March 24, 2004: Features
By Kathryn Federici Greenwood
For years Terry Eakin ’66, whose company builds upscale town-houses around Washington, D.C., served on a committee to improve his local public schools. As a member of D.C. COPE – the Committee on Public Education – he recommended reforms and tried to work with administrators and the unions to make them happen. But Eakin found the bureaucracy was interested in preserving the status quo, while test scores kept dropping, buildings kept deteriorating, and schools remained short on books, despite injections of money into the school system. So he redirected his energies to coming up with an alternative. “Our country desperately needs to try new ways to improve,” he says.
In 1998, Eakin became chairman of the board of the District of Columbia Public Charter School Resource Center, and for five years he helped charter schools get started. Last September he helped found a new charter school himself: D.C. Prep, for fourth- through eighth-graders, next to a subsidized housing development in Northeast Washington. Now he hopes to open five to 10 more charter schools in Washington. “Educational results are enhanced by school autonomy,” he says, “as opposed to having policies and other matters dictated from above.”
Eakin is far from the only Princeton alum convinced that traditional models of public education are failing America’s most at-risk students, and working to create models — both public and private — to replace them. Rajiv Vinnakota ’93, a Princeton trustee, started the nation’s first public charter boarding school, the SEED Public Charter School, which now serves 305 seventh- through 12th-graders in a formerly burned-out public school in Southeast Washington. Carmelita Reyes ’98 is a founding teacher of Oakland, California’s Life Academy High School of Health and Bio-Science, a public school of 250 kids that split off from Fremont High School, which had about 2,000 students and a dropout rate of about 50 percent. Hans Hageman ’80 in 1993 founded the private East Harlem School at Exodus House for disadvantaged fifth- through eighth-graders and has since become executive director of Boys and Girls Harbor, founded by Anthony D. Duke ’41, which runs a charter school in East Harlem. “There’s a tremendous hunger and thirst in the East Harlem and Harlem communities for alternatives of all sorts,” says Hageman.
Many of the alumni work in charter schools – independently operated, publicly funded schools that generally have great flexibility in hiring, curriculum, and budgeting. Though charters serve students of all socioeconomic groups, many were created specifically to provide alternatives for children in poor, low-achieving public schools. The differences among these schools are enormous, says Theodore G. Kolderie *54, who helped get the nation’s first charter school law passed in Minnesota in 1991 and is considered the godfather of the charter-school movement. While some have the most advanced technology, others are decidedly low-tech. They differ in curriculum, in dress and behavior codes, and in management and organization, he notes.
It’s still unclear how the new schools are faring. Princeton economist Cecilia Rouse, who specializes in education research, notes that there has not been a conclusive study of charter schools. Some research suggests that reducing school size can increase student participation, reduce dropout rates and school violence, and enhance academic achievement and teacher efficiency. But it also shows that small size alone does not necessarily lead to higher achievement. Many new, smaller schools find they are not immune to the challenges of poverty facing urban education, and some have been forced to close because of management or financial problems, low test scores, or high teacher turnover.
It’s hard to predict how “alternative” schools will change American education — charter schools, for instance, enroll only 1 percent of the nation’s student population — but many of these schools offer low-income kids what suburban families expect: a nurturing environment filled with expectations and hope for the future.
Profiled here are three schools in which Princeton alumni are playing key roles.
Kathryn Federici Greenwood is an associate editor at PAW.
Kids from Boston’s toughest neighborhoods start lining up outside Media and Technology Charter High School – MATCH – an hour before class begins on a mid-September morning. Many of these high school students have traveled more than an hour on public transportation to get to the school, on the edge of Boston University’s campus. At 7:45 MATCH’s morning ritual begins: The principal, Charlie Sposato, a fiftyish man with glasses, opens the door and greets each student by name, with a firm handshake. Sposato asks each student the same three questions; each responds with standard answers:
Sposato: “Why are you here?”
Student: “To learn.”
Sposato: “What’s it take?”
Student: “Courage, discipline, perseverance.”
Sposato: “Key word?” (The word of the day is posted outside the door.)
Sposato teases them and asks how they are doing. To one boy, he says, “So your dad’s doing OK?” The boy nods, yes. “You get your homework in?” Another nod.
