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New York Daily News reporter exposes key to charter schools' 'success' -- huge marketing budgets

An recent article in the New York Daily News continued the critical look at New York City's charter schools by reporter Juan Gonzalez.

Local charter schools like Harlem Success is big business as millions are poured into marketing

Juan Gonzalez - News (Friday, October 1st 2010, 4:00 AM)

The image of hundreds of black and Latino parents packed in an auditorium desperately hoping their child would "win" the lottery and get into a local charter school has assumed mythic status in media reports on education reform.

Two new two documentaries, "The Lottery" and "Waiting for Superman," made such events the emotional climax of their narratives. The former centered on Harlem Success, the charter network Schools Chancellor Joel Klein hails when he points to the demand for more charter schools.

But a Daily News review of Harlem Success financial reports suggests the network's huge backlog of applicants is the result of a carefully crafted Madison Ave.-style promotional campaign.

In the two-year period between July 2007 and June 2009, Harlem Success spent $1.3 million to market itself to the Harlem community, the group's most recent financial filings show.

Of that total, more than $1 million was spent directly on student recruitment. The campaign included posters at bus stops, Internet and radio ads, mass mailings of glossy brochures to tens of thousands of public school parents in upper Manhattan and the Bronx, and the hiring of up to 50 community residents part-time to go door-to-door in Harlem soliciting applicants.

All of this was done to fill a mere 900 seats. Since each of the first four Harlem Success schools was launched with only a kindergarten and first grade, the entire network was limited during the 2008-2009 school year by its state charters to only 900 pupils. It has since opened two more schools in the Bronx this fall and added more grades to its initial schools.

In effect, Harlem Success CEO and former City Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz shelled out more than $1,100 per child between 2007 and 2009 to fill the first 900 seats in her schools.

By comparison, the city Department of Education spent $74 per student for textbooks, educational software and library books in the 2008-2009 school year. It spent $388 per student on food, allotted only $287 per child for classroom supplies and furniture and another $343 for transportation, the city's Independent Budget Office found.

Your average public school, even the best performing one, is lucky to squeeze a few hundred dollars from its budget for flyers or brochures to recruit students.

"We won't apologize for recruiting students for Success Academy charter schools," said Jenny Sedlis, the network's director of external relations. "As the quality of our education and test scores clearly prove, we are offering kids from long disadvantaged communities the chance to flourish, go to college and be successful."

No one questions that Harlem Success schools have produced uniformly high test scores in their few years of existence. But its well-heeled schools also have touched off bitter space wars with regular public school parents.

When she launched Harlem Success four years ago with the backing of a group of hedge fund millionaires, Moskowitz vowed to expand to more than 20 schools in a few years. By generating a huge waiting list, she has been able to pressure state officials to let her open more schools.

That's why Moskowitz chose to be the marketing juggernaut of the charter school movement.

It's worked. This week, her network got multimillion grants in federal and private money.

The selling of charter schools has indeed become big business.

jgonzalez@nydailynews.com



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