Tying a Neighborhood Together Through Choice

How one charter school is building a diverse community around quality education.


Matthew Levey

The first thing I noticed about the International Charter School in Brooklyn, New York was its founder, Matthew Levey. As I reached the entrance at the beginning of a November Thursday, I saw Levey—sporting an overcoat and a fedora—warmly greeting each of his 225 students by name as they each entered his school building. The Thursday of my visit also happened to mark the monthly meeting of the school's Parents Association with the school's principal. In addition to the kids, Mr. Levey seemed to know each parent on a first-name basis as he or she dropped off their children and comfortably chatted with the lingering crowd as if they were neighbors. As we reflect on the recent National School Choice Week celebrations amid an unprecedented national debate on education policy, moments like these stick out to me even clearer. Before I had learned anything about what was going on inside the school itself, ICS was already defying the stereotypes we've heard ad nauseam about charters being "unaccountable" to parents.

As the school day began and parents met with the principal, Levey took me up the stairs to show me around ICS. He was a flurry of activity, explaining the school's history to me while washing cups in the staff kitchen, saying hello to late parents, and making sure a first-grader on a bathroom break was headed back to class (through a conversation in Spanish).

After putting his children through New York City public schools, Levey was disenchanted with the lack of responsiveness to parent concerns or substantive feedback he found and wanted to be part of the solution. Levey started an arduous, years-long process of trying to attain a charter, securing sufficient funding, finding the right personnel, and attracting enough families to found International Charter School in 2015. ICS is built on three precepts: developing strong foundations in background knowledge and cultural literacy, an emphasis on social-emotional learning to foster a nurturing community, and an effort to build a racially and socio-economically diverse group of students in a gentrifying neighborhood.

Instilling Core Knowledge

A key component of ICS is its emphasis on building solid fundamentals for later learning through a content-rich curriculum in the early grades. The school is inspired by E.D. Hirsch's Core Knowledge Curriculum, which has its origins in the late 1980s as part of an effort to improve the cultural literacy of America's youth. International Charter School puts a priority on instilling the basic tenets of the Western canon and history. The emphasis isn't meant to be an exercise in overt "Protestant American triumphalism," but, as Levey describes it, part of an effort to familiarize students with the cultural foundations that inform the society they're growing up in. This is clear the moment one walks in to the school's main floor, where portraits of Washington crossing the Delaware and Abraham Lincoln grace the hallway.

First graders, for instance, learn about the basic tenets of the three Abrahamic religions. Levey and other proponents of the Core Knowledge program see this kind of learning, regardless of a students' personal beliefs, as an important dimension to understanding their culture. During the day, Levey called up a local rabbi about organizing a field trip to her synagogue as part of the Judaism section of the religion unit. The visit could give students a chance to experience what they were learning about up close, and Levey hoped seeing different places of worship could help classmates better understand and respect their differences.

A key part of Core Knowledge educational techniques is an emphasis on interdisciplinary engagement. During the call, Levey brainstormed using one of the school's music classes as a follow up to the field trip in order to teach the students about how Jewish musical stylings had influences on composers identified with the broader American musical tradition, like George Gershwin and Aaron Copland. ICS's ability to expose its students to these concepts from such an early age speaks to the impressive flexibility that the charter model allows through its curricular freedoms.

A close-knit community

ICS's emphasis on social-emotional supports was apparent within my first half-an-hour in the building. "In order to learn you have to care," Levey explained, "and in order to care, you have to be cared for." Levey adopts this philosophy in his personal interactions with students and in the structure of the school schedule. For example, each day begins with a morning meeting. The time functions as an emotional buffer between home and class where students can share things that are going on in their lives, whether as mundane as a new pet or as weighty as a lost loved one. By giving children a chance to address things on their mind, the meetings help reduce the impact of issues kids may bring from outside school on their ability to learn.

The school's caring mindset extends to students facing unique challenges. Rather than segregating its special education students, ICS puts them in Integrated Co-Teaching (ICT) classes alongside general education students with the help of an additional special education teacher. I visited a second grade ICT class during my visit, where students were in the middle of their twice-weekly Spanish lessons and creating Thanksgiving turkeys labeled with the vocabulary words they had learned. Mr. Levey pointed out various students to me during the visit, outlining home situations they were dealing with, and how the school worked with these children and their families to evaluate their needs.

