BOOK REVIEW: “A Light Shines in Harlem”



Your child loves his teacher.


It’s something you’re grateful for, because that makes it easier for him to go to school. Every morning, he rises with a smile and he comes home excited. Bless her heart, he’s getting an education for his future.

r />But what if the school your child attended was sub-par? What would you do to ensure that he had the best learning atmosphere possible? As you’ll see in “A Light Shines in Harlem” by Mary C. Bounds, it was a question that needed tackling.


Rev. Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker knew that Harlem youth were in trouble.


As Martin Luther King Jr.’s Chief of Staff, Walker had worked hard for civil rights. As a minister who helped reclaim Harlem’s neighborhoods, he knew the value of education for its citizens – and he was concerned.


“Increasingly,” says Bounds, “Walker heard stories from his congregation about how inner-city schools were failing their children.” He considered opening his own school but logistics prevented it. Still, he never stopped searching for answers – until he found something he thought might work: a charter school.


Much like a public school, charter schools are “tax-funded, tuition-free, and open to all public school children…” The difference is in who operates the school, and that parents decide on enrollment. It was education reform in its truest sense, and it was a relatively new concept then.


When he met Steven Klinsky in 1999, Walker hoped the solution was at hand. For years, Klinsky had been thinking about his brother.


When Klinsky was a kindergartener, his brother Gary tutored him every day after school. Thanks to Gary, who died young, Klinsky was a success, and he’d been thinking about a way to honor Gary’s legacy.


In the beginning, Klinsky created an academic after-school program that offered kids a fun way to learn – much like the fun he’d had with Gary – but when he learned about charter schools, he became truly excited. Harlem seemed to be the likeliest place for a charter school, if the right building could be found. And then someone introduced Klinsky, who had the finances, to Walker, whose church owned a magnificent and nearly-empty structure…


There’s been a lot on the news lately about the “crisis” in education, both from the teacher point-of-view and from parents. People worry about their children’s success and “A Light Shines in Harlem” sheds some good news on this issue.

I had to smile as I was reading this book, in fact: author Mary C. Bounds’ telling of this tale makes it sound almost like a thriller, with heroes and hurdles.


I enjoyed reading about the synchronistical events that allowed the Sisulu-Walker Charter School of Harlem to become a reality, and the tales about the students. Parents and educators will appreciate the you-can-do-this hints in the back.


Be aware of one thing: this book contains a lot of names, and that quickly becomes overwhelming. Look beyond it, if you struggle, and persevere. In the end, you’ll find that “A Light Shines in Harlem” has plenty of class.


“A Light Shines in Harlem: New York’s First Charter School and the Movement it Led” by Mary C. Bounds, foreword by Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker, c. 2014, Lawrence Hill Books, $24.95, 220 pages.


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