The ritual sets the tone for the day, says Alan Safran ’80, the school’s executive director. Before coming to MATCH in July 2002, Safran worked for the Massachusetts Department of Education, most recently as senior associate commissioner, in charge of making sure high schools helped students meet a new state testing standard, and before that as deputy commissioner, overseeing school funding, buildings, teacher certification, and technology. Safran left the Department of Education for MATCH, which was founded in September 2000, to “get down in the trenches,” he says. “I had a craving to be in a school. I wanted to be close to individual kids and their lives. I felt a hunger to contribute something directly to kids as opposed to policy changes that the schools may or may not implement.”
Safran and his MATCH colleagues live by the motto, “Kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” But teachers and administrators are also sticklers for discipline and rules, including a firmly enforced dress code. One student entered wearing a black skirt that was more than one inch above the knee; she never got past Sposato, who made her go home to change. MATCH’s philosophy might be summed up as “tough love.” Students have three hours of homework each night. To pass a course, they must earn a C or higher. And if students fail two courses or more, they must repeat that year. As a result, roughly 30 percent of students are held back each year, and the average student will spend five years earning a high school diploma, says Safran.
This year’s senior class had 75 students in the fall of 2000; now it has 25. Eight students had to repeat a year, some students moved, one was expelled for bringing a weapon to school, some left because they didn’t adhere to discipline standards, and others transferred after receiving two Ds. Safran says the attrition rate has been dropping for each subsequent class.
MATCH’s high-tech name is a misnomer. The real focus is on the basics of reading, writing, and mathematics, and the school uses media and technology when appropriate, Sposato says. Safran developed a tutoring program to supplement what teachers do in class, and all ninth- and 10th-graders get eight hours a week of one-on-one tutoring by local college students. Any student who fails a course must attend tutoring sessions with M.I.T. students for five weeks in the summer. Safran also arranged for all seniors to audit one course at either Boston University or Boston College.
Safran first became involved with MATCH the year it opened, 2000—01, as a volunteer chess tutor on Friday mornings. The son of public school teachers, before going to the Massachusetts Department of Education, he had been executive director of the Republican party of Massachusetts, an assistant district attorney in New York City, and spokesman for the U.S. Senate foreign relations committee. Now Safran puts in 70 hours a week at MATCH, fundraising, supervising, keeping tabs on the kids, and calling parents.
Because MATCH is a charter school, it has great flexibility and control over hiring and budgeting. It hires nonunion teachers and staff, and pays teachers based on their relevant experience. For example, MATCH hired a lead math teacher who might have been passed over by traditional schools because she lacked state teaching certification and didn’t follow a traditional route to the classroom. “We look very positively on teachers who have other life experiences that make them good role models for our kids,” Safran says.
Unrestricted by labor contracts, MATCH has more freedom to have a longer school day and year. It also may spend its budget as it sees fit. Safran recently negotiated a contract for an S.A.T. preparation program; the better students do on the test, the more the company will be paid.
Most of the 180 students live in single-parent homes, and most are black or Hispanic. Seventy-three percent qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch. Like the average Boston public-school student beginning ninth grade, the typical MATCH student enters with fifth-grade math skills and sixth-grade English skills. Since the school opened in September 2000, average reading achievement has increased by two grade levels each year. Last spring, 89 percent of the class of 2005 passed both the math and English sections on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System standardized test on the first try, compared to a 52 percent pass rate for the Boston school district.
It takes time for new students to buy into the school’s culture. Most behavioral problems show up with the ninth-graders, says Safran, “because they’re not used to a place that’s holding them accountable for behavior.” Junior Deverine James, who has been in and out of foster homes, acknowledges that she often was suspended in her first year, after taking out anger on students and teachers. At MATCH, she says, “if you have a problem there’s always someone to talk to,” including a full-time social worker. She doesn’t like going home at night, so she stays at school until 7 or 8 p.m. — with teachers and administrators who often stay late and tutors who work until 7:30. Says James, “It’s a place you want to be.”
expectations and family support
Bridgeport, Connecticut’s old Singer sewing factory – a tired, yellow brick building across from a dingy parking lot – looks like any of the other old industrial buildings in this economically depressed city. But the paper butterflies taped to the second-floor windows offer a glimpse of what goes on inside. Housed on the second floor is New Beginnings Family Academy, a charter elementary school. The classrooms and hallways are neat and colorful, decorated with the children’s artwork. On one wall hangs a “friendship tree” made of hand-shaped leaves displaying the students’ names. On another is an uplifting saying by Oprah Winfrey.
