A Light Shines in Harlem tells the fascinating story of the Sisulu-Walker Charter School of Harlem, the first charter school in New York, and of the charter movement. It is a penetrating look at the host of real-world decisions that make a charter school, or any school, succeed. And it is a true-to-life inspirational tale of how a hero of the civil rights movement, a Wall Street star, educators, inner-city activists, parents, and students all joined together to create a groundbreaking school that, in its best years, far outperformed other schools in the neighborhoods in which most of its children lived.
This book also looks at education reform through a broader lens. It discusses the most recent research and issues facing the charter movement, a movement which now educates more than 2.5 million students nationwide. A Light Shines in Harlem describes the strengths and weaknesses of charter schools and explains how lessons from them can be applied to other schools to make all schools better. The result is not only the gripping inside narrative of how one school fought to succeed despite the odds but also an illuminating glimpse into the future of American education.
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About the Author
Mary C. Bounds, an award-winning journalist, has written for the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Houston Chronicle, and other publications. Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker was chief of staff for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Virginia state director of the Congress of Racial Equality, and executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; he helped organize the 1963 March on Washington. For 37 years he served as senior pastor at Harlem’s Canaan Baptist Church of Christ.
Read an Excerpt
A Light Shines in Harlem
New York's First Charter School and the Movement it Led
By Mary C. Bounds
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2014 Mary C. Bounds
All rights reserved.
A Civil Right
The voice said nothing about education. It didn't mention schools. It gave solace, not direction.
But perhaps the true history of the Sisulu-Walker Charter School and the mission it symbolizes began on a sorrowful day in Harlem in October 1968, the day that Rev. Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker heard in his thoughts the voice of his departed friend and ally, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who had been gunned down in Memphis just six months before.
Walker knew King's voice almost as well as his own. They had met in 1952 when both were young men studying for the ministry: Walker at Virginia Union University in Richmond, and King at Crozer Theological Seminary near Chester, Pennsylvania. They had been inseparable allies during the darkest and most joyful hours of the civil rights era when Walker served as King's indispensable strategist and chief of staff and as the first full-time executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. As King's chief of staff, Walker was in the forefront of the civil rights movement, often working behind the scenes as an advance man and slipping surreptitiously into unfamiliar towns to get the lay of the land. As the key strategist for some of the movement's most memorable moments, he had been King's "field general" for the 1963 Birmingham civil rights campaign, which paved the way for the sweeping civil rights laws that passed during the 1960s. He organized Project C (for "confrontation") in Birmingham to face down Sheriff Eugene "Bull" Connor and end segregation in one of the South's toughest cities. Walker had also been in the Gaston Motel the night it was bombed and had assembled the scraps of King's nearly illegible handwriting smuggled from jail to help compile, form, translate, and name King's now famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail."
Walker worked with King to organize the 1963 March on Washington, where King gave his immortal "I Have a Dream" speech. Then, a year later, Walker accompanied King to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. They were so close that Walker's four children, using an affectionate expression, thought of King as their "play-play" uncle and called him Uncle Martin.
After his years with King in the South, where Walker was eventually arrested seventeen times for his civil rights work, Walker moved north to Harlem to pursue a new ministry. And when Walker and King's civil rights work led them to share another small Birmingham jail cell together for five days in 1967, the two planned a grand and joyous ceremony in which King would come to New York and personally install Walker as pastor of the Canaan Baptist Church of Christ on West 116th Street in Harlem.
The next year, on March 24, 1968, in a festive service replete with emotion and pageantry, churchgoers packed the pews and spilled out into the aisles in a multicultural array that transcended political, ethnic, and religious boundaries. On this special day, at Walker's installation, King preached an eloquent, powerful sermon, full of passion and heart.
Earlier in the service, King had stepped away from the pulpit and strolled over to the open doorway of an office at the back of the sanctuary, where a teenager was studiously taping the ceremony with a bulky reel-to-reel recorder. King exchanged the usual pleasantries with the teenager, Walker's son, Wyatt T. Walker Jr. But as King was about to return to the pulpit, he said something that now seems prophetic, as if he somehow knew where his fate was heading. "Your father means so much to me," Walker Jr., recalls King saying. "I want you to take good care of him." The sermon King gave that day was the last he would preach in New York City. Eleven days later, he was shot dead in Memphis.
Harlem and Dr. Walker were still stunned six months later, as the spiritually wounded Walker wandered aimlessly along 125th Street. This street was at the heart of Harlem, and at another time, the pastor's spirits might have been uplifted by the street life and by the music that often played there. But Harlem was still in mourning, and instead of music, the air was filled with the sounds of King's speeches, blaring out from stereo speakers propped up by shopkeepers to spread the word to the streets outside.
Walker couldn't help but hear his friend's familiar voice, but he couldn't quite focus on it either. In fact, the man who walked along Harlem's streets that day was so distraught that he could barely function. A prominent, powerful pastor, he had lost his preaching voice. King's passionate words reverberated as if from the grave, but they did little at first to soothe his pain. They only rekindled the raw anger Walker felt and hardened his resolve to never have anything to do with white people again.
