But some urban schools are excelling despite the odds--including one in New Haven's backyard.
The first surprise at Amistad Academy comes when a young boy, perhaps a sixth-grader, holds the front door open as I try to escape May's eternal downpour. The second surprise comes the moment I step inside and hear a muffled rumbling down the hallway.
The sound is coming from the gym, where some 100 fifth- and sixth-graders in navy blue polos and khaki slacks are swarming in every direction, pushing chairs and tables to the fringes. In the center, a calm amid the chaos, sit four boys banging on African drums--alongside a grown man in a tie and sweater. That's Matt Taylor, the principal.
The drums stop and the students form a circle on the perimeter. Taylor shouts, "Who are we proud to be?"
"Amistad Academy," the students--nearly all of them, enthusiastically--yell back.
"And why are we here?"
"To push ourselves, to learn, to achieve our very best."
So begins a typical day at Amistad, a charter middle school where 98 percent of students are black or Hispanic and 84 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. New Haven's neighborhood and magnet schools with a similar makeup, like Hill Central and King-Robinson, tend to be among the lowest-performing in the city, but Amistadwhich is not controlled by Mayo's bureaucracyis famous for taking students who are grades behind and graduating them at or above grade level.
While the school's sixth-grade CMT scores are well below the state average, its eighth-grade results surpass the state average in every subject. Nearly 87 percent of last year's eighth-graders met the state goal on the writing CMT, compared to 60.7 percent statewide--numbers that are better than you'll find in wealthy Greenwich.
In fact, several Greenwich educators were among a group visiting Amistad last week, hoping to pick up a thing or two.
Amistad founder Dacia Toll told them, "We don't know how to do this in a 6 hour and 15 minute day." That's why the school day begins at 7:30 a.m. and ends at 5 p.m. --the final 75 minutes are dedicated to an arts and athletics program--and kids often stay even later. Other key elements: frequent student assessments; year-by-year employee contracts; the principal's authority to hire and fire; performance-based salaries; aggressive teacher recruitment and parent involvement; and an emphasis on student discipline.
Many people feel New Haven officials have not embraced Amistad's success, and tried to learn from it, as eagerly as they should have. In fact, these officials sometimes talk as if Amistad didn't exist.
"If it's that consistent that urban kids, poor kids, aren't doing as well as their counterparts, we have to ask why that is," says Ed Linehan, NHPS' magnet schools supervisor. "When there isn't an urban school district that's head and shoulders above its counterparts, I think it's a systemic problem."
But there is an urban school that's head and shoulders above its counterparts, which should be a wake-up call to the district, says Johnston.
"If I can show you a school where kids, regardless of their background, regardless of their parental involvement, are performing on par with kids in Greenwich, we have to change the conversation," he says.
Amistad Academy's success in Mayo's backyard should be an occasion for rejoicing. There's the possibility for collaboration, for bringing Amistad educators and other public school teachers together to learn from one another. And yet, according to a non-profit official who wished to remain anonymous, Amistad has "encountered resistance in their efforts to provide more opportunity for New Haven's kids."
T hese days, Amistad and Mayo are, at least publicly, on good terms. Toll mentions how grateful she is that Mayo provided buildings to start Amistad and, now, an Amistad elementary school. Mayo, meanwhile, points to Amistad's mentorship of the struggling Clemente Leadership Academy.
Still, Mayo sounds skeptical, rather than enthusiastic, when asked about the Amistad model.
"It's certainly a little easier to do it with 200 kids than to do it with 21,000," says Mayo. He also argues that Amistad's teachers, because they're generally younger and not unionized, are more affordable and work longer hours. "I had to fight to get 20 [extra] minutes from my union this year, on top of six hours," he says. "I've got custodial unions, I've got teachers' unions, administrators' unions. I've got everybody fighting for what they call equal opportunities, equal justice, blah blah blah blah blah--you name it."