NEW YORK-When Floyd Flake, a politician and a pastor, talks about school reform, he likes to tell the story of Jesus touching a bent-over woman and making her stand up straight.
"I think the business of Jesus, which animates my actions, is to try to straighten up bent-over situations," Flake says. "Right now, the most bent-over situation I see is public schooling in our inner cities. It's part of our job to straighten it up."
Minorities in urban public schools face gaping achievement gaps. In the New York City Public Schools in 2007, black students scored an average of 30 points lower than white students in math and reading. The majority (55 percent) of black eighth-graders in New York City and 48 percent of Hispanic eighth-graders haven't reached basic proficiency in math, and about half haven't achieved basic proficiency in reading. But Flake and other reformers have shown that it's possible for educators to battle bureaucracy and low expectations for urban minority students, while building community and religious unity.
When Flake, now pastor of the Greater Allen Cathedral of New York, visited the public schools in his district as a New York congressman, he found 27-year-old textbooks and asbestos hanging from the ceilings. Communities disintegrated along with the schools as families moved away in search of better education.
In 1982, he founded Allen Christian School to prove that urban minorities could meet high academic standards and that families and businesses would follow good schools. ACS has 561 students, from pre-K through the eighth grade, and Flake says because of a focus on individual students, they haven't lost a student since 1991. In New York City public schools, 91 percent of third-graders scored advanced or proficient in math while 69 percent scored advanced or proficient in English and language arts. At ACS, however, 100 percent of third-graders scored advanced or proficient in math and 88 percent scored advanced or proficient in ELA.
Linda Morant, director of ACS, said the Queens neighborhood has changed since a fast-food place stood on the site where the three-story, 42-classroom brick building now stands. Families have moved into the neighborhood from the Bronx and Brooklyn just to go to the school, and one family commutes from Pennsylvania. Carl McClendon, a fifth-grade teacher, grew up in the church and had his older students sing in his wedding. Now students like Giovanni Jamieson and Kevin DePass have graduated from ACS and come back to live in the community and teach at the school.
Moussa Drammeh and his wife, Shireena, had just one prenuptial agreement: not to send their kids to a public school. Born in Gambia and raised in Senegal, Drammeh came to the Bronx in 1986 and has lived here half his life: "I know more about the Bronx than I know about Africa."
They investigated some Islamic schools in Long Island, Queens, New Jersey, and Brooklyn, but as they drove home from a school in Long Island and a home they could buy there, he told his wife, "As beautiful as this home is and beautiful and progressive as this community is, I just think that we can build our own school." So they did, converting a small rectory into a school.
They opened their doors on Sept. 11, 2001-so excited and preoccupied that the sky could be falling downtown and they'd barely notice, Drammeh said. Then the phone rang-someone asking if they were insane to open an Islamic school on a day inflamed by religious tension: "Do you know what is happening? They are bombing New York City!"
Drammeh called an emergency meeting and decreed that they wouldn't close for the day. If they did, the bombers "would be the only one with the voice." If they stayed open, they could call for peace.
Islamic Leadership School says it has sought to build religious understanding. The older students participate in an interfaith program where Muslim and Jewish students share family heirlooms and heritage. Sheema Khalid, a teacher and an immigrant five years ago from Pakistan, said the interfaith program created a "very close bond, a very close relationship" that she couldn't put into words, but that was meaningful to her as someone who didn't know much about other religions. She was moved when a Jewish girl took a scarf her own grandmother gave her and tied it around her head in the Muslim style, explaining why the Muslims wear it that way.
Islamic Leadership School has avoided the curriculum controversies that schools like the Islamic Saudi Academy (see "Playing Favorites," Sept. 12, 2009) faced in Fairfax, Va. The school uses Houghton Mifflin textbooks-nothing by any author who promotes violence, Drammeh said. Like ACS, the school has its hands deep in the community. Drammeh is also vice president of the Bronx Clergy Task Force, an interfaith task force that tackles local problems, and the community is active at the Boys and Girls Club, the African Union Day Celebration, and marches for peace.
In another part of the Bronx, a group of kindergarten girls, dressed in navy jumpers and white shirts with "Girls Prep" stitched on the sleeves, are getting noisy. Their teacher rings a bell and the girls suddenly sit poised and still until he tells them, "OK, you can melt!" and they finally exhale. They line up to file through the bright orange and yellow halls-past classrooms dedicated to local and national female heroes-quiet and holding hands.
Boykin Curry, the chairman of Girls Prep Bronx and co-founder of Girls Prep Lower East Side, embraced school reform after working with the Advisory Board Company, a company that found the best ideas for improving organizations and shared them with its members.
It tried to do the same with education, bringing together the superintendents of America's 20 largest school districts and asking what they needed to make their schools better.
"There was just silence," Curry said. The educators finally said they already knew exactly what they needed to do-get rid of incompetent teachers, pay the best teachers more, change ineffective curriculum or adjust it for individual needs-and they couldn't because all the solutions were vetoed by everyone from the mayor to the school board to the teachers union to the janitors union.
Curry realized the problem wasn't lack of knowledge but a crippling governance structure. So he got involved in the school-choice movement and helped begin Girls Prep Lower East Side, a charter school that could give poor families the same option rich families had: a quality, all-girls education.
In the Lower East Side, the first principal built a warm school environment but achieved only mediocre math scores. So the leaders fired the old principal and hired a new one who kept the same teachers, retooled the program, and one year later had every girl passing the state math exam. A traditional public school could never have fired the first principal, Curry points out: "She was a B plus. . . . She just wasn't achieving excellence." Public Prep has expanded to build a middle school, Girls Prep Bronx, and hopefully a boy's school in 2011.
"These are the kids that everyone says, 'Oh you can't educate them. It's not about the schools, it's about their families. They're doomed,'" said Curry. But he, Flake, and Drammeh prove that educators can raise standards, slash bureaucracy, and build community. Of course, it's harder if you come from a single-parent family and your mom is working two jobs and didn't graduate from college herself, said Curry: "We don't view that as an excuse to quit."