My night in New Haven: 6 nuggets

1. In 1996, Bill Clinton talked about charter schools in his State Of The Union. From the New York Times:

When President Clinton spoke in his State of the Union Message about teachers' forming their own schools, he was talking about people like Sarah Kass, the principal of the City on a Hill charter school here.

Disheartened by the conditions in public schools where she had taught, Ms. Kass set out two years ago, at age 27, to build her dream school. She and Ann Connolly Tolkoff, a fellow English teacher, wanted an intimate urban school with a focus on civic awareness, a place that would forge links with the best of the city rather than barricading itself in fear of the worst.

The result was City on a Hill, which opened in September as one of the state's first 15 public charter schools. Chartered directly by state governments, schools like the ones in Massachusetts receive tax dollars and are public schools but operate independent of local school districts.

Sarah was a Yale grad who'd taught in New Haven, as well as Chicago and Chelsea.

2. In 1998 the Boston Globe ran a story on a troubled district high school called the Burke. It was being "turned around" -- in an era before that term was popular.

The friendly, orderly, upbeat atmosphere would be a pleasant surprise in any school where fatherless children, teenage mothers, substance abuse, and clashes with the law abound. Here, it is amazing. Less than three years ago, the Burke became the first Massachusetts high school in memory to be stripped of its accreditation. Tiles were falling from the ceilings; much of the furniture was broken. Students came and went as they pleased, playing cards in class and boomboxes in the corridors. There was one guidance counselor for 1,000 students. No librarian. No drinking water.

Examiners for the New England Association of Schools and Colleges cited these and dozens of other shortcomings, ranging from lack of institutional purpose to inadequate supervision of students to poor sanitation, as reasons for withdrawing accreditation. The Burke became a symbol of all that was wrong with the city's school system, an embarrassment to City Hall, proof that the long-hoped-for renaissance of the Boston schools had not yet begun.

``Two years ago,'' Steven Leonard, the school's headmaster, tells a visitor to his office, ``if we had sat here this long, something would have crawled across your feet. Centipede, roach, mouse. There was cigarette smoke in the bathrooms, the smell of marijuana in the halls, and half the kids coming in late reeked of alcohol or marijuana. Each gang had its own territory in the building.''

The narrative was: things are looking up now, but...

But if the presence of all these elements foreshadows a bright future, the school's history sounds a cautionary note. Burke High School rose from the ruins once before, in the mid-1980s. Then, with stunning speed, the leadership at City Hall and in the Boston School Department let the Burke down. Things just fell apart.

It's hard to discern if the Burke was "fully" turned around at the time of this article. The data didn't exist at this point to be dispositive one way or another.

3. In 1999, a New Haven team opened a charter school called Amistad. They had 84 kids. It was one of the first "No Excuses" schools.

Though a more precise name for "No Excuses" is probably "We know you are poor and arriving with very low skills/Our teachers will try really hard to build relationships with you as individuals and then run a tight ship during class so we all work hard/And if that happens, we won't need to make an excuse for low test scores, because you're smart and if you add in the hard work, you'll have high test scores because you'll know something" schools. However that is probably too long to stick.

Amistad flourished.

4. In 2001, City On A Hill was looking for a new leader. Some of the founding team had moved on, and if I recall, there was desire by the board to get an "outside" candidate. They hired Steve Leonard from the Burke to shake things up.

By spring 2002, some COAH teachers -- unhappy with certain changes -- were on the job market. One was Glenn Liebeck. He joined MATCH as biology teacher, while making it clear he was particularly interested in school leadership.

Glenn was good when he arrived. But like many of us, he became even better as he came under the Charlie Sposato Coaching Tree. Glenn had a deft touch with teenagers: a fearless little guy, self-deprecating and dishing it out while he took it in, smart-ass but sensitive enough to recognize the kids who needed more hug therapy, had those intense "you gotta shape up" 1-on-1 conversations with kids that often seemed to work.

My recollection: under Charlie's influence, Glenn really began to build the parent relationships too with lots of phone calls, and became more reflective about his practice.

More importantly, we had some epic ping pong battles in those days. Alan and me versus Bob and Glenn. Usually 6th period. I think Bob and Glenn had a prep. Common planning? Please. We'd slug it out, lots of 21-19 games. Alan and I would run Glenn side to side and drop shot him just so he'd have to rush down to teach 7th period all sweaty.

5. So what happened?

a. City On A Hill

Steve Leonard left in 2003, after two years. There were two sides to the story.

The charter school's former chairman, Harry Spence, last week said questions were raised about whether one of Dr. Leonard's subordinates pressured teachers in "two or three instances" into giving students better grades. Mr. Spence said the main reason for Dr. Leonard's departure was a forceful management style that wasn't well-received at the charter school.


Dr. Leonard said last week that he did not believe grade inflation had occurred and instead had been trying to make the school more rigorous.

Where are things today? In good shape. COAH staff just won an "EPIC" award, whereby the think tank Mathematica analyzes student gains in charter schools around the nation, and then names the biggest gainers. Just like MATCH, they have a tutor corps now (you can apply here).

b. Burke

More of the same, unfortunately.

The schools are considered to be the worst of the worst, culled from a pool of roughly 370 schools, the bottom 20 percent of the state’s 1,846 schools, based on persistently low test scores.

c. Amistad

City on a Hill's original bet was a "teacher-led" school, sort of commune style when it came to decision-making. Didn't work.

MATCH's original bet was a "media and technology project" themed school. Didn't work.

Charlie had the right idea, a relationship-driven No Excuses school, so he sort of built our foundation while my media/tech ideas got some time to peter out.

Amistad had the right idea from the jump.

While they've had their bumps, their charter school network, called Achievement First, has flourished, and now serves over 6,000 kids in New Haven and New York City. For another post, another day -- they may be the most advanced charter school network in teacher evaluation, and they're learning a ton, doing it right.

Last year, Glenn Liebeck helped Achievement First design a leadership program in partnership with New Haven Public Schools. As part of the planning, he asked me if I'd teach a seminar one night. Sure. Yesterday was the day, so I got on Amtrak....

6. I got to hear the leadership residents describe their experience.

The first half of the year, they're in Achievement First charter schools. The second half, they're in what Roxanna calls "Choose Your Battles" schools. These are traditional district schools, highly bound with tradition, red tape, and well-intentioned "reforms" from all quarters (district officials, unions, state rules, federal rules) that often conflict and bottleneck.

I haven't been able to sort out my thoughts. They included:

a. It's energizing to see a positive relationship between district and charter. Barriers come down when people are face-to-face.

On Wednesday I had breakfast with one of the heads of the teachers unions in Massachusetts. Same thing. Positive discussion. Some things we can do together.

Still, we're not naive. Even that morning, there was an Globe Op-Ed which essentially said that if the teachers union doesn't accept the wage offer on the table, more charters will open. Doesn't make that official's job easier, as he tries to cool down the "charter wars."

b. I'm not sure how much good advice I had for the good folks in New Haven. Possibly: none.

I operate in a very different world than the "Choose Your Battles" schools. There, if you push hard, like Steve Leonard, perhaps you break too many eggs. Even if you succeed, gravitational pull might pull things back after you leave.

Of course if you don't push hard, nothing changes, and you're complicit in a lousy status quo.

In my little Boston world, among the adults, there's a ton of respect, just a little bickering, and a fair amount of love. Our disagreements are tactical, rarely about values. There is a little adult politics, but not much.

I am really lucky.