Year after year, Harlem Academy students improve their performance on standardized tests. Most notably, scores jump an average of 11 points after a student’s first year at HA. We took a closer look at the second-grade class to see how this growth was accomplished during their first year at Harlem Academy.
“Tell me about your favorite book that you’ve read this year,” asks Head of School Vinny Dotoli. Two students are engaging with him and a visitor to the school. They are the classroom greeters for the second grade this week, and both are eager to answer.
“I liked the Mercy Watson books,” says one, “because they show initiative and determination. They never give up.” The other says, “Sonia Sotomayor’s biography was my favorite because she shows compassion and cares for her community.”
These are seven-year-olds – bright, engaged, confident, and performing above their grade level. But this wasn’t always the case. When these students and their classmates started at Harlem Academy, most were testing in the 75th-85th percentile on nationally standardized tests – too high to be challenged by local charter and public schools, but also too low to gain access to the citywide gifted and talented programs. Without the options available to their peers in more affluent communities, their potential was going unrealized.
By the end of first grade, their scores had jumped an average of 11 percentile points.
First-grade teacher Ashley Barnett remembers this class. “These are bright kids,” she says, “but often they haven’t been pushed before. Our curriculum challenges them and builds their core academic skills.”
She remembers one student who exemplified this determination. “Sophie started out really behind in first grade. She didn’t know as many words by sight, had to sound more out, didn’t know how to spell. But she put in extra effort and focused on her work. She and her parents looked for extra resources. As the year progressed, we saw tremendous growth. By the end of October, she was able to identify 80 out of 100 sight words. By December she was up to at least 95 out of 100.”
Sophie’s parents realized that she was not being challenged at her previous school. “Her preschool and kindergarten didn’t push her hard enough,” says her father. “We knew that she was smart; she just needed some extra help to catch up. Harlem Academy is helping her to realize her full potential. She quotes the school creed to our family sometimes. Her favorite line is ‘I don’t give up.’”
Sophie continued to thrive throughout first grade, ending the year reading at a third-grade level. In fact, the whole class grew considerably, improving an average of 1.5 years in reading levels, with some ending first grade reading at a fourth-grade level.
From the earliest ages, Harlem Academy builds strong, self-directed learners. When students get blocked, teachers ask what they’ve tried and what they will try next. The goal is to nurture their determination and confidence.
“The goal at HA is to always set the bar a little bit higher,” explains Mr. Dotoli. “We don’t just stamp excellence and accept the status quo. We actively encourage students to push themselves every day.”
Second-grade teacher Aja Hanna says, “We try different strategies for different kids. We give them the freedom to learn how they learn best.”
“Some of them ask for more reading books,” adds Ms. Barnett. “Some want more math challenges or writing practice. And we help them move that forward.”
The teachers credit this success to Harlem Academy’s holistic approach to education. “We want them to love learning,” says Ms. Barnett. “We focus on more than just teaching reading and math skills. We encourage them to try different approaches and find the right path for them. We want to give them guidelines and skills they’ll use throughout their lives. That’s the joy of teaching.”
First-grade teacher Angela Bailey sums it up best. “At 6 p.m. our students ask their parents to wait outside because they’re not ready to leave school yet. It’s a great place to be.”