One day, teachers, administrators, and a handful of parents join the students for “morning meeting” in the cafeteria. Dressed in their uniforms – dark blue jumpers for the girls and dark blue pants for the boys, with light blue button-down shirts – and seated in a large circle, the children thank each other for coming to school. Five second-graders recite a poem about friendship — the school’s ethical theme of the month. The meeting ends with a song, which gets students stomping their feet and calling out, “One more time!”
Like Bridgeport’s traditional public schools, N.B.F.A. enrolls a student body that is about 95 percent black and Latino. Nearly 60 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Convinced that traditional public school systems are mired in inertia, Jonathan T. Dawson ’66 and Michelle Black Smith ’83 founded N.B.F.A. to offer Bridgeport kids a rigorous education in a nurturing environment. “Unless we solve the inner-city problem we’re not going to have a great democracy or a great economy or a great anything,” says Dawson.
Three years ago Dawson, owner of a money-management firm, and Smith, a Bridgeport native and a cultural historian with a master’s degree in costume and textile studies, partnered with educator Tania Kelley, who had been granted a charter by Connecticut’s Department of Education in 1999. When the state legislature stopped appropriating all charter funds, Dawson and Smith drummed up the support of community leaders and lobbied state politicians. In the summer of 2002 their school was granted funding, and 60 days later it opened. Currently kindergarten through fourth grade, N.B.F.A. will add one grade each year, through eighth grade. Dawson has committed millions of dollars of his own money to defray operating costs for the first five years, purchase a permanent facility, and start an endowment.
Smith, who had worked as a consultant on a history project with the Bridgeport public schools, saw in traditional city schools “a system that rewards apathy” and a misallocated budget. As executive director of the Friends of N.B.F.A., a nonprofit organization that provides support to the school, Smith cultivates volunteers, raises money, and helps develop programs such as arranging for an optometrist to give students eye exams.
N.B.F.A. uses a curriculum designed for urban students, which focuses on early literacy, incorporating reading, writing, and verbal skills throughout the day’s lessons. The children are exposed through stories to unfamiliar activities or ideas, such as kayaking and water skiing, to broaden their perspectives and provide general knowledge that will help them on standardized tests. “Books are at the core” of the curriculum, says Smith; library visits are doled out for good behavior, in addition to twice-weekly library sessions.
In its first year, N.B.F.A. made progress but fell short of its goals. More than half the students now read at or above grade level, and a consultant is working with students who need remedial work. In math, fewer than half the students tested performed at grade level. But parents say they are drawn to this school for its high academic expectations, extended school day and year, smaller classes, family atmosphere, and the expectation that they will become highly involved in the school. Parents volunteer, raise money, attend meetings, and sign homework. Michael McKelvie, who has children in second and fourth grades, stays for morning meeting on his days off from work to check in with teachers. “The school seems to be more open to parents’ needs,” he says. A family worker makes sure parents have the tools they need to help their children with homework, and will even help them find a job or figure out a way to pay utility bills.
As a charter school, Smith says, N.B.F.A. determines its own curriculum and maintains extended school hours, from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and a longer year, running through July. Unlike teachers at traditional public schools, N.B.F.A. teachers earn performance-based bonuses and can’t earn tenure. The teachers’ “performance is their assurance of continuation of employment,” she adds.
Tania Kelley, the school director, says she has hired teachers who want to teach in the city. She looks for compassion, patience, consistency, and, of course, knowledge. Teachers, along with parents and community members, serve on the school’s board and share in making decisions. Says Kelley, who doubles as the crossing guard in the afternoons, “It’s not what’s on the outside. It’s what we hold on the inside that matters. This is just a building. The teachers and students make it a school.”
