Monthly Archives: March 2013

Why I like KIPP — or it’s instructional methods at least

Two months ago, I had my first opportunity to visit a school based on the KIPP / Knowledge Is Power Program, and after three hours of hearing about its methods and observing their effectiveness, I went to teach my community college history class with new conviction — no foolishness.

When Charlie nodded off in the back of the room, I walked over to his seat and told him to wake up — or leave the class. When Cheryl took out her cell phone and started reading a text — a clear violation of rules I’d established on the first day — I walked over to her and put out my hand. She got the hint, gave me the phone, and noted that I put it at the front of my desk, where it stayed for the rest of the period.

Before observing KIPP methods in action, I might have ignored Charlie’s nap — motivated by a desire to not embarrass either of us. As for Cheryl’s phone, I might have just told her to put it away — or ignored it as well. After all, the class was almost over, and the girl had given me a sob story about a recent illness.

The following week, distressed by how poorly my 20-odd students had done on a simple test, I told them of my visit to the KIPP-like school and wrote its SLANT rules up on the board.

Sit up straight             Look and listen             Ask questions             Nod your head (when you understand)            Track the teacher with your eyes

I told them where the rules came from and that they’d be enforced in our classroom as well. Since then, marks have not much improved, but self-discipline has.

Like a lot of other teachers, I’d tended to ignore behavior that got in the way of learning. My students are legally adults, after all. At 20, they should know better. In class I’d often cited the correlation between students who paid close attention, did homework — and got good marks. But few changed their habits in response to my sermons.

A somewhat similar story is told in Work Hard, Be Nice, a 2009 book subtitled “How Two Inspired Teachers Created the Most Promising Schools in America,” which was written by Washington Post reporter Jay Mathews. A decade after the two teachers — Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg — had started their now widely lauded KIPP schools, one of them was called in to address the problems of a failing, sixth-grade math teacher at a school in New York City.

Though well-educated and well-recommended, this young teacher was a poor manager and motivator. After just three months, his students had already fallen behind. Had his principal been at a regular public school, as Mathews wrote, she would likely have called him in for a pep talk and sent him to observe some veterans. And, if he hadn’t learned to be more effective at the end of his probationary period, she might have let him go (or let someone else hire him).

But this was KIPP. That approach would not work for them. This principal called in Dave Levin for some help. Levin’s first task was to do some quick behavior mod with the classroom troublemaker, which he did in private while the regular teacher kept the others in the hall. Having secured the problem child’s cooperation, Levin had the rest of the class return — and for the next 40 minutes he had two-dozen students focusing intently on long division.

First he got their attention with a brief introduction; “no whining” he said when they responded languidly to his initial greeting. The students took note: authority was in charge. Then he moved on to the lesson. “Okay,” he said, “I am missing one person’s eyes.”

Levin cajoled, inspired, persuaded every child to participate, and reminded them that “smiling keeps your brain awake.” A great salesman, instantly responsive when he knew the class was not following him, Levin employed all the tricks he’d learned over a dozen years. He stimulated them with a challenge, kept their names straight, wrote a mistake on the board, and kept reminding them “eyes up, please.” Though the teacher Levin had come in to help had taken copious notes, it was soon clear that he was meant for something other than being a KIPP teacher, so he was transferred out of the classroom and encouraged to find another line of work.

Having known of KIPP for several years, I was somewhat surprised at my own reaction to its methods: that once seeing them in action at a Trenton high school one morning, I would be employing them myself that afternoon. As a staunch supporter of public education, I was suspicious of charter schools to begin with and tended to distrust KIPP’s reports of vastly improved test scores. Too authoritarian. And likely good at teaching to the test,  manipulating results, and self-promotion.

Nevertheless, I got a copy of Mathews’s book and started reading it. Soon, I was sold.  Several years of teaching community college students in Chicago and New Jersey have convinced me of a couple things: (1) Poor self-discipline is the major cause of poor performance, and (2) teachers — myself included — are more inclined to complain about students’ lax attitude toward learning than doing something about it.  In sum, I’m thinking that the most cost-effective means of improving performance in troubled urban schools would be for teachers unions to start urging their members to adopt as many KIPP methods as they can. I’ve already begun doing so with my community college colleagues.


Restoring TCHS: Con an icon from one era be a beacon of hope for another?

