One of the greatest life changers is a college education. For so many young people, college is a vehicle that allows them to reinvent themselves in the image of their own dreams. It also empowers them to become assets to their families and contributors to their communities. But many young people are precluded from higher education, not because someone is standing at the university door barring their admission, but because they didn’t receive the most basic academic foundation that elementary school should have provided. In New York, one of a number of schools addressing that lack of preparation is the Excellence Charter School of Bedford Stuyvesant, which serves minority students from low-income families who live in some of Brooklyn’s most economically depressed neighborhoods.
Modeled after other high performing charter schools, Excellence Charter School opened in 2004 as an all-boys school dedicated to developing the knowledge, character and leadership skills that students need to thrive both academically and as “honorable citizens and courageous leaders.” Students at Excellence are taught that through hard work they can achieve anything. The school currently has 220 boys in grades K-4. Each year an additional kindergarten class will be added until the school includes grades K-8 by school year 2011-12. Significant resources have been marshaled to enable Excellence students to reach the school’s high expectations. The students attend a longer than average school day, from 7:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., and they benefit from small classes as well as a Saturday Tutoring Academy and a summer remediation program. A prime ingredient of the school’s success is its corps of highly qualified teachers. Excellence employs a rigorous screening process to select teachers who are committed to urban education and bridging the achievement gap. Teachers typically stay late to prepare for the next day’s classes and many tutor students on Saturdays and after school.
The heart of the school’s curriculum is its emphasis on reading and mathematics. Each day, every student has three hours of language arts instruction (phonics, reading comprehension and writing). Parents must sign a daily log book to certify that their child has completed his homework and that he has read with the family for at least 20 minutes. The goal is to develop a love of reading and a desire to pursue independent reading after school. The students also have two classes of mathematics each day, and Excellence works on helping them reach their full potential in the areas of leadership, creativity, team work and self-expression. A sense of responsibility for one’s community is established early as fourth grade big brother/mentors are paired with second graders, and third-graders are similarly paired with first-graders.
Excellence provides a safe haven from negative social pressures and stereotypes. It is a place where it’s “cool” to be smart and excited about learning. The school’s teachers and staff are reliable and consistent adults who provide support, guidance, tutoring and encouragement — especially to those students who need a refuge from an abusive family life. Each week ends with a Friday Community Meeting where students celebrate their accomplishments. Here they can shine as they sing songs, recite poems, share what they’ve learned and exhibit exceptional school work. The students also perform a skit each week that demonstrates and reinforces one of the eight core values of the Excellence School — scholarship, brotherhood, honesty, justice, respect, hope, courage and love. At the meeting, the Spirit Stick is presented to the student who best exemplifies the goals and values of Excellence. He then has the honor and responsibility of carrying the Spirit Stick throughout the week and serving as a role model to the other students.
Excellence’s success is measurable. Last year, the third-graders were the first in the school to take the standardized New York State Math and Language Arts Exams. Their performance was superb. Ninety-two percent of the students earned advanced or proficient scores in language arts, and 100 percent received advanced or proficient scores in math.
Excellence Charter School is clearly a model that works. It is an antidote to the dysfunctional approaches to education in too many schools around the country. It has taken a few basic components — quality teachers, a strong curriculum, character development, high expectations for performance and incentives for achievement — and is using them to make fine men of these boys. This model must be replicated in thousands of school districts in depressed urban and rural communities across our nation. Our political decision makers seem to have no problem finding the money and resources to reproduce juvenile detention centers in cookie cutter fashion. Why not reproduce programs that help develop our children into strong, self-sufficient, contributing adults?
For more information on the Children’s Defense Fund, go to http://www.childrensdefense.org/.