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How Is a Hedge Fund Like a School?

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By the spring of 2004, those “long enrollers,” as they’re called, were closer than ever to being considered entirely successful. Though the fourth-grade reading-test results showed 71 percent at grade level, the long enrollers were 84 percent. The math scores were through the roof—89 percent of all the kids, not just long enrollers, passed the state test. By spring 2005, the numbers inched up: Fourth-graders were up to 95 percent in math and holding steady in reading. Greenblatt had all but met his goal, a year early. Every year an influx of new kids threatens the school’s ability to keep up momentum, but the best sign of long-term progress is that, according to the school’s data, last year’s kindergarten had 99 percent of the kids at their proper reading level.

Last spring, Greenblatt and Nelson were recognized with a Pathfinder Award. Nelson arranged an assembly to celebrate in the school’s tiny auditorium. She invited all the local officials, the superintendent, the local paper. The fifth-graders, she decided, would perform for the parents, since it was their fourth-grade test scores that helped to win the award.

“They sang,” she says. “To know that you are getting an award based on your performance measured up against 3,000 schools in New York State—and that you were one of fourteen schools, not just for reading but for math too? That was like adrenaline pumped into everyone.”

The question, of course, is, can P.S. 65Q’s success be replicated citywide? Dissenters say that some of Greenblatt’s ideas simply aren’t workable on a large scale. The extra $1,000 per student may not be theoretically prohibitive, but barring a windfall from the CFE lawsuit, it’s difficult to imagine a mayor waking up one day and deciding to increase the $14.8 billion school budget by 10 percent. Greenblatt caught a break when the union didn’t complain about his placing ads in the Times for tutors instead of hiring union employees. “I constantly want things that work to stay in place,” says Randi Weingarten, the union chief, who adds that she admires what Greenblatt’s school has accomplished. Yet it’s hard to see her tolerating a similar maneuver in all 1,400 schools. Greenblatt was also able to cherry-pick talent. In Iris Nelson, he found an educator with a rare combination of experience and a willingness to try an unconventional curriculum. But what happens at a school where the management and staff simply aren’t as capable or adaptive?

Then there’s realpolitik. Joel Klein visited the school last fall with Greenblatt and praised his efforts; he, too, has worked to bring extra tutoring time into city schools, starting last week with a mandated 37.5 minutes for struggling students. But Klein is hardly ready to embrace Greenblatt’s plan as a blueprint for systemwide success. “I would be careful to generalize, when there are so many different variables, as to what the magic in the process is,” the chancellor says. “One school is always great. But it’s not a pattern of practice.” (If the chancellor were ever in a position to spend an extra $1,000 on every child, he says he’d spend it on providing prekindergarten for every child in New York. So, in a rare case of agreement, would Randi Weingarten.)

Even if the Greenblatt model could be replicated, should it be? Success for All, some educators argue, is too scripted. Although evidence shows that the program’s emphasis on basic skills does help kids learn to read, a generation of New York educators remains committed to a more inquiry-based, or “whole language,” approach, in which kids learn from context and read actual books earlier, developing an enthusiasm for reading that “drill and kill” strategies don’t foster, and picking up the technical skills of reading along the way. Klein has taken unprecedented steps to bring skills-based learning into the New York schools, but he remains unwilling to ditch his entire curriculum for something as rote as Success for All.

Soon enough, we’ll see if Greenblatt can crank out his next franchise. Next year, he and one of his Gotham Capital partners, John Petry, are planning to open the Harlem Success Academy, a charter school approved by the state in December. Early plans are for a school day that runs from 8:20 a.m. to 5 p.m. and includes an infusion of the arts—even yoga and karate classes. Success for All will be the curriculum, and the same sort of supplementary tutoring and data management will be used. Bob Slavin will be on the board. Iris Nelson has been hired as a consultant both at the charter school and at P.S. 65Q (her bonus from the Pathfinder Award bumped up her pensionable salary to the point where it made more sense for her to retire than stay working at the school). And the executive director of the charter school is Eva Moskowitz, the former City Council member who chaired the education committee and often proved a tenacious foil to the mayor, the chancellor, and the teachers union.


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