Teaching as ministry
In a gritty, predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, Michael Anderer-McClelland ’90 walks the streets on a crisp fall morning, greeting in Spanish almost everyone he passes. He points out graffiti painted by warring gangs. He stops in front of a house where a boy recently was murdered by a rival gang member. In 2000, Anderer-McClelland moved to this neighborhood – which, according to census data, has a 23.8 percent dropout rate for 16-to-19-year-olds, the second-highest in the U.S. — to work at San Miguel School, a Catholic middle school on the third floor above the neighborhood parish church. He lives across the street in a former convent with staff members and his wife and infant son. Last summer a stray bullet penetrated the stained glass window in the convent’s front hall.
“We are not driving in and teaching these students for the day, and driving out at the end of the day. We are living in the neighborhood with them and experiencing the same things they are experiencing,” says Anderer-McClelland, who majored in molecular biology and was certified through Princeton’s Teacher Preparation Program.
His school, which is independent of the local Catholic diocese, is one in a growing network of 15 small schools for low-income families started by the De La Salle Christian Brothers, a Catholic religious order. In 1997 Anderer-McClelland helped found another San Miguel school, in Camden, New Jersey. The Chicago school, known as Back of the Yards because it is south of the city’s old stockyards, opened in 1995; Anderer-McClelland has served in various capacities, including math and religion teacher, and site director. San Miguel, which accepts students of all faiths, targets kids who are not succeeding academically and whose families struggle financially. The school charges average tuition of $40 per month, but 97 percent of the budget comes from fundraising. The number of parish-based Catholic schools has been declining for 10 to 15 years, says Anderer-McClelland. San Miguel’s network is trying to buck that trend.
“We teach kids by loving them first,” says Anderer-McClelland. Children’s educational success, he says, depends first and foremost on the teacher-student relationship, and is supported by the relationship between school and home. Based on the belief that all students can succeed, San Miguel focuses on basic skills: reading, writing, and mathematics.
This year, Anderer-McClelland is helping families take advantage of important community resources; for example, he’s bringing representatives from banks and subsidized health-care programs into the school so that parents can open bank accounts or sign up for health insurance. He offers workshops in household budgeting, homeowner education, family support, and adult English instruction.
“Part of our mission is to make accessible to low-income families what is normal for middle-American families,” says Anderer-McClelland. “We’re trying to level the playing field,” paticularly for the parents, 80 percent of whom speak no English and 65 percent of whom have completed six or fewer years of education. Says Martha Tellez, the school secretary, whose three kids graduated from San Miguel, “You feel like somebody cares. You have somebody to lean on.”
With 76 students in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, and a student-to-teacher ratio no greater than 12 to one, children get lots of individual attention and work at their own pace in reading and math. Personal instruction is supplemented by individual, computer-based reading and math programs. In school from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., three hours longer than Chicago public school students, children spend three hours each day on reading, writing, and literature, including at least an hour of reading independently. For 96 percent of the students, English is a second language, and most come in reading at a fourth-grade reading level or below. They leave, three years later, reading at grade level.
Every morning students bound up the stairs to the third floor, past a mural of the Virgin of Guadalupe, patroness of Mexico, to greet teachers, who line the hallway. Dressed in gray pants and white shirts, the girls and boys look neat and behave respectfully. Green plants hang in classrooms and classical music is piped into the hallway. Posted in the hallway are lists of student achievements, including attendance records, reading levels, and the high schools San Miguel graduates are attending.
Staff members help eighth graders apply to charter high schools, magnet schools, and private high schools; the school grants financial aid to students who need assistance paying private-school tuition. So far, 85 percent of San Miguel’s Chicago graduates have graduated from high school; about 85 percent of those students have gone on to higher education. All students who receive financial aid must attend weekly tutoring sessions. “We are a still a presence to them,” says Anderer-McClelland, and “a place they come back to all the time.”
With the other convent residents, Anderer-McClelland and his wife, Karin, share not only bathrooms, cars, and computers but also a strong commitment to the mission of San Miguel. They call it “living in community,” and pray together daily. Like Anderer-McClelland, the teachers – half of whom are volunteers – view their work as a vocation. It can be emotionally draining, says Alison Burgoyne, a seventh-grade teacher. Many students experience abandonment, or the death of friends or family members. “If I took everything to heart it would be overwhelming,” she says.
