think the singular purpose of teachers’ unions has been?

          1. Good point:)

      2. “There’s no doubt that, by letting charter schools proliferate and funding vouchers for private schools?while short-changing traditional public schools?Republican lawmakers intend to create separate and unequal systems of education with the traditional one distinctly inferior.

        Now explain why the charter schools achieve much better results but spend much less per student. Oh, right, it’s because Republican version charter schools aren’t held back by admitting at-risk kids. (Except they actually do.)

        “But their zeal to misuse charter schools isn’t a reason to abandon the good use charter schools have: to give at-risk kids the option of a different and smaller school when they’re failing in a traditional one.”

        So we’re going to improve the “traditional” schools by dumping at-risk kids, which is what’s wrong with the Republican version of charter schools.

        Reading comprehension anyone?

  2. You have to be fucking kidding me.

    “In Europe, creating a post-gender world one small rule at a time”

    “In Berlin, for instance, fresh rules for billboard ads in a district of the liberal German capital read like a new constitution for a land without gender identity. Girls in pink “with dolls” are basically out, as are boys in blue playing “with technical toys.” In ads showing both adult women and men, females cannot be depicted as “hysterical,” “stupid” or “naive” alongside men presented as “technically skilled,” “strong” or “business savvy.”

    Adult women ? featured alone or otherwise ? must not be shown “occupied in the household with pleasure.” And in one stipulation pounced upon by critics, the equal-opportunity board of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg ? home to Checkpoint Charlie and remnants of the Berlin Wall ? no longer wants to see images of women “smiling for no reason.””

    This is one of the most atrocious attacks on free speech I’ve ever seen and WaPo says it’s a ‘little rule.’

    1. “Traffic lights in Germany have long flashed images of green- or red-lit men ? some wearing cute hats ? to tell pedestrians when to walk or stop at intersections. But gradually that is changing, with cities like Bremen and Cologne among those that have replaced many of the male figures with those of women.

      Last month in Vienna, city officials went further, replacing traffic-sign figures of solitary men with heterosexual and same-sex couples. That came three years after Austria officially changed its national anthem, which once spoke only of its “great sons.” The new language heralds women first, celebrating “great daughters” and “sons.”””

      The EU unemployment rate is 9.7%. Glad to see they’re dealing with such serious issues rather than worrying about such bourgeoisie niceties as ‘people actually having jobs.’

      1. It’s hard to say what exactly Europe is creating since the fertility rates would suggest there won’t be any Europeans left in the future. I hope whoever has that land next does a better job of things.

        1. As in previous years, the largest groups of new citizens in the EU-27 Member States in 2012 were citizens of Morocco (59 300, corresponding to 7.3 % of all citizenships granted) and Turkey (53 800, or 6.6 %). Compared with 2011, the number of Moroccan citizens acquiring citizenship of an EU Member State decreased by 7.7 %, while the corresponding share for Turkish citizens increased by 9.4 %. The largest share of Moroccans acquired their new citizenship in France (28 %), Italy (25 %) or Spain (16 %), while the highest proportion of Turkish citizens acquired their new citizenship in Germany (62 %).


        2. I have a feeling the Islamists who will run France circa 2080 are not going to have much use for ‘gender equity.’

          1. Are you confused that the French-speaking intellectuals who supported the Iranian revolution were… confused?

          2. I can’t tell whether you think that will be a good thing or a bad thing.

    2. That’s what happens when you put toddlers in charge.

    3. You know who else wanted adult women occupied with no pleasure?

  3. English teacher charged for having a sexual relationship with an 18-year-old student

    Not sure how you can charge her. Dudes 18. Oh and Would.…

    1. Is this what they call Rape Culture?

    2. “Upon conviction, [the teacher] would be required to register as a Tier III sex offender with the Sheriff in person every 90 days for her lifetime.”

      WTF? In *The Scarlet Letter,* the woman only had to wear an “A” on her body, she didn’t have to keep updating the sheriff on her status.

      I hate to say this, because I don’t exactly hold a brief for the Puritans, but it strikes me that these modern laws are *worse* than Puritanism. Our modern secular overlords don’t even want to preserve the sanctity of marriage, they punish sexual activity between adults out of…I don’t even know their motives.

      1. I agree, Puritanism never left. It’s just more centrally organized which makes it worse. Also, they’ve added to the list of sins.

        1. ^^^^^

          Always scared someone is having fun.

      2. Holy shit, I just looked up the definition of Tier III sex offender in Ohio and these are the people it covers:

        “The following are Tier III Sexually Oriented offenses:
        1. 2907.02 Rape
        2. 2907.03 Sexual Battery
        3. 2903.01 Aggravated Murder with Sexual Motivation
        4. 2903.02 Murder with Sexual Motivation
        5. 2903.04(A) Unlawful Death or termination of pregnancy as a result of
        committing or attempt to commit a felony with sexual motivation.
        6. 2905.01(A)(4) Kidnapping of minor to engage in sexual activity
        7. 2905.01(B) Kidnapping of minor, not by parent
        8. 2907.05(B) Gross Sexual Imposition, victim under 12 years old
        9. 2903.11 Felonious Assault with sexual motivation
        10. 2907.12 Felonious sexual penetration (former law).
        11. Pre-Adam Walsh Act “sexual predators”
        12. Attempt, Complicity, or Conspiracy to commit any of these offenses.”

        The fuck? Why is having sex with an 18 year old student considered comparable to “aggravated murder with sexual motivation” when it comes to what ‘tier’ of sex offender they declare you?

        1. By the way, Tier II includes “kidnapping someone over the age of 18.” Consensual sex with an 18 year old student is actually considered worse by the state of Ohio sex offender registry than kidnapping that same 18 year old.

          So if a non-teacher had kidnapped this kid, they’d end up on a lower level of the registry than this teacher did.

        2. Sounds like a good test-case for appeal etc.

          You’ve got someone whom the law considers a consenting adult, the 18 yr old kid, having sex with a teacher, but because of this other law that criminalizes sex between “teacher and student” (does that meana 43 yr old would be a victim of sexual battery if he went back to high-school to get his diploma he never got?) you end up in this perverted (NTTAWWT) situation.

      3. To the wood chipper with her I say! Screw you pedophile defenders!

        1. Okay, Plopper. The person who had sex with an 18 year old is a pedophile. Solid logic.

          1. But she was in a position of authority over him! Don’t you understand the power dynamic in place here?

            What she did is truly akin to murder!

    3. He said parents may notice a change in behavior in their child, if he or she is involved in an inappropriate teacher relationship.

      Kid doesn’t drag ass in the morning and actual wants to go to school? Grades improve? Doesn’t dress as a slob? Has the biggest shit eating grin since the Cheshire cat graduated from shit eating college?

    4. He said parents may notice a change in behavior in their child

      Eagerness to do homework, go to school, etc.

  4. Are we going to spill over into this thread, Tulpa?

    1. Just block him and move on. Don’t feed the multi-sock troll.

        1. Future presidential material, I see.

    2. Wait, who is Tulpa now ?

      1. He’s everywhere and nowhere.

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    try this site ?????

  6. The remarkable turnaround at P.S. 67 drew national attention.

    Now it’s rated 1/10 academically (the worst) at

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