And then something very odd happened. Along with the familiar voice booming out of the speakers, Walker heard a small, quiet, intimate version of the same voice in his head. It was, Walker recalls, King's voice speaking — not to the world, but just to him — in a quiet but unmistakable whisper: "What you ought to do is thank the Lord that I was with you as long as I was."
That was it. No more. At last, Walker's grief lost its crippling edge; his bitterness ceased being a stone wall in front of him. "I couldn't get over my grief until that moment," he later recalled. Once the moment passed, he knew it was time to return to the living, to the work, so momentous in the 1960s, that was really just beginning.
It was hardly a straight line from that day to Walker's involvement with the first charter school to open in New York, as his life took many turns from there. When almost everyone else had all but given up on Harlem, Walker spearheaded efforts to reclaim it, and he worked tirelessly for human rights beyond Harlem's borders as well. Eventually, he would confer with presidents, author fifty-five books, and travel to one hundred countries, including South Africa, where he allied with antiapartheid leaders Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu (Si-SOO-loo), for whom the school would one day be named. But through it all Walker never forgot the importance of high-quality public education, and the reform of public education never stopped being a central part of his own views on civil and human rights.
Reflecting back, Walker is certain of three things. First, education had opened doors, offered opportunity, and unlocked potential in his own life. Second, all too often the door today opens on rusty, creaky hinges to a dysfunctional, unequal system in need of major improvement, and a huge part of changing life in Harlem and places like it had to begin with the schools. And third, King would have been right there fighting alongside him because education is very much a human rights issue today in the way that voting rights and integration were civil rights issues in the 1960s.
"I'm a disciple of Martin Luther King. I think I know as much as anybody of what he would support," Walker says when interviewed at his home in Chester, Virginia. And, Walker believes, if King had lived to see traditional public schools failing generations of students, he would have supported charter schools as a way of combating the "discrimination against low-income people trying to get their children a quality education."
Looking back, Walker minces no words: "The public schools were not doing their jobs." And given that most inner-city families can't afford private schools, "children in the inner city don't have the same access to education as kids in private schools or more affluent suburbs." Walker explains, "It's a human rights issue. It's part and parcel of the struggle — to make quality of education accessible to people of modest means.
"Education for all of America's children," he says, "is the civil rights issue of the twenty-first century."
In retrospect, it's easy to see why education mattered so much to Walker, King, and others and how that journey from a Birmingham jail led quite naturally to education reform in Harlem.
The grandson of a slave, Walker was one of eleven children in a family where education was revered. His mother was a nurse, and his father, an erudite man who read Hebrew and Greek each day, was a Baptist pastor. Money was scarce, but books were everywhere. Even at a young age, Walker had an insatiable curiosity, a relentless wanderlust. When he was a child, he would ask his mother if he could go uptown and watch the evening trains come in. He looked in awe as the town's businesspeople, carrying their newspapers and briefcases, stepped off the train. "I remember wondering as a kid if I would ever go anywhere," he would recall some seventy years later. But with his ferocious intensity and a love of learning instilled by his parents, he did.
When Walker graduated from high school in 1946, though, he told his classmates he didn't want to go to college. "I had no ambition to go to college because I figured I couldn't afford it. I was too poor," he would later say. But to Walker's surprise his family found a way to send him to Virginia Union University in Richmond, where his father had been in the first graduating class. As he boarded the train, his mother pressed one hundred dollars in his hand. He wouldn't learn until after his mother died several years later where that money had come from: his parents had scraped it together by mortgaging their life insurance.
Walker was a stellar student. At first, he wanted to be a doctor, and he graduated magna cum laude in 1950 with undergraduate degrees in physics and chemistry. He then decided to become a pastor and entered seminary at Virginia Union where he finished summa cum laude and earned a master of divinity degree. Later, he would earn a doctorate with distinction in African American studies with a specialization in music from the Rochester Theological Center in upstate New York.
In 1952, at an interseminary meeting, Walker met a witty, engaging student from Crozer Theological Seminary who would forever change his life. Even then, King knew how important education was. Walker recalls King's very first words to him: "You're the brilliant science student who went into the ministry." Indeed, Walker replied, he was.
Walker went on to pastor one of the country's oldest African American churches, the historic Gillfield Baptist Church in Petersburg, Virginia. While there, he and his wife, Theresa Ann, whom he had married in 1950, were actively involved in the nascent civil rights struggle that was beginning to sweep the country. Looking back, it's impossible not to realize that securing equal educational opportunities for all was one of the driving forces behind much of what would later be accomplished.
At about that time, in 1954, the US Supreme Court struck down racial segregation in the nation's public schools in its landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. No longer would "separate but equal" schools be legal. Later, after state officials closed down some of Virginia's schools rather than integrate them, Walker organized protests. Like everything he had done up to that point, Walker's civil rights work in Virginia was planned with tactical precision, and his approach caught the eye of the seminary student Walker had met a few years earlier — Dr. King. King liked to bring educated, highly trained people into his inner circle, Walker recalled, and he asked Walker to bring his impeccable organizational skills to the national arena.
