October 11, 2012
When the first crop of seniors at Democracy Prep Charter High School graduates next June, they won’t be alone. The founder of the school’s network of charter schools will be exiting alongside them.
Seth Andrew, the founder and superintendent of the six-school network, has spent the last week making hundreds of phone calls to friends and professional contacts to let them know that he will be stepping down in June, seven years after launching a middle school steeped in civic values.
Andrew’s decision comes weeks after the U.S. Department of Education announced that Democracy Prep Public Schools would be one of two charter school networks to get federal funding to expand. Democracy Prep will get $9.1 million over five years to open 15 new schools in Harlem; Camden, N.J.; and potentially beyond.
Andrew said the award made him confident that he could depart without destabilizing Democracy Prep — and relieved that the network would be able to grow using only public funds, a value to the network.
“The organization is incredibly healthy,” he said today, speaking by phone from Boston, where he had been meeting with Building Excellent Schools, the nonprofit that helped him start up his first school a decade ago. “This is the time to do a transition.”
Andrew opened his flagship middle school, Democracy Prep Charter School, in 2006 with a $30,000 grant from the city’s Center for Charter School Excellence (now named the New York City Charter School Center). He expanded to a high school in 2009 to accommodate his graduating eighth-graders and has since opened three more middle schools.
Last year, Andrew was granted permission to acquire a charter to run a failing elementary school, Harlem Day Charter School. Mayor Bloomberg declared the takeover a success last spring, in the process comparing Andrew to Jeremy Lin, a basketball player who was then on a streak with the Knicks.
Accelerating its expansion plans doesn’t mean that Democracy Prep is giving up on the idea of taking over struggling schools, Andrew said. The network’s application for the federal grant explicitly asked for permission to create new schools and take over existing ones, he said, adding that conversations are underway in the city and elsewhere about both strategies.
Andrew will help engineer the first round of new schools because he will continue to run Democracy Prep until the end of the school year while the school’s board searches for his replacement. Using the consulting firm Bellwether Education Partners for support, the board members will look across the country and at “some very strong internal candidates,” he said today, hours before sending a mass email announcing his impending departure.
A graduate of the Bronx High School of Science who taught briefly in Massachusetts and Korea early in his career, Andrew said he doesn’t know what he will be doing a year from now — only that he will still be running his fledgling parent advocacy group, Democracy Builders, and working toward the same goal that motivated him to start Democracy Prep.
“My life’s work is truly high quality education for every child in the world,” he said. ”I am considering everything and there are certainly lots of different ways and different places to make impact.”
But he said there are two areas of education policy that he thinks need particular attention right now. The first is the “talent pipeline” that brings teachers and principals to schools. Too often, he said, policy makers have focused on rules about firing bad teachers, when they should be thinking more about how to recruit and create great ones.
“There’s no way to get rid of teachers and just think that fixes schools,” Andrew said.
The other is the concept that Neerav Kingsland, a New Orleans charter school advocate, calls “relinquishment.” Rather than centralize control, Kingsland argues, superintendents should let families and schools make decisions for themselves, while still holding schools accountable for their performance.
“I’m interested in being disruptive and trying to push new boundaries in those fields,” Andrew said today.
Within the city’s guarded charter school sector, Andrew stands out for more than his ubiquitous yellow Democracy Prep hat. He and Democracy Prep’s board made a decision to tie his salary to the Department of Education’s salary structure for a similar position, even as some charter school operators earned salaries twice as high. They also avoided allowing the network’s schools to become dependent on private fundraising, an essential support for some charter schools.
And while he eagerly touts his schools’ academic accomplishments, he sometimes sounds even more excited about their civic engagement. He required students to attend and participate in civic events, and sent them out to canvass the Harlem community to vote on Election Day. Four Democracy Prep students attended the Democratic National Convention with him last month.
“I have great respect for the work he’s done in Harlem and the civic engagement he’s instilled in every Democracy Prep student,” said Mona Davids, a former charter school parent who has been a vocal critic of some charter school practices. She said Andrew was among the first charter leaders she met when she started a charter school parent advocacy group in 2009.
Davids said she regularly fought with Andrew because she said he refused to start a parent association at the school. “We just agree to disagree on that.”
After drawing the spotlight to himself this week, Andrew said he hopes attention will soon shift to the network of schools he has spent developing for the better part of his career so far.
He added, “Democracy Prep should not be about me, it should be about vision and implementation. Right now Democracy Prep and Seth are kind of synonymous, and that’s an unhealthy thing.”