CLAREMONT — On Monday, the latest Icahn charter school opened its doors in The Bronx, continuing the quiet expansion of one of the city’s largest and most successful charter networks.
Icahn 6 Charter School, which will share space inside a massive building adjacent to Crotona Park, joins a network of five existing Bronx charter schools, with two more on the way, founded by billionaire financier Carl Icahn.
The network maintains an admission rate of 5 percent, which is lower than that of Harvard University. Its state test scores, with 90-percent passing rates in math, beat out every charter network in the city except for one. And it has achieved all this in The Bronx, the school system’s lowest-performing borough.
“Our philosophy is simple — every child can excel,” said Jeffrey Litt, Icahn’s superintendent, who helped open the network’s first school in 2001.
“And we take responsibility for it,” he added. “The child’s failure is our failure, and the child’s success is our success.”
Icahn 6, which will eventually expand to the fifth grade, begins as a K-2 school with an Icahn veteran, Brian Geelan, as principal. The school is co-located at 1701 Fulton Ave. with P.S./M.S. 4 and Leadership Institute, a high school.
Litt, an animated Bronx native who was on the weight-lifting team on the team at Clinton High School and broke both his nose and jaw in teenage street fights, worked for decades in the traditional public school system before moving to charters. He was the founding principal at Icahn Charter School 1 and, as superintendent, he handpicked the principals of the other five schools, all of which opened since 2007.
He cites many factors in the schools’ success.
The school board and each principal keep a watchful eye on performance data, Litt said, using a battery of in-house measurements in addition to the state tests. As soon as students show signs of struggling, they are referred to small “targeted assistance” groups, as well as weekend and after-school tutoring.
Icahn schools keep classes limited to 18 students and offer longer and more school days than the city’s district schools.
The network provides schools with a comprehensive curriculum called Core Knowledge that details exactly what content students must learn each year. Litt said this fills the knowledge gaps that many children carry to school.
The network also keeps classroom supply closets well-stocked. Nettie Cassidy, 25, a new teacher at Icahn 6, said she spent three days unpacking pristine books for the class library and heard she will soon receive iPads to complement her classroom’s Mac desktop computers.
But Litt insists the single greatest source of the schools’ high achievement is the staff, which, thanks to the network’s sterling reputation, he is allowed to hire selectively.
“I don't gamble — these are my children,” Litt said. “You don’t get the job because you’re a nice person….You get the job because you’re the best there is.”
Last school year, at Icahn 4 in Morris Park, a greater share of students passed the state math and English tests than at any other charter school in the city, according to an analysis by the New York City Charter School Center. The passing rate of the network as a whole was second only to Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy charter network.
In 2011, 91 percent of students at Icahn 1 passed the state math test, compared to 40 percent of students in the local school district, District 9. In English, 72 percent of Icahn 1 students passed the exam, while only a quarter of the district's students managed to do the same.
Such high scores have spurred overwhelming demand for Icahn seats. In April, 5,745 students entered a lottery for 288 open spots at the six Icahn schools.
To meet this demand, the network intends to keep growing.
Litt said he envisions about a dozen Icahn schools in New York, and perhaps more in other cities, from Newark to New Orleans. Litt, who once taught incarcerated teens, said he has also started to explore the possibility of collaborating with the city’s network of residential treatment facilities for young people with emotional problems.
Despite their success, the network's schools have not been problem-free.
Critics have noted that some Icahn schools serve fewer hard-to-reach students, such as those with limited English skills or special needs, than district schools. For example, just 2 percent of Icahn 1 students in 2011 were English language learners, compared to 26 percent of students in District 9.
And Icahn 3, which shares a building with Icahns 4 and 5, has trailed behind its network peers on the state tests, earning a "D" on its most recent city report card, while the other Icahn schools received "A's."
Litt questioned the accuracy of the city's school rating system, but said he has made improvements at Icahn 3, including replacing some staff. And he forcefully denied that the network fails to serve its fair share of challenging students, noting that admissions are determined by a lottery.
He added that some critics appear envious of Icahn's success.
"Stop pointing and pick up a mirror," Litt said.
Among local parents, the most common complaint about Icahn schools is that there aren't enough of them.
Michelle Reyes, 53, entered her daughter into Icahn's lottery — twice — but did not win a seat. Though she is satisifed with the District 9 middle school her daughter now attends, she said Icahn could probably teach it a thing or two.
"I would like them to share their secrets," Reyes said about the network. "We all have the same goal — to help our kids get a good education."