For decades, the educational establishment had argued that the persistent achievement gap between the test scores of minority inner-city youths and suburban kids could not be leveled by creating better inner city schools. Poor educational performance, it was asserted, was the result of low socioeconomic status (SES) and until the social and economic conditions of the inner city improved, poor city students would score lower on the standardized tests that determine so many of life’s opportunities. At the margin, inner city schools could help a few students gain better opportunities, but for the most part, educational elites believed SES was destiny.
And yet, on the edges of a warehouse district in New Haven, Connecticut, an intrepid group of educational pioneers were turning this conventional theory on its head. Amistad Academy, a charter school founded by two Yale Law School graduates, was not only getting students on par with their grade levels in reading and math, but was pushing them to perform as well as the best suburban school districts too.
Educators dismissed Amistad’s results as the product of a “boutique school” and claimed their methods weren’t applicable to the general problems of urban education. Amistad’s Director of Academic Affairs Doug McCurry and Executive Director Dacia Toll thought differently. From the beginning, they had been motivated by more than the desire to build a single school; they wanted to change the tenor of the debate on the achievement gap. Five years after opening Amistad, McCurry and Toll opened an additional school in New Haven and four schools in Brooklyn, New York – all of which showed the same promise as Amistad. They dubbed their network of schools Achievement First (AF), and garnered national attention and funding from “venture philanthropists” interested in educational reform.
However, in the summer of 2006, AF was facing critical questions about its future direction. The funding environment in Connecticut for charter schools remained perilous. Representatives of AF’s largest financial backer wanted to put expansion in Connecticut on hold and build more schools in New York, where public funding was more generous. Others on the AF board wanted to open more schools in Connecticut to build on the political momentum in the state. AF also faced questions of how much to spend on its central office function, particularly on curriculum development and teacher recruitment and training. Internally, AF grappled with how expansion would influence its operations and ability to recruit talent. Finally, AF’s leaders considered the fundamental issue of how to best leverage their efforts to drive educational reform and help close the achievement gap nationwide.
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Fawzia Ahmed, Jaan Elias, and Sharon Oster, “Achievement First,” Yale SOM Case 07-021, March 28, 2007
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