Great Expectations

Here’s the school you wish your kids attended.
Start with students who’ve had few chances, set high goals and watch the narrowing of the achievement gap – what Dacia Toll ’94 calls ‘the civil rights issue of our generation.’

On the last day of school before spring break, Kelly Clement sat on a stool in front of her faltering eighth-grade writing class at Amistad Academy, trying to break through the muck that had mired her kids in a slump. She had sensed a drop in motivation in her students, and now that it had begun to show itself in grades – A’s and B’s had turned to low B’s and high C’s – Clement, a young woman with an intense manner, was so distraught that she was awake the previous night at 1 a.m., burrowing through her bookshelves for a way to reach down to her students’ cores.

A lot of that happens here, a kind of ongoing negotiation with the gods of opportunity. This is New Haven, Conn., where public middle school students are, on average, two grade levels behind their state peers. This is where more than 79 percent of families qualify for the free or reduced school lunch program. This is where 98 percent of students are black or Latino. This is a location where sociologist James Coleman’s 1966 findings that children from impoverished families – often minorities – do not learn as well as wealthy students found fertile soil in which to spread like blight on human promise, even while minds of privilege were blooming at nearby Yale.

But this also is where, in 1999, Dacia Toll ’94 and Doug McCurry ’94 co-founded Amistad, a charter school that refused to give up on urban kids. This is where, in 2004, Amistad’s eighth-graders – who represent a higher percentage of poor and minority students than New Haven as a whole – outperformed their district and state counterparts in every category.

On the Connecticut Mastery Test, the state’s end-of-year standardized performance measure that is considered the toughest in the country, just 31 percent of New Haven students had achieved grade-level mastery in reading;
19 percent in math; and 34 percent in writing. In the state, 67 percent were proficient in reading, 56 in math and 62 in writing.

Amistad’s figures for that same year, however, were 81 percent, 75 percent and 86 percent. Amistad students even demonstrated greater proficiency in writing (86.9 percent) than many well-to-do suburbs, including Greenwich (78.3 percent), where the median household income is $99,000 to New Haven’s $29,000.

Despite that success, Clement, as are the rest of the teachers at Amistad, is well-aware that in New Haven, there is no room for complacency. This is about their students’ ability to get a job, earn a living, own a home. This poetry assignment, or that algebra problem, is their right not to become a teenage mother, to not become a high school dropout, to not find their way into a jail cell. Tucking in the shirttail of their uniform now means getting the interview they want a decade from now. It’s not about being better than the New Haven public school average, which, as Toll points out, is “pathetically low. It’s about preparing these kids to compete with the kids from Connecticut’s wealthiest suburbs. Because that’s who they’re going to college with. That’s the competitive job market they’re going to be in.”

Thus, this morning, on each of Clement’s students’ desks, lay a simple piece of paper with powerful numbers: The comparative SAT scores of the mostly white New Canaan (1183) and Branford, Conn., (1016) school districts and of overwhelmingly black and Latino New Haven (815). The message: The first two numbers are your competition, as well as your goal. The last one is a fate that is chasing you – a fate that you can outrun.

“I want to take it back to what I said at the beginning, about how the big game is in your future, and sometimes, we’re missing practice,” Clement directed her students. “We’re going home, we’re talking on the phone, we’re playing on the computer. We’re not practicing for the big game. And, all right, we can get by tomorrow – maybe I’ll get a high C, but it will be fine. But the game will come, and you’re not going to be as prepared. How can we infuse motivation in our culture, so that, when we come back from break, we’re more on each other about going home each night and being prepared for the game?”

“It’s like the other day, in college prep,” says a girl named Skyeshia, “when someone said she wanted to be like me, because I had accomplished my goals. That gave me high spirits, because last night, I really didn’t want to do the homework, but I did it anyway. I got home real late, and I ended up staying up until 10, 11 o’clock. But I still got all my homework done. And I felt good about it.”

“Rejoice,” comes the softly spoken affirmation from the class.

“You can get into a slump,” says Clement, “and you have to remind each other that it feels good to do your best work, and that it’s worth it to do it.”