One parent I talked to coming out of the Association meeting told a similar story about her oldest daughter's transition to the school. When Musiki Glover's daughter first came to ICS after attending a majority-black Pre-K, she found it difficult to adjust to the new, more diverse environment. The school worked with Glover and her daughter through nearly daily meetings about potential solutions being tried as well as a process of "free flowing emails" with the school staff about her daughter's progress. All of this gave Glover confidence in the school's responsiveness and helped her child settle in. Now Glover's daughter is in first grade, with her son in Kindergarten at ICS.

None of these practices are alien to the traditional public schools. Quality school leaders exist everywhere. But the charter schools, driven more directly by parent accountability and student need, rewards educators like Levey for their efforts instead of forcing them to work against the incentives in place. Levey is free to employ who he wants, get rid of them if they don't measure up, and to teach what he thinks parents want their children to learn. None of that is nearly as easy for traditional public schools.

Diversity by choice

Levey faces a two-pronged challenge in building a diverse school student body. Lower income families, which comprise a quarter of ICS' population, can face housing and transportation issues that can make it difficult to come to school in the first place, even if they believe in the promise of the school. Levey has to make sure that he's aware of any of these challenges in his students' lives so help the school work with them to overcome them. In attracting middle class families whose resources give them more options in a choice-rich environment, Levey's offers a wide variety of enrichment offerings. Dance and yoga classes, art curriculum, afterschool theater workshops, and Spanish lessons all act as "signals" of quality among the many offerings available. In an environment of competition, schools like ICS that stay open go further.

As Reason has covered in the past, International Charter School's neighborhood in Brooklyn has been the site of recent tensions along class and racial lines over the redrawing of school zone boundaries. These changes, part of an effort to reduce segregation, typically result in loud, bitter school board meetings. All parents want the best for their children, but when families are forced to go to school based on where they live, those with the resources move to school zones with a reputation for quality, often enhancing segregation in the process. Efforts to increase integration by changing these artificial boundaries can artificially pit groups of parents who want access to better schools against those worried about endangering the funding and quality of their own.

ICS and other schools of choice offer a more workable alternative by integrating communities voluntarily around a commitment to good schools. Levey does so by focusing on developing a quality educational product first and trusting parents to voluntarily buy-in to a shared vision. Glover is one of those parents. She told me about her experiences witnessing highly segregated schools in Houston before she lived in New York, and how she wanted her children to grow up in a more integrated environment to better understand different kinds of people. Glover is part of the Parents Association diversity committee, which she calls "therapeutic." When there are disagreements about what to focus on curriculum or to prioritize in new hires, the committee "is a nice place to be real with one another." Even if Glover doesn't always get her way during the meetings, having the forum and regular access to school leaders makes her feel like her views are appreciated. ICS' focus on heavily engaging with its families shows, and marks the clearest contrast with the schools families I talked to came from.

Looking to the future

The biggest obstacle for International Charter School's future is finding a long-term home, a challenge faced by charter schools across the country. ICS was founded as a Kindergarten, and has built up a grade-level each year, currently serving students in K-2, with plans to expand through 8th grade. ICS currently leases its building but will have to eventually move as the school expands further.

Facilities costs are a perennial check on charter expansion in most places, particularly in New York, where the city Department of Education funds charters with only 70% of the per-pupil resources their traditional public school counterparts receive. Charter schools that want to build their own facilities face higher construction costs than the subsidized services traditional public schools have access too. With higher construction costs than the subsidized services traditional public schools have access to, many charter schools rely on vacant or underused public school buildings to find space. While Mayor Bloomberg supported giving underused spaces to charters, Mayor DeBlasio has been less willing share facilities, citing a supposed lack of space.

Seeing what Levey and others are able to accomplish with less funding and higher up-front costs speaks to the power of the incentives that choice creates for educators. In a choice-rich city like New York, ICS is an example of a new school striving to provide the best services possible to students and their families so that it can continue to grow. With a passionate leader, supportive parents, and a choice system that rewards both, it seems the only thing holding back International Charter School is New York City's own red tape. For the sake of Mr. Levey's students, let's hope ICS overcomes it.