How To End Poverty in the South Bronx

Icahn charter schools are helping to change one of the poorest parts of America. Here's how.


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.

Scroll down for downloadable versions and subscribe to Reason TV's YouTube Channel to receive automatic updates when new material goes live.

NEXT: How California Could Have Avoided Its Epic Water Crisis

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. No, it’s the lead paint.

    1. No, there aren’t enough abortions

    2. Start working at home with Google! It’s by-far the best job I’ve had. Last Wednesday I got a brand new BMW since getting a check for $6474 this – 4 weeks past. I began this 8-months ago and immediately was bringing home at least $77 per hour. I work through this link, go? to tech tab for work detail,,,,,,,


      1. So, you test for lead paint over the Internet?

  2. My favorite part of this is how he didn’t ask for permission to make the changes at Mohegan, he just went and did it.

    1. Same. He didn’t take FYTW as an answer and ignored that statist progtards that run the city…and voila!…the school did significantly better. God (or whatever deity) bless this man.

      I’m shocked he wasn’t run out on a rail for making the statists that run the city look like the total unthinking morons that they are.

      I wonder how PS67 is doing now…

  3. Well, it helps if we all chip in.

    1. +1 bag of red mulch

      1. Red sucks

        +1 bag of black mulch (no racist)

        1. Always bet on black.

          1. +57

  4. Yeah, yeah but what about the sweatshop monocle manufacturing that goes on in the basement after hours?

    1. It is part of the educational process. In addition, we will need extra children so that we can maintain current production levels while having enough surplus to continue our program of child sacrifice. Without child sacrifice, how can we maintain sufficient negotiating leverage with the Dark Prince of Sin so as to ensure that our dreams of sending Judge [REDACTED] to the very depths of hell come true?

      1. Oh sonofa — I always forget the child sacrifices.

        I hope I don’t get audited. My orphan numbers are completely out of whack.

        1. I’m with you Cat. I really don’t have the stomach for sacrificing children, so the Dark Gods have to put up the occasional Revenuer or Code Enforcement Officer.

          /the preceding comment was sarcastic and entirely in jest. No actual Revenuers or Code Enforcement Officers have been sacrificed to Dark Gods. Nor do I intend for or advocate that human sacrifice occur.

  5. How To End Poverty in the South Bronx

    Artisanal mayonnaise?

    1. My closing tag was subpoenaed to the district of Southern New York.

  6. How to end poverty in the South Bronx?

    Raise the minimum wage to $15.00. Done and done!

    1. Your new handle – it is excellent.

      It appears to be made of ash, as all good handles are. In its time, it will be shredded….as is tradiition….

      1. In accordance with the Prophecy.

  7. …which has a more relaxed atmosphere and yet also posts exceptionally high test scores.

    Okay, look. I know you got a crocodile in spelling, but this has gone too far.

    1. Science makes [Redacted] feel like … Elvis

      What does that even mean? Apparently we need yet another National Conversation.

  8. “That’s 16,513 parents who turned their back on the Department of Education

    Wouldn’t that be closer to 33,026 parents? If this is the kind of mathematics being taught at this charter school….

    (I realize there’s a lot of single-parent families, and a lot of families with more than 1 child. But a bigger number drives the point home better.)

    1. Then the proper construction would be “That’s 16,513 families who…”

      If one is speaking of parents then the number would be 33,026. Because everyone has two, regardless of their involvement. You don’t get kids without two, no matter how hard you try.

      1. You don’t get kids without at least two

        FTF This Modern World

  9. “How To End Poverty in the South Bronx”

    Start a craft Brewery and an art studio, within 18 months hipsters will have driven all of the poor out of the area.

    Sure those people will still be poor and some other area will now be experiencing endemic poverty but it will have been ended in the South Bronx

    1. as long as the poverty is in some anonymous suburb hardly anyone has heard of instead of the big city everyone knows, prog emotions are satisfied.

      1. I’ve heard that poverty in trailer parks and rural communities in the mountains is completely invisible to all right thinking people

        1. Probably the lack of color. If only those people were easier to see.

  10. Is the Core Knowledge from the PS67 link now Common Core?

    1. Core Knowledge is “knowing how to run a wood chipper”.

      Common Core is “a bunch of people have to share a wood chipper”.

      See the difference?

      1. Is this a story problem? Because I like story problems.

        1. Let X be the number of gag orders ….

  11. 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.”

    This sort of wanton disregard and open disdain for society’s rules will land you in prison for life, in some judges’ courts.

    1. Litt is no chip off the old block….

    2. In Litt’s school, democracy does not exist.

  12. Oh god this is so heartwarming. Thank you for the reverse nut-punch. I really needed that.

    I just love how he goes and hires retired principals by telling them they finally get a shot at running a school properly, without constant interference.

    1. It hurts to watch this. It’s obvious that there have been individuals capable of running these schools and teaching kids to a high level this whole time (for decades), and teachers’ unions and their pet politicians have been shackling them. How many kids received shit educations paid for on the public dime because some asshat was protecting their turf? This is immorality.

      1. No. This is SPARTA!!!

      2. That’s true. I’m just so used to awfulness in public education that it’s become the baseline, so seeing people overcome the broken insanity is encouraging.

  13. I credit my success to dropping out of a shitty school before it killed my soul.

  14. I think someone better verify those test scores. Things too good to be true usually aren’t.

    1. I’d be more interested in seeing at what rate the grads from this charter system graduate from college. Is it better of worse than the average for urban poor?

  15. Related: Useless New York Republican idiots are blocking a Democrat sponsored bill to end the criminalization of gravity knives in New York.

    This is astonishing:

    “In some cases, second-amendment-supporting Republican legislators were actively sponsoring bills to roll back restrictions on firearms even as they helped ensure that New Yorkers ? overwhelmingly New Yorkers of color ? continued to be arrested for possessing knives.”


    “So what is the opposition about? It’s not exactly clear, but one Republican who voted against the bill in the assembly, Joseph Saladino of Long Island, gave a hint in his statement on the assembly floor, noting that the New York State Police Council has opposed the measure. And sources in the senate tell the Voice that the bill has been quietly opposed by district attorneys in the five boroughs as well, though apparently not publicly. The New York State District Attorney’s Association says they haven’t taken an official position.”

    Police union uber alles!

    1. Link clobbered.

    2. Fear of crime runs deep in the GOP dna.

      1. Good thing Obama ended America’s odious racial discourse.

    3. Useless New York Republican idiots

      New York Republicans are terrible? News to me.

      1. New York has Republicans? News to me.

    4. Also New York (City and State) and Albany are named after a slavetrader and their names are symbolic of England’s desire to gain control of the Slave Trade from the Dutch (who were the ones who introduced slavery to Virginia in the first place).

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.