Another “Miracle School” Debunked: Harlem Village Academies


” All that holds Village Academies together is Deborah Kenny’s unrelenting ambition and greed.”

Gary Rubenstein looks closely at yet another charter school touted as a miracle school by the ed reformers with their accolades echoed by the press. To find out what’s really going on, check out Gary’s post:

It takes a village.

Probably the worst part about being an opponent of bad education reform is when I have to ‘debunk’ a potential ‘miracle school.’  A ‘miracle’ school is one that gets extremely high test scores despite having the same types of students as the nearby failing school.  The miracle school, if it exists, would prove that poverty does not, in fact, matter.  All you need is harder working teachers.

Debunking schools is not bad because it is difficult.  Finding the incriminating data usually takes less than an hour.  What’s bad about it is that I know some people will misunderstand my intentions.  The reason I need to debunk miracle schools is because lawmakers use them as examples of why it is good education reform practice to close down failing schools and fire their teachers.  My purpose is to show that the good test scores, if they really have them, come at an even greater cost.  The more I can show that the ‘miracle’ schools aren’t any better than the failing schools, maybe people will be more outraged when ‘failing’ schools are shut down.

The latest ‘miracle’ school getting a lot of attention is Harlem Village Academy Charter School.  The founder of the school, Deborah Kenny, recently published a book about her experience, called ‘Born To Rise.’  The school was featured on NBC with Brian Williams.

On their homepage, Harlem Village Academy shares their results, which include #1 school in Harlem for 8th grade reading and math, with 100% proficient in math for three straight years.  They also have a near perfect New York Regents passing rate.

Throughout the years, though, this school has been criticized for its high attrition rate of both students and teachers.  Two good posts from about two years ago are here and here.  With the release of the new book, I thought I’d check the most recent 2010-2011 data to see what is happening there.

I downloaded the recent state and city report cards from here and also the state report cards for New York City district 5 here, and found some interesting information.

In 2010-2011, HVA had 55% free lunch and 13% reduced lunch.  The district, that year, had 74% free with 5% reduced.

In 2010-2011, HVA had 3% LEP vs. 11% for the whole district.

In 2010-2011 38% of the students at HVA were suspended for at least one day while 7% were suspended for the whole district.

Student attrition at HVA is huge.  For example, the 66 5th graders in 2007-2008 have shrunk to just 16 9th graders in the 2010-2011 school year.  This is a 75% attrition.  In that same time, the district that the school is in went from 904 5th graders in 2007-2008 to 1313 9th graders in 2010-2011.  That is a 45% growth.

Though these are different cohorts, the graph below from The Charter Center show HVA’s enrollment by grade for 2010-2011.  This is not what this graph would look like in a regular school.

As far as their achievement, it is true that the students had a high passing rate on their state tests, particularly in math.  But when I looked at their Regents grades, I noticed that, according to their state report card, no students took the Geometry or the Algebra II / Trigonometry Regents.  So their 100% passing rate seems to come from all their students, through 12th grade, only taking the 9th grade level Algebra Regents.  When I asked the school, though a mutual acquaintance, why this was, they wrote back that the state didn’t include all the data and they actually had 90 students take Geometry (nothing about Algebra II), and that 82% passed.  But since they only had 80 students who could feasibly qualify to take that test, this seems unlikely.  I currently have a data request into the NYC DOE to clear this up, so I will update if I get new information.

When a school is truly great, teachers want to keep teaching there year after year.  So it should be telling that in this school over the past three years the amount of staff turnover was 2007-2008 53%, for 2008-2009, 38%, and for 2009-2010, a whopping 61%.  By comparison, the teacher attrition for the entire district in 2009-2010 was just 19%.

To me, this teacher turnover is the most alarming statistic of all.  So I tracked down a TFA alum named Sabrina Strand who taught for one year there.  Sabrina wrote an excellent blog post called ‘I’m no Superman.’  I asked her if she would give more details about her experience, and here is what she wrote:

I’m really glad you’re dedicated to exposing the truth behind the whole TFA/charter school charade. It is very much a charade, an elaborate, expensive smoke & mirrors. HVA, as I knew it, was one of the worst offenders of creating and sustaining the myth that teachers can solve everything. Waiting for Superman infuriated me because just like HVA – just like Deborah Kenny – it sent the message that good teachers should be martyrs, not people with lives and passions of their own that happen to also be talented and passionate about educating children. I am not a martyr, and as I titled my op-ed, I am also not superman. But yet many would say I am a very good teacher. In Deborah Kenny’s world, that would be impossible.