Watching silently from the doorway, Toll nods in approval. “The difference,” she explains in a low voice, “is that we absolutely teach values. You have to talk about motivation. You have to talk about courage. You have to talk about what it takes to get there. Because it’s as much about character skills and drive and personal goals on standards of excellence as it is about strong academic skills. We’re looking for nothing less than life-changing results.”

“We must be the change we wish to see in this world. – Gandhi” from a banner hanging in Amistad’s gymnasium.

Toll has the kind of credentials that make Fortune 500 companies and powerhouse law firms salivate. A Morehead Scholarship, a Truman Scholarship, a Rhodes Scholarship and a degree from Yale Law School can help punch a ticket to just about anywhere you wish. Her pedigree isn’t bad, either; her father, former physics professor John Toll, was president of the University of Maryland for 10 years and is president emeritus of Washington College in Chestertown, Md.

But the younger Toll, who was student body vice president at UNC and wrote her undergraduate honors thesis on the rancorous consolidation of Durham city and county schools in the mid-’90s, was captivated by a goliath of a career path while completing her law studies, one that by no means owed her the success of her past.

She wanted to close the achievement gap, to tackle public school reform.

Toll earned a teaching certificate while in law school and taught in New Haven public schools as she finished her degree. While at Yale, she teamed with 31 other students in 1998 to talk about and research charter schools – publicly funded but privately operated institutions that could make their own rules about curriculum and teaching, as long as they performed at a level approved by the state. Could a charter school not mired in the quicksand of status quo help save New Haven children?

“What motivated all of us at the time is that this is a civil rights issue,” says Toll, who became principal of Amistad when the middle school opened its doors in 1999 and today is president of Achievement First, the nonprofit organizing body steering its model’s expansion in other areas. “In fact, the achievement gap is the civil rights issue of our generation.”

Any number of statistics could be used to describe the cavernous gap of educational accomplishment between whites and some minorities, between urban and suburban students: that the average black or Latino 12th-grader now has lower basic skills than the average white eighth-grader; that white children are twice as likely as black children, and three times as likely as Latinos, to earn a college degree.

But the problem isn’t race or money, co-founder McCurry says. The problem is that school systems don’t expect anything more from urban students, and urban students deliver on those low expectations.

“Five, 10 years ago, people would make that argument,” says McCurry, who also was a Morehead Scholar at UNC and joined Amistad a few months before it opened from a job teaching private school in his hometown of Charlotte. “They would list all the reasons why urban kids can’t succeed. They’d say, ‘It’s not the schools. It’s just the families are so tough, and the kids are so poor, and the neighborhoods are so bad – and there’s a straight correlation between those things and academic performance.’

“None of us believed that framework was right, that no kid in New Haven would ever succeed,” adds McCurry, now superintendent of Achievement First schools. “We chose to believe in the kids instead.”

But, Toll says, “it couldn’t just be a theoretical statement that kids in New Haven could perform as well as a kid from a more privileged background. We had to prove it.”

Toll and her cohorts visited other high-achieving schools across North America to come up with the best formula for Amistad. They settled on a few key ideas early on to counteract the doldrums and despair of urban education: building a sense of community, insisting on excellent behavior and setting the academic achievement bar high – very high.

Community is achieved through blue golf shirt uniforms worn by everyone except those students whose behavior hasn’t earned them one – they wear white instead; a daily, schoolwide assembly called morning circle, in which students are either lauded or brought forth to apologize for certain behaviors; and by the three-way contracts signed by students, parents and administrators that hold each to certain responsibilities, such as arriving on time and completing mandatory nightly homework.

Amistad has a zero-tolerance policy toward back-talking and eye-rolling, and a dean of students, not the principal, to deal with discipline problems. Students who do test the rules are quickly reprimanded, and everyone else gets the idea.

In a literature class, when a boy who raises his hand to answer the teacher’s question waits too long to answer, the teacher calls on another youngster.

“Oh, c’mon,” the boy complains loudly. Toll, looming in the doorway, taps the student on the shoulder, then puts a hand to her heart and pats it several times while flashing him a blistering stink eye. He shrinks back into his seat and gets back into the lesson.

