César Chávez, Call Your Office

Teacher shortage? What teacher shortage? Talented, idealistic educators, attracted by the opportunity to make a difference, flock to site-based managed schools.

In a book published in 2005 about Downtown College Prep, a charter high school in a poor section of San Jose, California, author Joanne Jacobs quotes one of the founders on his strategy for recruiting the first class of ninth graders: “We wanted Hispanic students who were failing in school but weren’t in jail.”

Let’s jump to the feel good ending: A big chunk — as in a majority — of these near impossible to educate, poorly behaved ninth graders, many of whom couldn’t speak English when they entered ninth grade, made it to four year colleges, and even the failures — the dropouts — were profoundly transformed by their experience at the school.

And now let’s get a sampling of what set the school apart. Here’s the author’s account of an interview with a prospective hire by a panel of administrators, teachers and students:

“He asks the students on the interview panel what they think of DCP.

‘Middle school was a lot bigger,’ says Byron. ‘There wasn’t much attention so I got to slide. I came here and tried to do the same thing. I couldn’t get away with it.’

‘I wasn’t doing that good in school,’ Debra says. ‘I went to Bridge [the summer tutoring program] and I hated it. I didn’t think it was real school. Now I like it, even though I’m not working to my ability. Teachers are more responsive.”

And here’s how the math department responded to the discovery that few of the children could handle middle school, or even some elementary school level math challenges:

“The math teachers halted algebra and geometry for a campaign they called “Give Piece a Chance.” It hurt to lose all that time to teach elementary and middle school skills. But they’d decided it was a mistake to teach advanced math before nailing down the basics.”

And here’s an e-mail from the principal:

“Dear Teachers, …to reiterate what Jill said yesterday, there is simply no excuse for not giving homework in every class. Not giving homework undermines the ability of Tutorial teachers to do their work, and sends the absolutely wrong message. I expect that I will not hear again from any staff member that a student did not have homework. No class is exempted from this.

Take care, Greg”

Two thoughts. First, it’s hard to imagine these kids making it to college without the fanatical devotion of the teachers and administrators described in the book. Second, it’s hard to imagine fanatically devoted teachers and administrators without school-based management of some kind.

Can I mention one more thing? All of that fanaticism seems to have unbalanced some of the parents. Here’s an account of a mother addressing other parents at an open house:

“I chose DCP because DCP gave me opportunity of better education for my son to go to university. He will be the first…[She breaks down in tears.] I vow to you he is going to university and to the best university. He didn’t show ganas [desire/grit] at the beginning. Now he has ganas and he is on the honor roll. It’s my responsibility and the responsibility of all parents to come in, to ask questions, to ask for help — that’s why they are here. They have knowledge to help our kids. We have to work together to help our kids get to university. Come to meetings, talk to teachers, shake their hands [She starts crying again.] I have no words to say how proud I am to be here.”

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