Tina K. Russell

May 19, 2008

School and Unusual

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — Tina Russell @ 12:52 pm

This article is about George Leonard, principal of Bedford Academy High School in Brooklyn, New York City.

A School Succeeds With Extra Study and Little Homework – New York Times
Mr. Leonard is a man of many solutions, many of them innovative, many of them, apparently, also effective. In New York City, only about 50 percent of students manage to graduate in four years. At Bedford Academy, 63 percent of the students qualify for free lunch, a majority are being raised by a single mother and another significant number are being raised by someone other than a parent. Yet close to 95 percent of students graduate, and virtually every one of those goes on to college.

Mr. Leonard does not achieve those results by stocking the school full of nothing but high-testing students, an option he has had since 2004, when thousands of students started applying for just over 100 slots at the school each year. To the contrary, he has committed to keeping a third of the entering slots open for students who previously tested in the city’s bottom half on statewide math and reading exams.

“I wanted to prove that no matter what the competency — special ed, regular ed — a child could still be successful,” said Mr. Leonard, dressed in French cuffs and suspenders, a wall full of college acceptance letters decorating his Bedford Academy office.

Ahhhh, thank you. I’m really sick of academic programs that focus exclusively on students that are doing well… students who don’t need the extra education. Maybe I’m just saying this because I’m bitter (I am), because I’m a gifted student but, because I have ADD, I’ve always struggled in my grades. I just wonder why all our extra effort and attention is always extended to those students at the top of their game, at the head of the class. Often the students that need more opportunities, that need to go to college, that need to stick with school are the students who have lost faith in education and are doing very poorly. We should be ringing our alarm bells and helping out those students, not wasting our energy fawning over students already doing well.

I imagine a reason given for this discrepancy is that we want to create incentives for students who do well: they’ll get into advanced classes, good colleges, etc. But, students who’ve done well have long since learned that education is its own reward, while students doing poorly, I would think, have lost hope in the system and are not going to take “more education” as an incentive. It’s time to stop thinking in terms of grand designs of getting into the best colleges and being at the top of your class and graduating with a stellar résumé, and start thinking about the here and now, the nuts and bolts of learning for its own sake.

Yeah, I’m also bitter because I’m an introvert, and never racked up a billion extracurricular activities to put on my college application. Sue me.

Mr. Leonard first made a name as an educator in the late ’80s, when he took a group of typical elementary students enrolled in an after-school science program in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, and decided he could teach them to pass the Regents exam in biology, which is normally given in the ninth grade. He succeeded, and then repeated the experiment in later years. That convinced him that there was no reason for any disciplined high schooler to achieve less. “Whatever a student’s competency, it couldn’t be less than the third graders I taught,” he said.

This shows an important point: often, the best way to motivate your students to do well is to raise your expectations of them, not lower them. If you show students that basic respect, they’re much more likely to reciprocate it.

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1 Comment »

  1. Damn skippy! I lived with two teachers who were always giving up on students who didn’t perform well. Most of the families in my area were uneducated, so of course their kids are set up for a struggle. Add to that spouses who skip out on the rest of the family, little access to tutoring because of the small population, and about 30% of the teachers being jackoffs who rested on the job security of teaching in a small town where no one wants to teach.

    Maybe one day, I’ll move back there and try to save South Wasco County from despair. Meanwhile, I get the miserable updates from my pessimist mom, who really only loves her good students and my dad who’s retiring because of administrative issues.

    Comment by Hannah — May 20, 2008 @ 7:23 pm


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