“Are you kidding me?” Toll remarks rhetorically to a visitor. “He didn’t have the answer, the teacher moved on. Next time, he has to be prepared.”

Old-school discipline

Stroll with Toll, who, though no longer principal, is still clearly the guiding conscience of the school, and you’ll see obsession at its best. A student whose shirt is hanging out of his khakis gets a tap on the shoulder to tuck it back in. A pencil tossed errantly onto the floor in the otherwise pristine Amistad hallways immediately is snatched up by Toll, a woman whose own disastrously unkempt car and office could use a visit from FEMA. Toll, in fact, once used a messy bathroom as a “teachable moment,” walking a class into the lavatory to witness the problem.

Amistad’s discipline standards are attention-grabbers for visiting professionals and media, but, as McCurry says, “we think it’s strange that other schools don’t make the kids clean up after themselves.”

Indeed, McCurry and Toll bristle at observers – mainly supporters nostalgic for their own hardscrabble experiences in parochial schools – who liken Amistad to a military school. What they’re doing, say Toll and McCurry, is nothing more than teaching a student to be one citizen in a world of many.

“The environment here is as warm and joyful as any other school that’s out there,” says McCurry, who was preparing for an afternoon faculty-student basketball game. “We’re able to be more warm and joyful because we’re more structured. Kids aren’t bullying other kids. We can structure fun because we can trust the kids to handle it.”

They prefer to think of it as “sweating the small stuff so we don’t have to deal with the big things,” says McCurry. To that end, all of Amistad’s teachers are educated in the “broken windows” theory, introduced by criminologist George L. Kelling and political scientist James Q. Wilson in a 1982 Atlantic Monthly article and popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book, The Tipping Point. The basic nature of the theory says that the look and feel of an environment dictates what goes on within it. Innocent graffiti on a neighborhood wall sends a signal that it’s OK to burglarize homes. Hence, a stray pencil on a school floor says it’s OK to talk back to a teacher – no one cares.

Overlooked in the focus on old-school discipline, says Toll, is the fact that high achievement cannot happen without it, and vice versa. The ultimate goal is a ticket to college and a better life, not just an orderly classroom. “You could have a really rigorous program, really high expectations, great materials,” she says, “but if the kids are out of control, they don’t buy in.”

Every day, in every classroom, one can sense the urgency of learning. The lessons are crisp and fast-paced, with high participation and a routine structure. Each class begins with five “quick questions” that review the previous day’s lesson, continues by introducing new materials and ends with another review. In addition to nightly reading assignments, homework is required every evening – covering only a topic that the teacher is certain the class has absorbed and can do without the help of parents, a fact that also boosts students’ confidence in their learning abilities. And Amistad’s school day is longer, running from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.

But central to the whole curriculum is Amistad’s interim assessments, progressively comprehensive tests given every six weeks that measure what concepts the students are grasping, and what they still need to learn, all with an eye toward the Connecticut Mastery Test. Teachers use the results to tailor their lesson plans, both for the class as a whole and for individual students, to help prepare them for the CMT. And in turn, that preparation holds lasting effects on students’ study habits, time management and personal ambition – benefits that show in the more than 40 full scholarships Amistad students have received to private high schools throughout New England, including one of the most prestigious in the country, Choate Rosemary Hall.

“It’s not just about high CMT scores,” Toll says. “They prove something, but it’s about getting these kids to college, on a different path in life. And if we just let them go .”

“There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in – Graham Greene”, banner on front of Amistad building

Across town in New Haven, in a dark and outdated building that once belonged to a Catholic church, a group of kindergartners is taking turns forming sentences from a jumble of words printed on construction paper and tacked on a wall, putting the parts of speech in the right order by pointing to them with a plastic stick. A young girl in pigtails walks up to the wall and is enthusiastically received by her peer, who hands her the stick and proceeds to slap her hand several times.

“OK,” says pigtails, “enough high-fiving. Let’s get to work.”

Even at Elm City, an elementary school opened in 2004 by Achievement First using the Amistad model, the children understand they have work to do if they are to escape the tightly scripted future society has written for them. Each of them, says Toll, can tell you what year they will graduate from college, and, like students in all grade levels in Achievement First schools, they will visit colleges annually. Younger students might just enjoy a picnic on a campus lawn; older students will spend time with college students and participate in mock interviews with admissions officers.

