I Like Mike (Duffy)

My friend Mike Duffy has a neat essay in a British magazine. He writes:

A dozen years ago the charter school movement found me when I volunteered my time as a member of the governing board of the MATCH Charter High School in Boston. American charter schools are taxpayer funded public schools that are independently managed, akin to the free schools that are taking root in England now. I'd been a civil rights activist, having headed the civil rights enforcement agency for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, when I became captivated by the promise that charter schools held to redress the achievement gap between black and white students.

While in London recently to attend the 'Schools Revolution' conference sponsored by this magazine, I was struck by parallels between the travails that free schools face and those charter schools have endured. Here are a few observations.

You can read the essay here.

Meanwhile, I have a few observations about my pal.

1. If you are a young whippersnapper teacher hoping to start a charter school of your own one day, you're gonna need a lot of help. Particularly on stuff that you know nothing about. Real estate. Employment law. Governance. Local politics.

I got really lucky in that arena. Mike D read about the MATCH charter in the newspaper in 1999, and volunteered. Charter school boards can be tricky beasts. (Marci Cornell Feist's startup, High Bar, can help). Duffy became our board chair and really pulled things together.

2. In 2004 or so, the board chair of another Boston charter school, City On A Hill, approached us. They'd had a bunch of leadership turnover. Could we help in some way? We didn't want to overstep our limits. Our hands were full just trying to be a better school for our students.

But we did arrange for Mike D to do some consulting for their trustees -- and it ended up with him joining as executive director. He helped them launch a program of full-time tutors (which you can apply for here).

Small world: City On A Hill is where John King, the guy I blogged about yesterday, taught high school history before co-founding Roxbury Prep.

3. Now Mike D is launching a new charter school, Great Oaks, in Newark. A full-time tutor corps is also a key design element in also this school; more information is here.

4. Duffy did some tutoring himself one summer, every morning for 5 weeks. He reflected on it at the time:

I was matched up with Z, a student who will be in 11th grade next year...I was somewhat frustrated with Z in the beginning because of his failure to show up for the first two days of summer school...I had contacted his Mom in advance to let her know about the day and time that summer school started....she told me that Z didn't have to go to summer school (!)....I let Bob Hill--who was running the summer program--and Charlie Sposato know about this...they both called Z's Mom and impressed upon her that, yes, Z DID need to attend summer school to improve his reading comprehension...after close to half a dozen conversations Z showed up on the third day....

Observation #1: Without the persistence and individual attention, Z would have never attended summer school.

Z and I worked on reading comprehension by reading Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point each day and doing work on vocabulary....it made me feel very good to hear Z talk about what the MATCH School had done for him...he said he would never read a book before he came to MATCH....now, he likes to read for pleasure--Tom Clancy being his favorite...on the other hand, I don't want to leave you with an unrealistic picture of his capabilities...Z remains behind in his ability to comprehend completely what he is reading and his vocabulary is well behind what he will need in order to do well on the SAT's in the coming year....the work we were able to do together was important, but he has so much farther to go...

Observation #2: MATCH school students start so far behind, they have quite a ways to go just to be at their grade level.

It took awhile for Z and I to warm up to each other...but with each passing day we grew accustomed to one another and to like each other...Z is the son of a woman who immigrated to Boston from the Caribbean when he was a toddler...he has no Dad living at home with him--it is just him and his two older sisters..as the weeks went on, we started reading the Sports section of the Boston Globe together to follow the fortunes of the Red Sox...the week before last, I used my season tickets to take Z to a Red Sox game at Fenway...with a stronger bond between us, Z became more motivated to complete his homework and focus his attention during our tutorials...

Observation #3: One-on-one attention to a student, by the same person, seemed to make a great deal of difference in making academic progress.

During a lot of the time we spent together, I talked with Z about colleges and where he might want to go....since he will be a junior next year, he will need to get serious about his grades and preparing for the SAT...for awhile he was interested in the US Coast Guard Academy, until he went on their web site and realized they had a swimming requirement (Z can't swim)....Northestern is another school that is on his list, but Z worries about how he would pay for tuition...I pointed out that Northeastern provides a full-scholarship to any Boston High School student who graduates in the top 25% of their class...Z's reaction: '"I wish I knew about that sooner so that my grades would be higher"...I bought Z a book that is a guide to colleges around the country, and together we looked at other schools for him to apply to...

Observation #4: Making a direct connection between the work they are doing at MATCH and their ability to go to the school of their choice, may be a motivation for some students to work harder.

As a Trustee of the MATCH School, I was very impressed with the summer school program....it was organized and well-run....I was the only volunteer amongst the summer tutors, the rest were MIT work-study students...they seemed eager and patient with the MATCH kids...I give high marks to Bob Hill in making the program work so well...

I suspect Great Oaks is going to be an excellent school.