Earlier this week, Sean Combs, a.k.a. hip-hop and vodka mogul Diddy, or Puff Daddy, announced that he had become the co-founder of a new charter school, due to open in Harlem this summer. The school will be overseen by Steve Perry, a union-buster accused of juicing graduation stats at his schools in Connecticut.
Capital Prep Harlem will open at 1 East 104th Street, with 160 sixth and seventh graders, in August, the Wall Street Journal reported. It will phase up into a 700-seat high school as the students age. “Creating this school is a dream come true for me,” Combs said in a statement. “I want to impact the lives of young people in my community and build future leaders. The first step is offering access to a quality education.”
Perry said Combs approached him regarding starting a school about six years ago, and that the city’s Department of Education approved the charter more than a year ago. “He was definitely relentless in making this point that he wanted to start a school,” Perry told the Journal, speaking of Combs. “He kept it under wraps until today. We wanted to make sure the i’s were dotted and the t’s crossed.”
“He’s one of the smartest men I’ve ever met,” he continued. “You don’t come from almost nothing to being a billionaire by being an idiot. He is also as kind, thoughtful and compassionate a man as I’ve met.”
Presently, 205 charters serve about 95,000 of New York City’s 1.1 million public school students, most of which are run by KIPP or Success Academy networks. They are very, very controversial. Perry, though, runs a smaller operation—Capital Prep Harlem will be modeled on his Capital Prep Magnet school in Hartford, Connecticut, which he founded in 2005. Capital Prep opened a second school, in Bridgeport, last year.
On his website, Perry, who stepped down as principal in 2014 in order to run the Capital Prep network of schools, claims that 100% of the Hartford school’s graduates in the last ten years have been accepted to college. Critics say that that is disingenuous. City Limits reports:
Because of its status as a magnet school in the Hartford Public School district, Capital Prep is allowed to enroll students from outside its geographic district. As a result, Capital Prep serves an amalgamation of students, according to data compiled by the Connecticut State DOE, comprised of just 43 percent underprivileged students, three percent LEP and nine percent learning disabled.
“It’s hugely suburban,” says Ebony Murphy-Root, a former Capital Prep teacher who left, she says, because of dissatisfaction with the administration. “A lot of kids come from middle-class families outside of Hartford and little attention is paid to special ed and LEP students.”
Underprivileged and LEP students generally have lower test scores, graduation rates and college acceptance rates. With an attrition rate of over 40 percent, Capital Prep has been accused of compelling these underperforming and at-risk students to transfer schools in order to maintain strong statistics.
Andrea Johnson, president of the Hartford Federation of Teachers, said that underperforming students were encouraged to leave: “We have testimony after testimony of students who left Capital Prep because they were sat down and counseled out.”
Perry, of course, denies that this is true. “I disagree that there is a high attrition rate. It’s even higher in Harlem,” he told City Limits. “We have kids leaving elite school districts in other parts of Connecticut in order to attend Capital Prep. Some families decide the commute is too much.”
But Perry’s temper can sometimes overwhelm his pedagogy, as in November 2013, after he lost a vote in Hartford that would have allowed him to run the magnet school through his own nonprofit charter management company.
The only way to lose a fight is to stop fighting. All this did was piss me off. It's so on. Strap up, there will be head injuries.— Dr. Steve Perry (@DrStevePerry) November 20, 2013
He’s also a known ally of Michelle Rhee, the charter activist married to Kevin Johnson, and echoes her union busting sentiments. At a 2013 forum in Minneapolis, Perry proclaimed, “I know in polite company, you’re not supposed to talk about the unions...But I will. I know you’re here. I hope you hear me, because I’m tired of you. Every time you fight to keep a failed teacher in a school, you’re killing children, and that’s not cool.”
“Every single time you make a job harder to remove someone who is simply not educating, and everybody in the building knows they’re not educating, you’re killing your profession, you’re killing our community and you’re making it harder on yourselves.
“It’s high time we call the roaches out and call them for what they are. I’ve been to too many cities where the excuses pile up, one on top of the other. You know what happens with those excuses? They kill our kids.”
In 2014, the Hartford school board declined to move forward with a controversial, state-endorsed plan that would have allowed Perry’s group to manage Capital Prep and nearby SAND Elementary School. The city teachers union and some SAND parents portrayed the proposal as a corporate takeover, while Perry supporters defended him and praised Capital Prep as a model school.
Perry’s Capital Preparatory Schools Inc. received approval from the state Board of Education to open a charter school in Bridgeport in August 2015.
“New York is very different from Connecticut,” Perry told the Courant on Monday. “In New York we receive enough money to run a school. Charter schools are welcomed. The lies that are told about charter schools have already been debunked.”