During the 2006-2007 school year at HVA, I taught huge classes of 5th graders who were poorly behaved. The administration was weak and ineffective. Everyone, including the principal and the dean, was so stressed out that there were often medical problems. I used to take the bus up to Harlem with my co-teacher and best friend at the school, Johanna Fishbein, and we would often cry on our way to work.

The working conditions at the school were plainly unreasonable. They took advantage of young, idealistic, competent teachers; they squeezed and squeezed until there was nothing left to give, even our dignity. Deborah Kenny is LARGELY to blame for this, as we were all desperately trying to play our parts in the Deborah Kenny play – one where she produced and directed but never wrote or starred in the productions. I have zero respect for that woman. The only time she actually came into the trenches is when she was preparing the kids for some dignitary’s visit. At that time, she would talk to them like they were slow kindergarteners, and when she left, they would all ask me who she was. That’s how connected she is to the school. Yet when President Bush came to laud our teachers’ efforts for earning the highest math test scores in the city, it was Deborah who schmoozed and gave the tour, Deborah who took the credit.

Deborah Kenny and her Village Academies take advantage of budding teachers, often crushing their spirits in the process. Though we barely made more than NYC public school teachers while working seven weeks over the summer, teaching on multiple Saturdays, and averaging 12-hour work days during the week, Deborah pays herself the HIGHEST SALARY out of any charter school executive in NYC (that stat was recently published in The New York Post). She makes almost nine times as much as her teachers who are doing all the real work, the hard work, that lands her in the press so often and helps her send her own kids to tony private schools. Her “vision” is a bunch of bullshit – basically, work your teachers to death, and you’ll see results. Sure, and you’ll also see a lot of unhappy teachers, and a lot of people leaving your school and vowing to never come back.

The year I left, my entire fifth grade team left with me. Deborah refused to write letters of recommendation for any of us. Contrary to what she preaches, teachers are her lowest priority and she never has their best interests at heart.

No school with a 60% teacher turnover rate should be praised in the press as the model for other schools to follow. Now that I’ve taught in a relatively stable independent school for four years, I see that a school’s real success comes from its sense of community. When teachers are leaving left and right because they’re being asked to perform superhuman feats for little compensation, the idea of “community” essentially vanishes. All that holds Village Academies together is Deborah Kenny’s unrelenting ambition and greed.

In summary:  HVA,  no miracle for you!


27 thoughts on “Another “Miracle School” Debunked: Harlem Village Academies

  1. I was a teacher at Future Leaders Institute Charter School in Central Harlem in 2015. It was an abysmal experience. There was no discipline, no teacher support, and a pampering of parents who blamed everyone except themselves and their children for low grades and behavioral issues. I was worked to down to a nub, eventually having a health issue due the tremendous stress which led to my resignation six weeks into the school year.

    Much of the USA’s backslide in education, and the belief in Charter Schools as a panacea, is largely based on the assumption that memorization and hard work are antiquated ideas and not needed in education. I dare you to explain the relationship between Cellular Respiration and Photosynthesis without studying and memorizing both processes. Students must be expected to study at home and parents have to be held responsible for their child’s preparedness for school. This is the only way that teachers can help students to think critically.

    We need to revamp the public school model; removing the federal government from education completely, require parental culpability for student behavior, strict behavioral and academic standards, throw out the myth that every student should go to college, and instituting an elected body of core subject teachers which is equal to the administration in each school with each body evaluating the other.

  2. Simply put it this is 100% accurate I had to transfer from this school due to safety concerns about the school and a confusion on a investigation stimulating from a fight that occurred in the middle of my senior year. I almost didn’t graduate on time and everything about this school is corrupt and wrong. It has fallen off in recent years and I recommend finding other schools instead of going to HVA. She treats us as a number and that’s sad when she is profiting from us.

  3. PROTEST/ STRIKE! After reading all the feedback, the students and staff should rally 2gether and show that they’re NOT the true problem. The leadership and administration is to blame. I’m still confused on why it has not happened yet. Especially w/ Dr. Kenny, talking to children in the neighborhood as if they’re mentally less competent than her own children that attend acclaimed private schools. AND then, to take all the credit for any good that comes from the school.

    No talking… Just walking – get out there!

  4. I actually go to the high school and it makes me sad that I have to read it from a site as opposed to being told my faculty or better off, my school just being a decent learning place. We aren’t a miracle school. We still have the same jerks and problems except it’s multiplied

  5. I recently finished reading Born to Rise, then decided to do more research whereby I came across this blog and article. There is a mostly negative slant to the article and comments which brings me to ask two questions. Is there anything positive to be said about Ms. Kenny and HVA? Are there other schools that you can point to that are better models for education, especially in the students early years?

