Johnson's St. HOPE Expands to Harlem

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(Sacramento, CA)
Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Sacramento mayoral candidate Kevin Johnson’s non-profit, St. HOPE, likes to tout the test scores of its charter schools, including Sacramento High.  According to state exit exam results out yesterday, Sac High saw an 8 percent increase over last year; and its math scores have doubled since St. HOPE took over in 2003.  Johnson says results like these are essential to his educational vision – and they’re a big reason why other cities are seeking him out.  That’s exactly what happened in New York City, where just last month, St. HOPE opened its first school outside Sacramento.


The First Full Day of School
Teacher: “Please walk to our classroom door and wait.  This is fantastic.”
150 students from fifth through seventh grades are walking silently down the hall: single file, hugging the wall.  They’re split into groups of about 25 kids, each with a teacher watching their every move. 
Teacher: “Great.  Gotta get used to it.  If it’s not done right the first time, we’re just gonna do it again.” 
Welcome to the first full day of class at the St. HOPE Leadership Academy on 134th Street in Harlem.  It opened last month, with a student body that’s 99 percent black or Latino.  And it’s already got a 200-student waiting list.  The rigorous, highly structured approach is similar to St. HOPE’s charter schools back home, Sacramento High School and PS7.  And in Harlem – just like Sacramento – St. HOPE ingrains its culture in students every second of every day. 

Berry: “You need to do all of the core values.” 
Lacresha Berry is teaching a 7th grade English/Language Arts class. 
Berry: “No, no, you don’t get to pick and choose what core values you do.  You do all six of them.  And then you can add the pillars, pledge and mission if you want.” 
Berry’s two dozen students are working on word searches and crossword puzzles.  But they’re not solving them; they’re creating them, using the school’s core values, which Principal Ventura Rodriguez says form the acronym HARLEM: 
Rodriguez: “It’s honor, absolute determination, responsibility, leadership, excellence and being mission-driven.  So our entire program in the advisory is around teaching kids those values.” 


New York vs. Sacramento

Behind every St. HOPE school is former NBA star and Sacramento mayoral candidate Kevin Johnson.  Sitting in one of the Harlem school’s empty classrooms, Johnson says he’s proud to see his work in Oak Park reach across the country. 
Johnson: “I was part of a team of people that laid the foundation and created the frameworks, and here in Harlem, those frameworks in Sacramento are what we’re implementing.  You walk around and look at it, and it’s a St. HOPE school.” 
New York City is opening 18 charter schools this fall and is eager to help them get off the ground.  It’s leasing the Harlem building to St. Hope for a dollar.  And Johnson says there’s another benefit:
Johnson: “The per-pupil expenditures – dollars – are a lot more favorable in Harlem, in New York than they are in Sacramento.  So it’s very significant.  There’s more dollars actually going to the classroom.” 
By all accounts, Johnson found support every step of the way from the highest levels of New York City government:  Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his schools chancellor.  The point person on charter schools for the city’s Department of Education is Michael Thomas Duffy.
Duffy: “The mayor and chancellor have a stated policy of making New York the Silicon Valley for charter schools.” 
So St. HOPE’s expansion into Harlem comes just as the city is making charter schools a priority in education reform.  Duffy says he likes what he’s seen in St. HOPE. 
Duffy: “One of the mistakes that charters have made around the country is by moving too fast – especially when you’re moving from one area into another. And I think that one of the things I’ve been impressed with, is how careful they’ve been in coming into New York, into understanding New York and the politics of New York.” 


Pattern of Behavior?

There isn’t any visible opposition now.  But two years ago, when Johnson first tried to come to Harlem, it was a different story.  While working with the city to take over a local high school, St. HOPE ran afoul of some parents.  The parents had originally asked Johnson to help rescue the school, but a letter they wrote the city in 2006 shows a complete turnaround in opinion.
It said Johnson’s organization did not have a plan or strategic vision for the school; that St. HOPE had not gotten along with parents; and that it wanted to, quote: “own the school without real regard for the constituency.” 
Shields: “The parents really need to be a huge part of that equation.  When you are working with people’s kids, you’ve gotta listen to what they tell you.” 
For years, East Sacramento resident Susie Shields has been one of St. HOPE’s most vocal critics.  She points to a huge drop in enrollment at Sac High and an 80 percent staff turnover rate there.  She sees a pattern in the way Kevin Johnson and St. HOPE treat parents – whether in Harlem or in Sacramento. 
Shields: “And it just looked like he wasn’t really interested in that.  It looked like, I’m gonna do it this way, and if you don’t do it, it’s my way or the highway.” 
Sac High’s graduation rates remain unchanged from the days before it became a charter school.  But St. HOPE frequently touts test results like yesterday’s as proof its educational method is working.  Meanwhile, Johnson says the Harlem letter does not reflect the opinions of all the school’s parents. 


Other Cities Could be Next

The St. HOPE Leadership Academy has five years to prove it deserves to be in Harlem.  Then, it’ll have to get its charter re-approved.  And Johnson says other expansion opportunities are coming up as well – most likely in Chicago and Washington, DC.
Johnson: “They’re all talking about, can you come in and take over our worst-performing high school and turn it around like you’ve done Sac High.”

As for Johnson himself, he’s stepped down from St. HOPE to focus on running for Sacramento mayor.