Case Study: Classical Charter Schools—Creating Educational Systems for 21st Century Challenges

Classical Charter Schools, located in South Bronx, New York, provide college preparatory education to kindergarten through 8th-grade students with the highest capabilities and needs. Their curriculum supplies students with the social, moral, and academic tools they need to excel in a changing economy based on technology and information. 

“We provide an outstanding first-class college preparatory elite education to K–8 graders, the most rigorous for the most deserving and the most underserved students. I wanted the highest impact and to do the most for the kids who need the most.” 

“They do academics with a very adult mature level of grit that a lot of kids in suburbia don’t have. We’re setting them up with the academic, behavioral, and moral components, strengths, and tools they need to thrive in a brand new economy where there are no more factory jobs.” 

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A Vision of Systems Thinking As a Mechanism to Reduce Fundamental Disparities in Education and Access to Education

The South Bronx location of the schools allowed Classic’s founder to not only help the neediest families and students but also create a model of education delivery that could be replicated anywhere in the world. Using technology and a curriculum that prepares students for the globally connected world they will work in, founder Lester Long is able to fulfill his vision of making a meaningful impact on the neediest population.

“In banking, I saw real systems. The structures in banking are strong. And I wanted to apply those systems to something more meaningful, so I quit banking and became a school teacher in the South Bronx. And there, I saw the opposite. I saw the lack of systems, but I saw meaning. It was sort of a whiplash moment.” 

“The reason is this maximizing impact. We’re all here for just a brief time, and we all want to, in the end, matter. It’s not about anything else. So, I really saw areas of great need. There are 32 school districts in New York City, and these districts are always in the bottom two or three for decades. I wanted to go where I could have the most meaning.” 

“My feeling was if we can create communal change and really target four schools in an area, and it can be done here, it can be done anywhere. We want to be a proof point that this is replicable. This is a system. This is a recipe. This is getting a recipe and getting people that are passionate about learning, and putting that together, and making those changes. I think you could pick us up and move us to parts of Philly or Hartford, Connecticut, or Asbury Park, and we could do great work.”

“When we accept kids, the event is called a lottery. Parents fill out a form, and we put the names in a hat and pick out names. But it shouldn’t be a lottery. You’re not supposed to win a lottery to get a decent education. That’s not winning. That’s a failed system. I should be working with every kid born in America in 2005, regardless of their zip code, not just lottery winners.”

The Challenge of Providing Technical Infrastructure for Education, Not Just Equipping Kids With Devices

Aside from every classroom equipped with technological teaching tools, like projectors, desktops, and laptops, Classic and their technology partner, CTS, maintain their curriculum and testing data in the cloud, so that teachers are empowered with the technical infrastructure to effectively teach and track student progress.

“Every school, every classroom has the projector, every school has the desktop, and every teacher has their laptop. CTS was a big part of getting us on the cloud back in 2013 and 14. They put us on the cloud right when schools were only shifting over to SharePoint. So, it’s very infrastructural, both in hardware and software. We’re pretty proud of that.”

“If you walk into a Classical classroom, you see desks and chairs, a whiteboard, a projector with a desktop attached to it, but what you don’t see is that our curriculum is on a cloud, supported by and helped by CTS, every lesson and every subject in every grade, K–8. When students take tests, we scan all that data into a giant SQL database.” 

“What you would see there is very powerful and informed teachers, not necessarily kids with devices.”

Enter CTS—And Shifting to an ‘Anyone Learns from Anywhere Ecosystem’

“If you went to our schools, from 2006 to 2020, you walked into a room, you saw kids in desks, in rows, in a uniform, paying attention to a teacher in the front of the room, a very old-school, 1950s Catholic school. All of a sudden the school building is closed and we had to flip, intellectually, into this new world, this new remote learning world, and they were a partner with us, not just in gathering the devices and dispensing devices, but thinking through all the small things, like access points.” 

Transitioning from the traditional classroom with kids in seated rows, desks, and uniforms to remote learning could have been a harrowing experience if not for the tight partnership Classical had with CTS. 

“Some of our parents weren’t able to obtain access points, so CTS was a thought partner in how we deliver access points and wifi to people who don’t have them and some level of support for those parents. That’s a big one. They got 150 Chromebooks and then another 212 on top of that all within a few months, maybe even a few weeks.” 

CTS helped reinvent and reimagine the Classical classroom without losing the quality education delivered before COVID shut down the school buildings.

“Scalability is something that really excites me. I desire it more than anything. What if, for example, Classical decides right now, “You know what (any kid in America), here’s our Zoom schedule. No matter what grade you’re in, come in and we’ll have some adequate controls, but if you want a Blue Ribbon-level curriculum being taught at Blue Levels of instructional quality, come on in.”?” 

Immediate Result: Continuity and Calm During Major Transitions

“I’m proud to say that our kids take the same tests as they did a year ago. When you look across our network, our kids’ performance has had only a nominal drop of maybe 3%.  Something like 25% of the kids that go to the DOE are lost. A quarter of those kids are gone, whereas our kids are averaging a couple of points less. If they do 3% less during a global pandemic, I think we’ve done great work. And a lot of that stems from just that seamless support.

The emotional and intellectual shift to inspire all parties—staff, students, and parents—to remain aspirational and positive during the transition required making the new feel as closely as possible like the old way of educating students in the traditional classroom, and then bolstering the transition with comprehensive support. 

“How do you manage the change for someone? We say, A) things are changing, but B) we want things to actually feel similar. As for the experience for the kids, we wanted to keep it as similar as possible. So, they were still in uniform, they were still expected to behave the same, there just happened to be two screens between me and them. But other than that, it’s the same thing.”

Technology support helped invent, implement and service the transition and reproduce the familiar classroom learning experience, so kids could learn and teachers teach without deep emotional and intellectual disruption in the educational system.

“Where CTS really benefited us is getting that support there, so people aren’t at home saying, “Oh my God, I’m sitting at home, I have a 70-year-old mother that’s living with me. My kids are all crying on the screen, and now my computer doesn’t work.” That fourth one is sometimes the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Having CTS there as consistent high-quality support so that we don’t have to worry about that fourth thing, was really important.”

Long Term Outcome: Reduced Disparities and Broader Educational Opportunities in an Emerging Technological Landscape

Successful remote learning delivery has allowed Classical Charter Schools to get closer to their founder’s vision of educating more students and bridging the equality gap through improved and expanded education access. 

“It’s birthing out a new program. It’s remote. This is going to have a multi-billion dollar impact. It’s going to affect education from the one-year-olds to the 30-year-olds. If Princeton’s spending half its money on buildings, and I can get a Princeton education sitting home, do I get half my tuition back? It’s a big question. 

So, that remote part and that seamlessness of remote and Zoom and Teams, gets us closer to our vision. Education tends to be slow in change, but that remote part gets us closer. 

Can we have a summer school where a lot more kids can be available because now we’re not limited to the size of our building? What if, for example, Classical decides right now, “You know what, any kid in America, here’s our Zoom schedule. No matter what grade you’re in, come in and we’ll have some adequate controls, but if you want a Blue Ribbon-level curriculum being taught at Blue Levels of instructional quality, come on in.”

Read an interview with Lester Long, founder and head of Classical Charter Schools, here.

“This year has shown me one thing. It’s shown the world, if we were listening, the distance between the haves and the have-nots, ratcheted back to where it was a long time ago. We were working so hard to help create equity, and 2020 just kicked inequity in the knees.”