By Jeff Mays
HARLEM—The wait list for admission to the Harlem Day Charter School was non-existent. In fact, the East Harlem school had vacancies.
Despite being one of the oldest charter schools in the city, the school was failing and likely to be shut down by its authorizing agent, the State University of New York.
But under the first program of its kind, the operator of the top charter school in the city, Democracy Prep Public Schools, will take over the school starting in July.
It's a bet that Seth Andrew, founder and superintendent of Democracy Prep, which currently operates three charter schools, is willing to make. About 2,000 families are hoping that their kids will be along for the ride.
More than 1,100 applications have been received for 50 kindergarten slots at the school, renamed Harlem Prep Charter School, Andrew says. Another 900 plus applied for K-5 seats.
The applicants lined up starting at 5 p.m. Tuesday outside the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at West 135th Street and Lenox Avenue for the lottery. The 470 seat auditorium was filled to capacity, and some parents were still waiting outside as the lottery began.
The audience groaned when it was announced that only 50 kindergarten slots were available. About 20 percent of the current student body is expected to leave, so parents with children above kindergarten age will be put on a waiting list.
The tense audience listened to a performance from Democracy Prep students before the pre-drawn lottery results were announced.
"They are like the number one school in the city and they make sure urban kids get to go to college and have the same opportunities as well-off kids," said Unicqua Manley as she ushered her two sons, River and Ryan William, 7, into the center.
Single father Maurice Jordan, 44, came to find out if his daughter, Muneerah, 8, would be accepted into the school.
"It's an okay school but I want something better," Jordan said of his daughter's current school.
Andrew called it "the saddest day of year because 95 percent of people will leave saddened and disappointed."
But the chance to have an impact was too great to pass up, he said.
"It is literally one of the lowest performing schools in the Chancellor's progress report and the lowest in Harlem, and Democracy Prep is the highest," said Andrew. "This is a chance to take it from the lowest-performing to the highest-performing."
The ground rules are simple: The only people required to remain at the school are the pupils. The board, including founder Ben Lambert, and most of the teachers will be dismissed. The new school must make demonstrable progress each year and show significant improvement in three years.
Changes will take place in everything from class size— it will increase from an average of 18 or 19 pupils to 27 or 28 — to how long school is in session and how much homework students will get.
A new behavioral reward system will be implemented. Andrew said the school would adopt the Democracy Prep mission statement: "Work hard. Go to college. Change the world."
But some charter school critics think the scenario playing out with Harlem Day Charter School is a symbol of inequality between traditional public schools and charter schools.
"No public school in the city is taken over by another school. It doesn't happen. Why is this different? Why are they establishing a new policy? It's because of favoritism toward charter schools," said District 3 Community Education Council president Noah Gotbaum.
He has fought against the expansion of Success Charter Network, a group of charter schools founded by former City Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz.
"So much of this is experimentation. Parents with kids in public school want the Department of Education to focus on the Ps and Qs, the nuts and bolts. None of this is going to change our system. This is is a nibbling at the edges when the main body needs help," he added.
Andrew said such criticism is unwarranted because the potential closure of Harlem Day Charter shows that charters are held accountable. He has to show progress at Harlem Prep or face a similar fate as the schools predecessor. It also shows the flexibility of charter schools to be able to implement change quickly at a failing school.
"This is only possible because it's a charter school. You can't do this in a public school," Andrew said. "This is a precedent that we hope to see happening at other low-performing charter schools across the country."
Although getting into the school is a "long shot," Jordan says he's determined that his daughter will be successful.
"It depends on what you want for your child because the school can only do so much. At home is where parents have to put their two cents in," he said.