"Both of us valued education," Walker would later say. "It was one of the means by which the civil rights movement went ahead. It was education that helped us devise what we did."
But by 1968, Harlem, like many of America's inner cities, faced monumental challenges of a different sort than segregation. Jobs were few, and unemployment soared. Crime was rampant, and drug dealers openly sold heroin and whatever else anyone wanted. The notion of decent and affordable housing was an oxymoron, as many landlords walked away from their once stately buildings, leaving them vacant or practically giving them away. Others refused to make repairs, leaving tenants to live in squalor.
So, after picking himself back up after that fateful October day in Harlem, Walker and his congregants tackled those problems job by job, block by block, building by building.
For the next thirty years, Walker tended to the spiritual and material needs of his Harlem congregation and to the religious, civil rights, and human rights needs of Harlem and the world at large. He was instrumental in leading much-needed real estate development in the blocks of abandoned buildings around him. Today, the Wyatt Tee Walker Senior Housing building on Frederick Douglass Boulevard bears his name. He was also a driving force behind construction of the nineteen-story state office building on 125th Street. He fought to close drug dens, even at great personal risk, and he raised his own church, Canaan Baptist Church of Christ, to prominence. In 1993, because of Walker's work and stature, Ebony magazine included him in its list of the fifteen greatest black preachers.
But there was a huge piece of the puzzle that didn't seem to be getting much better — Harlem's public schools. Increasingly, Walker heard stories from his congregants about how inner-city schools were failing their children. Graduation rates and academic scores were dismal. Many teachers were apathetic. Classrooms were overcrowded. Books, and even the most basic school supplies, were in short supply. Children were frequently being branded "unteachable," and they and their families were all too often abandoned as lost causes. As a result, academic achievement lagged terribly, with the exception of just a few bright spots. Walker thought of opening his own private church school, but the economics were unworkable for both the church and for the local parents, who could not afford to pay tuition. Walker felt there had to be a public solution, and he never stopped searching for it.
"The schools had to get better," Walker said. And, he explained powerfully, "I saw that as an extension of my work in the South."
* * *
New York's public school system had not always been so troubled. For years, it had been a gateway to opportunity for its children, highly respected and a source of public pride. But by the 1960s, social upheaval had ravaged the nation's inner cities, unleashing a devastating cocktail of unemployment, crime, and drugs. Jobs vanished, and middle-class families fled, destabilizing huge swaths of once vibrant communities. Not surprisingly, the poorest neighborhoods, like Harlem, were hit especially hard, and these broad social problems began showing up at the schoolhouse door.
Matters worsened as the adults responsible for children's education began battling each other. On one side stood community activists who argued that they knew their neighborhood schools better than anyone else and should have more say in how they were run. On the other side remained the traditional educational establishment, which wanted to keep control of the city's schools under one central board of education. Finally, by 1970, management of New York City's schools had been decentralized into thirty-two smaller districts, each with its own elected board and superintendent. Community activists had won, in their estimation; but as events played out this would eventually prove to be a hollow victory.
In some districts, school decentralization worked. In others, where political patronage and conflict reigned, it didn't. But across the city, the years of acrimony and paralyzing teacher strikes had wounded the system. By the mid-1970s, New York City had also fallen into financial and fiscal crisis, and its already bare-bones school budgets were slashed even further. Waves of educators were laid off. Others were demoralized, and they quit, retired, or — worse yet — stayed on the payroll but stopped trying. A few years later, when there was money to hire again, many of the city's best teachers had fled to the suburbs or had launched other careers. For decades, test scores remained stagnant or declined.
In 1983, a national study made it painfully clear that the educational problems in New York City and other troubled public systems were a national disgrace. The landmark report, "A Nation at Risk," painted a disturbing portrait of an American public educational system in crisis. "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today," the report stated, "we might well have viewed it as an act of war."
In December 1998 (just months before New York's first charter schools opened) a report from the nonprofit Public Education Association gave further hard evidence to verify what Walker and everyone else on the front lines of public education already knew.
Excerpted from A Light Shines in Harlem by Mary C. Bounds. Copyright © 2014 Mary C. Bounds. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
1. A Civil Right,
2. Laying the Groundwork,
3. A Brother's Legacy,
4. Building a Team,
5. Building a Community,
6. Building a School,
7. Year One,
9. In the Valley,
10. A Light Shines,
11. Evolution: Coming of Age,
12. What Have We Learned?,
13. A Return to Sisulu-Walker,
14. Zeyna Diouf,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is a truly memorable book about education, the story of one school in Harlem that tells the story of the charter school movement writ large. It's full of vivid, personal stories about the students, teachers, parents and administrators at the Sisulu-Walker Charter School, the first charter school in New York. But it also has very clear and persuasive analysis of the charter movement overall and what it takes to make a charter school succeed. The book is both moving and cogent, and it's definitely worth reading for anyone who cares about education.