  6. Hell I left HVA after 5 years of the middle school and I have to say my time there was complete crap always having detention for stupid things like missing homework when they knew well they were asking too much and yet I don’t think people have learned or are learning much there I’m still the same guy I was when I was a student there and my new school still sees me as if I were genius just like HVA did but it wasn’t because I was better than the other kids it was simply because I knew there was something wrong and I didn’t fall for the trap of a “good” school reputation I simply became an autodidactic person and that was the end of it . In short HVA is nothing more than shit and all we really need is a school enivornment that is peaceful and together not one that is stressful and operating on a facade.

  7. Let’s make this as simple as can be…. Interview all the students whom have graduated from HVA and see what these now adults think about HVA. Tell me a place and time and I will have you sit and speak with two students that have graduated from HVA (different graduating class years). Anyone’s jaw will drop by what truly goes on at HVA. HVA should be closed down and Dr. Kenny aka Barbie as the kids call her should be sued!!!!

  8. I’m a student at the high school and I have to say I one hundred percent agree with this it’s rather disgusting seeing her in our offices when she doesn’t even know our names. I also refuse to be considered a poor kid because I know for a fact the basis of my education didn’t come from a charter school with the illusion that everything is smiles. Near the ending of last year us students got restless and took matters into our own hands by having several student protests just to come in a new school year with a totally different school structure. Don’t let the good grades fool you every child’s gpa has dropped significantly and for what…for Dr Kenny’s reputation to rise. When I see her I see her as pure scum she doesn’t deserve anyone’s respect that’s why I’m glad to not be invited to partake in one of those sickening benefit concerts where I become the poor African American statistic and she becomes my savior.

  9. After the high school being without a principal for about 4months, the new principal from Latin specialized high school that started in September has left already. He started in september, in October parente got a letter than he was on a sick leave, in November we got another letter that he had resigned. Every one of my daughters’s teachers is new-started in September. Come on, how is a child suppose to learn with new teachers fresh out of school every semester.

  10. Ms. Kenny is a megalomaniac, and the statistical analysis provided by this reporter demonstrates the truth behind the fiction she has created. While Ms. Kenny has good intentions she is as brittle as dry twig in January. Charter schools are still largely “uncharted” territory. Not according to Ms. Kenny, who “knows all the answers”, every time, and God help her, but she is going to make sure her students “show” well even when they do not. I worked at her school a short time, and she showed absolutely no understanding of the kids there. Ms. Kenny’s appetite for her version of achievement is insatiable, and the cost that many of her students, teachers and parents of students pay is too high. She will tell you that she is dedicated to giving these students opportunities they would not otherwise receive. What she won’t tell you is that the mission is really all about her drive to make up for some kind of inadequacy in her own life. It is Debra’s show, and you are there to serve her objectives, not the students’ objectives.

  11. David,

    I will speak from personal experience regarding your question.

    My daughter did not take a standardized test until she was in 8th grade. She had a well-rounded education and went to a project-based, student-centered public high school that she loved. No standardized tests there either except for the state test which she excelled in.

    She also blew out the ACT.

    Point is, taking a standardized test just to prepare for another one is not education. Teaching all of the subjects and giving each subject validity in terms of their value is essential. Yes, one can read but then, can that student connect the dots in an essay referring to history, art and science? The ability to do that reflects a well educated student and what we should be aspiring towards.

    You have then prepared that student for life, not just for some test.


    1. My first issue with standardized testing is this, it hasn’t been tested fully; therefor, shouldn’t be administered. Our students aren’t crash test dummies and shouldn’t be used as testing subjects. (It’s all about politics an money) That being said, SATs, ACTs are necessary and they are my targets come Monday morning. This common core NYS testing, as far as I’m concerned, I don’t care how hard they make it. As long as my child is being taught the academic skills, the fundamental reading, writing, arithmatic principles; the rules and strategies then it won’t matter what test she takes because she will be prepared.

      1. That was the approach I took with my daughter, learn the basics then use the basics to inquire further and enjoy the process along the way.

        If it’s not fun and challenging it becomes drudgery and turns the student off to school.


  12. My daughter is teaching at HVA and she loves it.
    Yes. She works long hours, but she truly loves doing what she does. and it makes her happy to do what she loves doing.

    I’m the same way. I love doing what I love doing. It makes me happy.
    I hope this never changes.

    1. I love to teach also. The point of this article is how these charter schools lie about how their students are performing simply to draw other students in. The students and their parents have high hopes that are usually dashed after realizing that the school cannot live up to its promises.

      For a good look inside such a system, read Confessions of a Bad Teacher by John Owens.