“Kids who grow up with parents who are college graduates probably have been on college campuses all their lives, from the time they were little kids going to football games,” McCurry says. “We want our kids to be exposed to the same thing, to where being on a college campus is almost ho-hum. It should be, ‘Yeah, I’m going to be there one day.’ ”

Elm City also has a middle school in the same building, a temporary space Achievement First is renting until a permanent home for the new charter can be found. The growth of the organization and its successful results – which the mayor of New Haven says has raised the city’s property values – also caught the attention of one of the largest, and, in some areas, most troubled, public school systems in the country.

Two years ago, New York City Public Schools Chancellor Joel Klein made Toll and McCurry an offer they couldn’t refuse. He told them he wanted to make New York City the Silicon Valley of education entrepreneurs, that he wanted them to help him open great schools for his kids. Then he asked the million-dollar question: “What’s it going to take?”

Toll and McCurry had a ready answer. Since Amistad’s opening, they had been battling a Connecticut state charter school law that Toll says is politically designed to keep schools such as Amistad, which operate outside teachers’ unions and their powerful lobbying forces, “small and insignificant.” Charter schools in Connecticut receive only $7,500 per pupil, compared with the $11,850 the New Haven School District receives for each student. (Amistad has supplemented the state’s funding with aggressive fundraising.) They also must find and pay for their own facilities. Most importantly for Achievement First, however, the state caps enrollment on charter schools at 300, leaving them “inherently hamstrung” and unable to grow.

So Toll and McCurry told Klein that they needed $10,000 per pupil, access to free facilities and no enrollment limits. Klein had an answer ready, too: Done. Last fall, Achievement First opened Crown Heights Elementary and Middle School and East New York Elementary in Brooklyn, with plans for two more schools this fall and more by 2007.

But despite the promise of Achievement First’s expansion into New York’s neediest areas, Toll isn’t giving up on Connecticut. While one-third of Amistad’s eighth-graders receive admission and/or scholarships to some of New England’s most prestigious private high schools and another third earn spots in the city’s magnet schools, the remaining graduates leave Amistad’s “whatever it takes” environment only to go back into New Haven School District high schools. That’s a fact that spurs Toll to exhibit her own eye-roll: “Ugh. Ugh. Ugh.”

“It’s painfully mixed,” says Toll of what becomes of those students. “Overall, the level of academic expectation is far lower, and that’s where your heart really breaks. You have the kids who still have the motivation and are trying to work hard, but what is expected of them is far less. The peer culture is also totally different, and some of the kids are strong enough to swim against the tide. But some of them . they’ll say, ‘I’m not going to college. That’s acting white.’ I mean, it’s all kinds of racial and academic identities that are pretty tough to shake. It’s just a huge heartache.”

On to high school

With an enrollment cap in Connecticut, however, Amistad has been unable to open a high school to which its eighth-graders could progress – until now. Toll is banking on the charter law changing this year to accommodate more students, thanks to a bill in the state legislature that has been pushed forward as a result of Amistad’s success (and New York’s interest in Achievement First). The organization plans to open the high school academy of Achievement First’s flagship school, as well as an elementary school, this fall.

“Right now, they’re 14 when they leave us,” says McCurry, who has seen some former students become teenage mothers and others fall into the “wrong crowd.” “When I was 14, if I suddenly didn’t have the supports I once had, I might have faltered, too. We think if they’re with us through 12th grade, we can dramatically reduce the number of kids who falter and dramatically increase the number of kids who are successful.”

That means a different life for students such as Octavius, who was thrown out of the New Haven public schools and was attending an alternative program called Urban Youth when he won a spot at Amistad through the same blind lottery in which all New Haven magnet schools participate. He’s what Toll calls one of Amistad’s “Kids We Love the Most” – “the roughly 10 percent of kids who are seriously disruptive and have the highest needs,” she says. “We don’t call them bad kids. We call them KWLMs.”