Articles in the Times of Trenton 80 years apart almost to the day – January 19, 1933, and March 7 of this year – could serve as benchmarks for the highs and lows of Trenton Central High School. The first tells of the school’s dedication ceremony, when it was lauded as one of the “best educational facilities in the world” and the second of hopeful signs that the once glorious building might soon be readied for the 21st century.

For a decade, the building’s leaking roof, nonfunctional ventilation system, dated plumbing and wiring – plus asbestos-infested walls – have been the source of local controversy. One side declared the building an insult to the community and the students it serves. Tear it down and rebuild, they declared. Another side resisted; deal with deferred maintenance – but don’t destroy a building that is structurally sound, architecturally distinguished, and a symbol of Trenton’s glory days as a thriving manufacturing center.

The difficulty has been that neither side had the wherewithal to do either. So water continued seeping into the stairwells, now marred by disintegrating plaster that deposits a layer of dusty crud to be swept up each night; more water seeped in around windows, buckling floorboards. A few of the school’s 170 classrooms have had to be closed as unusable, and even the main office has signs of water damage high on its walls.

A half-dozen years ago, the building was slated for repair, if not rebuilding, by the state’s Schools Development Authority – as Trenton could not afford to do either, the SDA would play a major role in the decision as to which. Though Trenton did benefit from some school construction at the time, squabbles about whether to restore or rebuild TCHS delayed action on either.  At one point, according to an architect involved in the discussions, a bid of $129 million to rehabilitate the school moved close to being accepted, then complications set in. And soon, there was the national meltdown of 2008 and SDA-funded projects were put on hold.  So, the TCHS roof continues to leak, malfunctioning plumbing spews odors into the hallways, and lack of air circulation presents health hazards to faculty, staff, and students.

A year ago, a group of Trenton parents, school board members, and others formed a Facilities Advisory Board and over the next several months, it drew up a thorough set of plans for gutting and rehabilitating the sprawling two-story building, one wing at a time. Classes and programs for its 2,000 students would be moved temporarily from one section to another so that both schooling and restoration could take place simultaneously. A great plan, carefully devised, and apparently acceptable to all stakeholders – except promises from the state for funds were made and withdrawn throughout 2012.

Then at the SDA board’s monthly meeting on March 6, dozens of Trenton residents packed the board room and overflowed into hallways. Testimony about the condition of TCHS so alarmed speakers from other communities that they implored the board to focus on addressing Trenton’s needs rather than those of their own schools. It was good news to many, as a story in the Times the following day related, that the SDA has been in conversation with Trenton school officials over the past two months – maybe an 80th birthday gift for the grand old lady.  And that the most urgent repairs just might get underway this summer.

In the meantime, the building continues to function, due largely to the extraordinary dedication of its maintenance and custodial staff. Some of the past elegance is gone – great pieces of plaster are missing from the ceiling of the entrance hall, a metal detector greets visitors, and the lighting is dim – but the broad hallways are lined with luminous rust-colored tiles, no doubt produced locally when Trenton was a center for ceramics manufacturing.

The school’s floors best illustrate both its virtues and its liabilities. On a tour last week with the head of the custodian’s union, as we walked from one sturdy but neglected stairwell to another, my lanky and congenial guide constantly bent down to pick up refuse – food wrappers, abandoned worksheets and posters, broken pencils, whatever thoughtless students had discarded. But the floors themselves positively glowed. Cleaned by a crew working all night, they are patched and polished – a credit both to the building’s sound construction and to the custodians who do what they can to keep it clean.

The school’s library tells another sad story. A graceful, ballroom-sized space with high windows that let in strong natural lighting even on a dreary day, it opens to visitors from the top of a half-flight of stairs. But marring the entrance is metal cross-work fencing three feet high. The architects 80 years ago intended that users know they should lower their voices – they were about to enter an academic sanctuary. But such appeals seem relayed in a language some TCHS students today do not understand. The fencing had to be installed a decade or more back to prevent students from lobbing wadded papers from the top of the stairs down on library tables below.

Though an argument can be made that the students’ lack of respect for the building is due to the lack of respect shown them by three decades of delayed maintenance, that’s a tad facile. The school does have several strong programs – its debate team, a robotics group, a vibrant choir, and some athletic superstars. Its faculty, from brief conversations, seems to be making a strong effort to challenge and encourage the students. And as one administrator commented, five percent of the students get 95 percent of the press.