      1. I must say, this was an enlightening article which has raised a few thoughts: 1. If a student in a charter school is to be academically competitive with students peers in private or parochial schools, what testing should the charter school student be prepared for. (SAT, NYState Testing, Regents in Math, Science, History.) I’m not sure.

        Please explain by grade from 6 to 9th grade.

        2. If this school got a 100 on their Math State Exam, then how do I investigate the reasoning behind “why students didn’t take the regents?”

        3. How can I better prepare a student for state testing and regents testing if I don’t see enough resources / don’t see the “extra” effort to encourage students to prepare for regents testing?

  13. My daughter is in her final year. I never understand that school and had I known, I would have transferred her to another school earlier. The student were without a principal for some time, and almost all the teachers at the high school are new. Only 2 students passed the algebra 2 last year on 1st attempt, and very few passed chemistry and geometry on 1st attempts. My daughter was so scared that there would be no teacher at all at the beginning of the school year when they went back. And they keep changing the curriculum. 9th graders are taking physics, those in 12th grade were not offered that course, they took biology for two years and chemistry for two years. And only one student passed ap chemistry with 3, all the rest of the student got a one. They said they are changing to Ib school In a couple of years. With the new principal from a specialized high school, may be things would be different, but for now, it’s 3 stars. My daughter and I are very dissapointed.

    1. I am so sorry to hear about your experience at the school.

      There have been many stories about students and parents who have been disappointed about these charter schools not living up to what they promised.

      1. Don’t feel sorry for my experience, it was absolutely a blessing. It taught me how to be a better consumer. Now that I’m growing as an informed consumer, I can ensure that my children grow as well rounded, skilled students.

  14. This was an interesting and enlightening piece. As a parent of a 6 grader at Harlem village, a very heavily involved, African American male, father of two, daughter 11, son 4, with old school “trust but verify and question everything” values, I’ve not had any issues with her academic performance; however, I see that I’ll need to address a few issues I’ve encountered recently.

    Normally I wouldn’t give a piece like this any attention, nor the link that preceded it; but, recent conversations with Conservative Capitalist and simply outright racist, bigoted, gun toting NRA supporting, “wishers of Reagan and Bush Return” have “encouraged” enlightenment (for lack of a better word). Why express the last few sentences that way? Lets just say, I needed that fuel. (Please don’t take this as a political/racial tirade directed at you or your work. It isn’t. It is a necessary and uncomfortable truth that every modern day black man should experience.)

    As much as I’d like to go into my whole Sisulu Walker Charter School story as the secretary of the PTA, I won’t. I will say that 98% of your pies touched on every point I raised a few years ago to them. As a result, they didnt listen and the stat grades went from A’s to D’s and F’a on the NYS report cards. They are in the process of rebuilding. Sure they are! The 1st charter school in NYS and they didnt have one computer or a makeshift library as yet, they out performed their entire district #3 and was 9th in NYS during the time my daughter attended the school.

    I’m sharing this because its refreshing to realize that I’m not stupid and I’ve been able to see beyond the beurocratic smokescreens. At one point I was a poor academic shopper and your piece confirms that I’ve been on the right track all along. It’s clear now where my attention must remain.

    One thing I hate is a half assed school. Half hearted approach to academic. The worst thing that you could do is trick children into believing that they are receiving a proper education when in reality, its turns out to be sub par. Sisulu pulled that shit on me. (Sorry, still a little pissed from it) my daughters entire third grade class was performing on a 1.5 grade level in math. The signs were there in second grade, but I wasn’t experienced enough to make a connection. Well! I took myself off the PTA, marched to the principles office, who happened to be the new Principle, and said-long story short-“you and your teachers failed my daughter an my family. You will see my face everyday until this is corrected.” In the end, it got corrected and by the end of fourth grade she was ready for early 6grade math. This is not to boast, its to say this, “I’d rather go to jail for constantly knocking on the principles door everyday as well as the teachers doors” than to sit back and trust that any teacher, on any level, I giving my child the proper education.

    Anyway, thank you. Please excuse the expletives. I appreciate your work on this piece an I know exactly what to do from here. “Community is everything” but it all starts at home. Continued success to you.

    I’m expecting to dialogue with you further so please find the time and don’t let me down. Lol.

  15. Thank you for this article. I’m an adjunct, looking for a “step up” and entertained ideas of applying to HVA. I looked at their website and saw what was being asked of faculty, but that little voice told me it was too good to be true– and sounded like HVA would be requiring more from me than I would be able to give (not wanted but would be physically capable of). This article cinched it. Thank you!! ~Jessica

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