HARLEM — The second-grade students at Harlem Prep Charter School were playing "Mary Had a Little Lamb" on their recorders when, just as the students started playing out of sync, music teacher Brian Duran sensed a slip in concentration.
"Recorders in lap. Backs off seat," Duran told 25 students, who stopped playing and popped to attention before starting again.
Concentrating on the task at hand and paying attention at Harlem Prep are just as important as hitting the right note — particularly when the elementary school only has a few years to improve test scores enough to keep it open.
In a first-of-its-kind arrangement, the State University of New York allowed the operators of the city's top charter middle school, Democracy Prep Public Schools, to take over a 10-year-old failing charter elementary school, Harlem Day.
Democracy Prep changed the name of the school, located on 123rd Street in East Harlem, to Harlem Prep.
"We want 100 percent of focus 100 percent of the time," said Katie Duffy, interim executive director at Harlem Prep and chief of staff at Democracy Prep. "The focus is on the basics. The focus is on instruction. How many kids are getting it?"
In 2010, only 25 percent of the kids at Harlem Day were proficient in math and only 20 percent were proficient in English. Harlem Prep's goal is for 75 percent of students to meet standards on the state English Language Arts test by the second year, school officials said.
To help reach those goals, Democracy Prep instituted its tight brand of instruction and lengthened the school day and the school year. Children eat lunch in silence and walk the hallways quietly, in straight lines.
Class sizes at Harlem Prep are larger, averaging between 24 and 29 students per class. Unlike many charter schools, there isn't a focus on innovation but the basics. Classes have a lead teacher and a co-teacher.
"People get excited about innovation but we should really be excited about what works," said Duffy. "We know what works."
Harlem Day, founded by businessman Ben Lambert, had numerous difficulties in its waning years, including low test scores and high turnover of administrators and teachers. Duffy herself left Harlem Day for Democracy Prep in 2007.
Parents, teachers and students say there is a noticeable difference — though not all of the kids are excited about the changes.
Parent Jamila Nicholas, a mother of five who runs her own design business and has a second-grader and a kindergartener at Harlem Prep, said there is less free time at the school and more homework. Instead of kids just taking an art class, doses of reading are mixed in.
"We used to have more trips," said her daughter, Savannah, 7, who also complained about the lack of recess.
Nicholas, who joined the school's Family Leadership Council, said some parents also want their kids to have more opportunities for physical activities.
It is something the council is discussing, she said, but the members understand the reasoning behind the decision.
"They know there are concerns about recess," she said. "But they want to get the kids' level up. I knew what I was getting into."
Parent Kim Brown likes that the new school is "pushing them harder" than Harlem Day.
That school was lackadaisical about attendance and tardiness, Brown noted, whereas at Harlem Prep, parents are guaranteed to get a call asking out about a student's absence.
"It seems like the military the way they run the school. Hands at side, creases in the pants," said Brown, who is studying early childhood education. "But I like it and appreciate it.
"They'll appreciate the structure when they get to college," she said, looking at her son, Toyyon, an 11-year-old fifth-grader. "A lot of kids don't get the discipline about how to make proper choices, how to say 'No' and pursue what you believe in and not give up."
Toyyon said: "I like it but I don't get enough time for talking or playing. We should have more after-school programs like track or basketball."
The transition has not been an easy one. About 70 percent of Harlem Day's 270 students remained at Harlem Prep. The majority of the teachers are new.
After Democracy Prep came in and performed student assessments, they determined that more than half the students needed to be kept in the same grade because they lacked basic skills.
"It was a huge shock to some of the families and we lost a number of families because of that decision," Duffy said.
But she said she noticed a difference in former Harlem Day grads, who went to middle school at Democracy Prep.
"At Democracy Prep they were growing scholars focused on a path to college," she said.
Seth Andrew, founder and superintendent of Democracy Prep, was interested in taking on the challenge of overhauling a failing school so that it could be used as a model to help other such schools, Duffy said.
"This can stand as a model for education writ large," Duffy said. "It's not something that can only be done by charter schools. It allows school districts to say closure isn't the only option."