Head of The Class

With test scores down and the dropout rate up, everyone’s looking to fix Texas’ schools. Has a Turkish Muslim who has been influenced by the teachings of an obscure philosopher found an answer? Just ask the hundreds of at-risk students who have graduated from his charter schools.
Head of The Class
Photograph by Adam Voorhes

The beige building on South Braeswood Boulevard looks run-down for the Meyerland section of Houston, which helps explain why the Hebrew academy formerly housed there left for better quarters. The interior offers little to improve that first impression. Painted in shades of light yellow and green, the narrow hallways, though lined with pennants from dozens of colleges, do not inspire. The library/computer lab is a dark, low-ceilinged room partly lit by a string of white Christmas lights. The lunchroom area is more like a wide hallway, with banks of blue lockers along the walls. To make the space seem gracious, several large pictures of the sort one sees in a grandmother’s house hang high above the lockers: landscapes, sailing ships, skylines at eventide. The gym is new, but the basketball court is not regulation size, and the sidelines come within a couple of feet of the walls. It is about what one would expect in a school where 70 percent of the students are economically disadvantaged and 80 percent are either Hispanic or black. At one point in the tour, the principal, Dr. Edib Ercetin, smiled and said with a shrug, “It’s like an old woman. No matter how much makeup she puts on, you can tell.”

It was a matter-of-fact acknowledgement, not an apology. The truth is that Ercetin’s school, the Harmony Science Academy, is one of the best in the country. It received an “exemplary” rating from the Texas Education Agency for the 2008—2009 school year, reflecting its outstanding test scores and its zero dropout rate, placing it in the top 8 percent of all public high schools in the state. This year the HSA received the Silver Medal in U.S. News and World Report’s America’s Best High Schools, putting it in the top 3 percent in the entire nation.

The name may not be familiar to most readers, but the Harmony Science Academy is part of a growing movement in Texas that may revolutionize our educational system. It is a charter school, which is a public school funded by taxpayer money but run by a nonprofit organization or a for-profit business (Harmony is the former). In Texas, the State Board of Education grants the charter, and the TEA monitors the school’s academic progress. The charter establishes a new school district, which can have multiple campuses. Each charter receives $450,000 in start-up money and about $6,000 a year for each student enrolled, approximately $1,200 less than the allotment for students in regular public schools. As compensation for lower funding, charter schools have considerable freedom to operate as they see fit. They set their calendar and the length of their school day, and they have wide discretion as to how and what they teach.

Texas has been particularly hospitable to charters, which began to spring up in the mid-nineties. In 1994 Houston teachers Mark Feinberg and David Levin created the Knowledge Is Power Program ( KIPP). In Irving, a group of concerned citizens opened the first Uplift Education school, in 1997. In 1998 Chris Barbic founded YES Prep in Houston, and that same year Teach for America’s Tom Torkelson and JoAnn Gama launched IDEA Academy—its motto is “No Excuses!”—in Donna. Today, Texas ranks third in the number of charter schools in the country, with 464 campuses and nearly 120,000 students.

The Harmony Public Schools are the largest charter school system in the state. Since the opening of the Meyerland campus, in August 2000, Harmony has grown to include 25 campuses in seventeen Texas cities, most serving economically disadvantaged minority children and often housed in big-box buildings reborn as schools—a Walmart in San Antonio, an Albertsons in Waco, a warehouse in Laredo. Seven more campuses are slated to open this fall, and administrators hope to have a total of 35 schools up and running by 2012, with an enrollment of 24,000 students. The newer schools are already receiving accolades comparable to those at Ercetin’s. Of the 19 that were operating in 2008 and 2009, 11 received the TEA’s “exemplary” rating, 6 were “recognized,” and 2 were “academically acceptable.”

The success of the Harmony schools, and the other Texas charters, is hard to ignore, especially when you consider the crisis in public education. The problems are not new. In 1983 a comprehensive report called A Nation at Risk documented in depressing detail the shortcomings of elementary and secondary education in this country. On a series of nineteen tests, U.S. students never placed first or second when compared with children from all over the world; when compared with students in other industrialized countries, they ranked last on seven of the examinations. U.S. students did fairly well on the reading tests, but they performed miserably in chemistry, physics, and math. Follow-up reports in 1998 and 2006 found little significant improvement. On the benchmark Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, conducted in 1998, the U.S. ranked ahead of only Cyprus and South Africa in math and science literacy. Even our best students ranked at the bottom when compared with the best in other countries. What’s more, tests of fourth-, eighth-, and twelfth-grade students showed that U.S. kids fared worse and worse by comparison as they progressed through the system. Later studies, in 2003 and 2007, concluded that American students had performed poorly at all three levels.

To make things even more problematic, our educational system is also dealing with a rising dropout rate. Major studies indicate that 25 percent of American students fail to graduate from high school. Among blacks and Hispanics, the figure is nearly 40 percent. Closer to home, Texas has ranked dead last in high school graduation rates in recent years, with nearly 49 percent of students failing to earn a diploma. Moreover, of those who do manage to finish high school and enroll in Texas colleges, half need remedial courses and many never graduate. This is not the picture of a nation at risk but of a nation and state in peril.

Though they are not without their detractors, charter schools have tried to

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