Sylvia Vazquez, a 2001 San Miguel graduate and now a junior at a local Catholic high school, says San Miguel opened up a new world for her through its field trips to places like Washington, D.C., and St. Mary’s University in Winona, Minnesota. If it weren’t for San Miguel, she says, she probably would have dropped out of school, like many of her friends. “To me,” says Vazquez, “San Miguel is love, hope, and a family.”
Decades ago, the designers of public schools thought bigger was better – that large schools could offer an efficient, standardized, and wide-ranging education. But today, they’re often seen as centers of violence, inefficiency, and failure. For more than a year, Laura Kurgan, a Princeton assistant professor of architecture, has been studying ways to break some of the largest and worst-performing schools in the Bronx into smaller “schools within a school.”
As part of a design studio in 2002, Kurgan and eight graduate students visited five large Bronx high schools that were divided into campuses of smaller schools. “This situation creates interesting new challenges for architects, accustomed as they are to creating anew,” says a report released recently by Kurgan. The report cautions against making divisions too casually: “When the lines between big and small are not drawn with care, the differences between the few and the many in the student body can turn into conflicts, and the results are not good for learning, safety, or the school community.”
The project got Kurgan thinking about the importance of “soft interventions” that are not typically part of an architect’s work, such as furniture, graphic design, and scheduling issues. She continues to work closely with New Visions for Public Schools, the nonprofit organization managing much of this transformation. Kurgan spoke with Kristen Fountain ’96 for PAW.
As you have spent time in some of New York City’s toughest high schools, what has surprised you most?
I’m from South Africa and didn’t have a vision of what big American public schools are like. They really can be shocking. At Kennedy High School, four thousand kids go through one security gate. But the security doesn’t feel like it is making people safe. It feels like a police force is present in the building, and in some cases, it is. That is not a good educational environment. The principals of the small schools probably would tell you that they would rather make the school safe enough to have security be unnecessary. It’s not about designing new security systems, it’s about not having to need them.
What are the benefits of having many schools in one building?
The small-schools movement is a trend sweeping across the country. The idea is that you have the benefits of knowing your teachers personally, and having a particular orientation for the curriculum, but on the other hand a big school has the library and the gymnasium and all those things that come with the economy of scale. It’s like colleges or departments at a university, but with the high school campuses the primary identification is with the small school.
What did you conclude about putting small schools together in large buildings?
I saw the small schools struggling to literally find a space for themselves. They were putting up banners, buying new furniture, and using wireless technology so that students and teachers felt like they were in a campus rather than in some small leftover corner of a school. What I drew out of that is that these schools really needed to define their own territory and needed some sense of their identity. If you have a budget, you could completely redesign the school, change the circulation, put in three new entries, and an atrium in the middle. If you don’t, then you can do it with graphics, lighting, and information design.
How much architectural planning is going into these small schools?
Everything was done with a very limited budget. It was considered a luxury. Now the project needs a different vision of planning, but it needs one that suits the schools. They are so idiosyncratic and optimistic and energetic. My work is a general conceptual view of how this process works, which can be picked up by different architects. Facilities planning is a huge blind spot for the small-schools movement. If people don’t pay attention, the schools could fail for architectural reasons rather than educational reasons, and that would be a tragedy.
The large schools you visited look so different from each other. Is that relevant?
These schools’ problems have nothing to do with the kind of buildings they are in. Each one I focused on has its own distinct architectural style. You have the most beautiful historically preserved Morris High School, built in 1899, and Evander Childs High School, which has these W.P.A. murals; even though there are long hallways, there is beautiful light. Then you have Kennedy High School, which was built in the 1970s and looks very foreboding. Often-times the failings of schools are blamed on buildings like Kennedy, but it’s a misperception.
How did you approach the topic in your Princeton studio class?
I asked the students to respond to the idealism and excitement of the schools with designs that were innovative and risky. I was interested in the history of utopian school designs, because we were looking at their ruins in the Bronx. We studied contemporary manufacturing, comparing the Fordist era of mass production to today’s just-in-time economy with its low inventories and flexibility. Now there is still mass production involved in making the pieces, but the way a product gets put together is by mass customization. It’s made just for you. These schools, where every principal has a unique approach to education or a special kind of curriculum, are somewhat like that.