Grading a School’s First Year

Hard Lessons: The Promise of an Inner City Charters School By Jonathan Schorr | Ballantine Books

Vividly rendered heroes and villains, gripping plot twists, and a nail-biting climax are not what you’d expect from a case study of a charter school. But Jonathan Schorr’s account of the struggle to create and keep afloat the E.C. Reems Academy in Oakland, California, delivers just that. A former teacher and education reporter, Schorr tracked a coalition of frustrated parents, community activists, and a fledgling nonprofit as the group hung its hopes on a charter as an antidote to Oakland’s blighted public schools.

E.C. Reems rushed to open its doors in 1999, a mere five months after the Oakland School Board approved its charter, and became home to students “so achingly behind that they might have been runners wandering at the starting blocks long after the race had begun.”

To the delight of its critics, the school suffered through a difficult first year — including a threat to shut it down over mishandled paperwork — and failed to dramatically impact the students’ test scores. But it did survive. And while the academic progress of this school — and most of the nation’s 2,400 recently minted charter schools — remains in the too-soon-to-tell category, E.C. Reems has already succeeded in a less quantifiable sense. It is “welcoming and open,” he writes, a place “where parents say they have a voice.” What makes a school “good,” Schorr concludes, is measured not only by the test performances of its students, but by the ways in which it “makes communities and families stronger.”