So, the challenge is to get that other 95 percent to bring the school’s scores out of the cellar. Argue though we can all argue about the value of proficiency tests, those of TCHS are in the state’s lowest five percent. Its graduation rate is down there, too. The building’s poor condition impedes the installation of modern technology. School and district leadership are saying all the right things, and surely doing many of them as well.

But they will all breathe better once air can start circulating in the school again. So let’s hope the SDA means what it says this time. And that physical restoration of the building might lead to restoration of its academic leadership as well.



Bringing a legacy to light — Trenton’s New Lincoln School

Biking around Trenton one day, I noticed an impressive-looking school building on north Montgomery Street and became curious about its history. Soon I learned that it’s now home to Rivera, an alternative public school for the district. But not until hearing about a new exhibit at the Ellarslie museum in Cadwalader Park did I learn of the building’s distinctive role in Trenton history. An earlier exhibit at the Shiloh Baptist Church — called Bringing Our Legacy to Light — told part of the story. This new one, curated by collector (and proud grad) Elizabeth Carter Lacy, relays the school’s significance with elegance and enthusiasm.

Constructed in 1924, for a quarter of a century the New Lincoln School served Trenton’s growing black population, and as the exhibition asserts, it did it abundantly well. With migration from the South increasing during World War I, the deteriorating buildings in which classes for black children were held had become cramped. Though school segregation had been prohibited in New Jersey since 1882, it was alas widely practiced. But the New Lincoln community made the most of what the school had to offer.

Built in 18 months, start to finish, to house 1,100 students, kindergarten through ninth grade, New Lincoln was the centerpiece of its neighborhood. Though its $500,000 initial cost would hardly pay for a school roof today, it was well equipped. The school had not only an auditorium, spacious classrooms, and a gym, it had the only swimming pool in the city system. And all the school’s furnishings and equipment were new, too.

A working fireplace graced a wall of the school’s kindergarten, and one of the exhibit’s most charming displays is a tribute to its teacher, Miss Arnetta Lee. For a quarter century, she enchanted five-year olds with the possibilities that school had to offer. Miss Lee taught her young charges to have fun, to love learning and to follow rules. Among them: “be compassionate . . . share . . . be focused . . . do the best you can do.” Demonstrating her dictum to “live a balanced life,” she had students paint some, sing some, work and play some each day.

With one class in the morning and another in the afternoon, Miss Lee must have been a remarkable lady. Her lessons about grace and decorum were obviously effective: another of my favorite displays was the group portraits of graduating ninth graders: the girls dressed primly in white and the boys in jackets and ties. (Yes, my kindergarten teacher was of Miss Lee’s generation.)

Miss Lee’s standards — high, though delivered with affection — characterized other aspects of the New Lincoln experience, according to a history of Trenton’s black community. Segregated though the school was, the city’s board of education had its own standards to uphold. For one (though this was a controversial move), it replaced a popular principal who did not have a college degree with one who had two. Mr. Arthur Long, with a master’s degree from the University of Chicago — at the time, one of the nation’s leading education schools — was hired as principal. Like the rest of the staff, Long was “colored,” a term commonly used then, according to a sign at the exhibit’s entrance.

But apparently, Long never moved into Trenton, which distressed much of the New Lincoln community. So in 1933 he was replaced by Mr. Patton J. Hill. An army veteran and veteran educator, Hill served the Trenton schools until 1958 — and lives on today in the name of P.J. Hill School.

And that raises a question not answered in the display — Trenton’s schools were finally desegregated in the mid-1940s, as a result of a famous court decision also memorialized in a school name: the Hedgepeth-Williams case, which predated Brown v. Board of Education by a decade. As many historians of education have noted, school desegregation had some unfortunate consequences, one of which was that the dedicated black teachers who had served generations of students in segregated schools lost their jobs in the wake of Brown. Hill may have been a fortunate exception as he remained with the system for 10 years after New Lincoln was converted to a middle school.

This charming exhibition has numerous other lessons to offer, as well as a list of some of the school’s noted graduates: the distinguished judge and legal scholar Leon Higginbotham and former New York City mayor David Dinkins among them. A proud legacy indeed! The exhibition will be on display until May 25; on Sunday, March 10, Elizabeth Lacy will give a talk about the school between 2 and 4 in the afternoon.  (Note: some of the information in this blog came from The Quest for Equality: Trenton’s Black Community, 1890-1965, written by Jack Washington, a teacher at Trenton Central High School.)