HARD LESSONS: The Promise of an Inner-City Charter School

by Jonathan Schorr


Jacket Copy

A decade ago there were only two charter schools in the United States. Today there are more than 2,400, serving more than half a million students. Charter schools are public schools that are free from many of the regulations that have long governed public education. Supporters include many of the country’s most prominent educators and politicians, among them President George W. Bush, who hope charter schools will reshape education, especially where it proves most challenging—in the inner city. The fact that most charter schools promise smaller classes and more parental involvement makes them immensely appealing to the nation’s most disadvantaged families. Charter school detractors, on the other hand, fear that these alternative schools will irredeemably ruin public education, drawing away the talented students and the most involved parents.

Clearly the stakes are high. But few Americans understand what a charter school really is—or what is involved in trying to create, attend, and teach in one. Written by a renowned journalist and education writer, and a former inner-city school teacher himself, Hard Lessons is the first book to capture the human drama of the entire experience. For three years, Jonathan Schorr was allowed complete access to the students, teachers, and parents of the E.C. Reems Academy in Oakland, California, making him uniquely qualified to tell their fascinating story. But would the new school succeed in effectively teaching children from urban neighborhoods where success is rare? Would it become a whole new bureaucracy or sabotage itself from within? The answers are found in the moving stories of some deeply involved yet very different individuals.

Among them, there is Nazim Casey, Jr.—rescued from his crack-addicted parents, he’s the last-chance child who will put inner-city charters to their ultimate test; William Stewart—a father whose fury at his daughter’s failed public school propels him into activism; Eugene Ruffin—the entrepreneur who helped introduce the personal computer to America, then collaborated with Wal-Mart heir John Walton to “invest” in education; and Valentin Del Rio—a young teacher whose idealism turns to exhaustion and the search for a punctual paycheck.

Through successes and setbacks, Hard Lessons reveals just how difficult it is, even with the best of intentions, to offer a quality education to every child in America. The story of E.C. Reems Academy offers invaluable lessons for anyone interested in America’s most pressing domestic concern. At once harrowing and hopeful, and in the finest tradition of modern nonfiction, Hard Lessons is one of the most important books to come along in decades.