Octavius, as all KWLMs, has an individualized learning plan and multiple adult mentors at the school, all of whom are notified whenever his behavior or academics present a problem. Amistad will do what no other school, administrator or program was willing to: It will make a promise to not only see him earn a high school diploma but to require him to work toward college admission, to believe he is as bright as the brightest of wealthy Greenwich. It’s just one more reason Toll says parents in New Haven are “desperate” to get their children into an Achievement First school. The staff, who say they feel they are part of a critical movement in public education, are relentless when it comes to helping their students prove society wrong.

This year, they’ll have more than just soaring CMTs to make their case. On a bulletin board at Amistad are the names
of several students from the school’s inaugural fifth-grade class, who, this fall, will become the first Amistad alumni to attend college.

That’s more than enough motivation for Kelly Clement and other Amistad teachers to go on losing sleep, until their students, to whom no one ever gave a chance, end up winning.

Toll and McCurry were recognized the General Alumni Association’s Distinguished Young Alumni Awards in 2005. 

Copyright 2006 UNC General Alumni Association


Outperforming the Suburbs? Show Me Where to Sign Up

When she interviewed for a teaching position at Amistad Academy in 2000, Shanta Morrison Smith ’99 required no introduction to the educational challenges of growing up in the desperate landscape of New Haven, Conn. She lived it.

“My memories of it were that you had a lot of teachers who were working hard, but they were drained,” Smith said. “They tried to give me what I needed, but they had to deal with so many behavior issues, issues of poverty that came into play, that they didn’t have much left after that.”

So when Doug McCurry ’94, who heads teacher recruitment for Amistad, called to talk to her about leaving her teaching position in Washington, D.C., public schools, to come back to her hometown, she couldn’t believe her ears. You insist on good behavior? You expect college-track work? You’re outperforming the suburbs? “I said, ‘Wait. Does this school actually exist in New Haven?’ It was a noticeable difference from the D.C. schools in attitude, and I could tell it just from the phone call.”

And when, while touring the school with then-principal Dacia Toll ’94, Smith discovered that Toll not only knew every child’s name but could have a personal conversation with them, Smith was sold.

Likewise were Toll and McCurry, who call Smith one of their “star teachers.” Smith not only goes the extra mile – giving one-on-one instruction between classes and holding four-hour tutoring sessions on Saturdays – but she also is able to see in her seventh-graders the same struggles she and her peers once faced, and she uses those lessons to help guide them.

One young woman entered her class in the fall with a propensity to talk back each time Smith gave a directive, to refuse to participate in lessons, to sit and glare at the instructor. But by January, she had become the first to raise her hand, the first to pick up dropped papers or pencils, the most likely to tell wavering peers to get back on task.

“It was just a total turnaround,” Smith said. “It came not only from me telling her stories of my own experiences, but her really starting to see the difference in herself and embracing that difference.”

Smith says that, when she was in school, she lacked that kind of teacher guidance and only wound up at Chapel Hill thanks to a caring mother who juggled school assignments so her daughter would be tracked in honor classes and distinguished scholar programs. She was valedictorian of her high school class but still struggled mightily with English classes at Carolina, spending much of her time at the campus Writing Center.

“Academically, I wasn’t as prepared as I could have been,” Smith said. “New Haven schools weren’t a totally negative experience, but it wasn’t one that our kids are getting here at Amistad. I remember my middle school teachers, but did they know me as well as I know my students, or as well as my colleagues do? No. And that’s what’s needed at the middle school level, especially with all the challenges kids have today at that age. It’s a really critical time. It’s when tides can turn.”

Smith doesn’t mind the long hours teachers at Amistad put in, or the one-year contracts. All staff – including Toll and McCurry, who, like all administrators, also teach – are evaluated annually, subject to excellent student performance and classroom culture. (About one teacher per school is let go each year.) Despite the fact that teachers’ unions often are the strongest opponents of charter schools, she says she doesn’t miss the automatic union membership that came with her D.C. job. In fact, Amistad pays a little more than its district counterparts, provides benefits and offers Smith a flexible schedule that allows her to make time for her husband and two small children.

“Ultimately, I have more time to connect with my students,” she says. “We’re teaching them to be great people.”

Copyright 2006 UNC General Alumni Association

Published in Carolina Alumni Review, September/October 2006