Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Ross GLobal Charter in the New Yorker

 Read more http://www.newyorker.com/talk/2011/01/17/110117ta_talk_mead#ixzz1AmfI9pWP

SPIRALLING

by Rebecca MeadJANUARY 17, 2011

When Courtney Sale Ross, the widow of Steve Ross, the former C.E.O. of Time Warner, and the founder of the Ross Global Academy, a charter school in the East Village, was told, last month, to expect a 9 A.M. phone call from the outgoing New York City schools chancellor, Joel Klein, she feared that it would not bring good news. Her academy, which was founded five years ago amid considerable fanfare—it promised a so-called spiral curriculum, encompassing the history of civilization across all cultures, and also offered instruction in eating organically and yoga—recently had the distinction of getting the worst progress report of any charter school in the city, with seventy-five per cent of its students failing English and seventy per cent of them failing math. The school, into which Ross and members of her board have poured eight million dollars of their own money, has had six principals, has occupied three locations, and lost three-quarters of its teachers last year; its charter is up for renewal this month. At eight-thirty on the appointed morning, Ross’s phone rang; on the line was Marc Sternberg, a deputy chancellor. “He said the most extraordinary thing,” Ross recalled last week. “He said, ‘I am informing you that the Department of Education is going to recommend a non-renewal.’ He said, ‘I want you to know, Courtney, that everybody here respects you, and we really need people like you.’ I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me—you’re going to close the school, and you need people like me?’ ”
Among people like Ross—wealthy, connected professionals, whose own children are invariably privately educated—a passion for public education has lately become a favored cause. One has even just been appointed chancellor. (Despite being neighbors on the Upper East Side, Ross says that she’s never met Cathie Black, the new head of New York’s schools.) As an educator, Ross is self-taught—she founded the private Ross School, in East Hampton, twenty years ago, as an alternative to homeschooling her daughter, Nicole—and the Ross Global Academy, whose students are overwhelmingly black or Hispanic, and the majority of whom are poor, is her first venture in the U.S. public system. “I did build a school, so I know how hard it is,” she said. “I didn’t go into this thinking that it was going to be a cakewalk.”
After requesting a meeting with Klein, at which Ross and her board proved unpersuasive, Ross and her attorneys last week filed a legal petition calling the Department of Education’s recommendation “arbitrary and capricious” and alleging that it has violated its own procedures in its haste to announce the school’s closure. Late last week, Ross was hoping that the State Board of Regents, which meets this week, would grant her school a reprieve. But if the closure is approved, Ross said, “We will fight it in the courts. We will fight it as far as we can fight it.”
Speaking at the Ross Institute, her private foundation, Ross, who wore a gray pants suit and had her blond hair pinned on top of her head, acknowledged that her academy had not achieved all that she had hoped. But she also suggested—as the legal petition does—that the decision to close the school was a political move, made to appease the teachers’ union. “I can only surmise, but regular public schools are unionized, and charter schools don’t have to be unionized,” she said. She also implied that the Department of Education, which aims to open two dozen new charter schools this year, might have its eye on the Ross Global Academy’s space, which she and other donors recently renovated, at a cost of more than three million dollars, transforming the cafeteria into the Spiral CafĂ©, complete with batik-covered banquettes and noise-abating ceiling tiles; decorating the walls with art posters; and furnishing the classrooms with blond-wood tables.
The school, on East Eleventh Street, is home to more than four hundred students, and when Ross visited last week she walked from classroom to classroom, fondly patting heads. She looked in on the library, which was hung with reproductions of Klimt, Picasso, and Rousseau, and had a copy of Michelangelo’s “Bound Slave” statue. There—in an apparent detour from studying the spiral of cultural progress in strict chronological order—third graders watched a Knuffle Bunny video. Ross saw an art teacher preparing a fourth-grade class for a field trip to the National Museum of the American Indian by showing them images of richly beaded costumes. One girl raised her hand: “How did they get their beads? Because I know that they didn’t go to a ninety-nine-cent store.” Ross interjected, “They had shells, and also the white man brought beads.” In another classroom, one youngster beamed with recognition—“You’re Mrs. Ross!”—while a boy who had been intently coloring a picture of the sun looked confused when the visitor was introduced as the founder of the school. “You found the school?” he asked. “Yes, I founded it,” Ross said, recognizing an opening for an on-the-spot vocabulary lesson. “That means I started it.” 

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