Academic journal article Education Next

The Bronx Is Learning: Content-Rich Curriculum Drives Achievement at Icahn Charter Schools

Academic journal article Education Next

The Bronx Is Learning: Content-Rich Curriculum Drives Achievement at Icahn Charter Schools

Article excerpt

DONALD TRUMP COULD LEARN MUCH about the beautiful culture and rich history of Mexico from the 1st graders in Angela Napoletano's class at Icahn Charter School 3 in the South Bronx. The day I visited her class, students were busy working on a Diego Rivera-style mural, each section representing a unique aspect of Mexican culture. When I told them that I had traveled some in Mexico, the room exploded with curiosity.

"Have you been to Chichen Itza?" one boy asked, jumping out of his seat. "Were you there on the Day of the Dead?" a girl excitedly inquired. Another boy, noticing the colorful striped skirt worn by school principal Marcy Glattstein, said, "Look, Mrs. Glattstein's dress looks like a China poblana!" (a type of traditional Mexican dress). I nearly fainted when a girl correctly pronounced the ancient Aztec name for Mexico City, Tenochtitlan (te-noch-te-tlan).

None of these children were Mexican or had ever been to Mexico. Yet these 6-year-olds knew more about our neighbors to the south than the majority of American adults, and possibly more than many Mexican adults. When I recounted this story to Jeff Litt, superintendent of Icahn's network of seven charter schools, he was unsurprised. "Learning about history, other cultures, other countries--these subjects are fascinating to children," Litt remarked.

Litt understands the importance of content-rich curriculum, especially for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. In the late 1980s, he was principal of one of New York's most dysfunctional schools: P.S. 67, in the South Bronx. (The day before Litt arrived, a teacher was wounded in a shootout.) Litt renamed it the Mohegan School (after its street location) and fought hard to turn it around, replacing much of the teaching staff and rehabilitating the building.

But Litt's breakthrough came two years later, when he attended a forum sponsored by the Center for Educational Innovation (CEI), then part of the Manhattan Institute. A featured speaker was the education scholar E. D. Hirsch, whose surprise bestseller Cultural Literacy had appeared a few years earlier. Litt was mesmerized as Hirsch explained how providing children with background knowledge on a wide variety of topics--history, literature, geography, science, art, and music--was key to building successful readers and learners.

"I was thunderstruck. He described exactly what I had always wanted: to offer kids a rich, broad knowledge of the world," Litt recalls. Hirsch had recently launched the Core Knowledge Foundation to develop curricular material; Litt immediately decided that he wanted to employ the curriculum in his school. Hirsch referred him to Three Oaks Elementary in Fort Myers, Florida, the first school in the nation to implement Core Knowledge. When a Three Oaks administrator visited Mohegan, he told Litt that the curriculum wasn't "well suited" for the school's low-income, minority students. Undeterred, Litt decided to implement Core Knowledge anyway.

The next year, Litt invited Hirsch to see how Core Knowledge was working in the South Bronx. Legendary New York educator Sy Fliegel, the longtime president of CEI, was there, too. "We stopped in a classroom where the music teacher was giving a lesson," Fliegel recounts. "She played Beethoven's Funeral March, and asked, 'Who knows why Beethoven included a funeral march in this symphony?' A little Puerto Rican girl, a 3rd grader, raised her hand and said, 'Well, Napoleon had declared himself emperor, so Beethoven may have felt that democracy had died.' After we picked up Don Hirsch off the floor, he declared Mohegan the national urban-center Core Knowledge model."

Hirsch and Litt still hold each other in the highest regard. "Nobody in American education deserves recognition more than Jeff Litt," Hirsch remarks. Meanwhile, Litt proclaims: "Don Hirsch is my hero."

Breaking Cycles of Poverty

In the 1980s, billionaire financier Carl Icahn and his wife, Gail, opened Icahn House, a large transitional-housing facility in the South Bronx, then and now the country's poorest congressional district. …

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