Saturday, January 03, 2009

Expectations: Can the students who became a symbol of failed reform be rescued?

Here's a GREAT New Yorker article about Bennet that I sent around in January 2007:

Thus, as 2006 began, the teen-agers were stunned to discover that they had

become symbols of academic failure citywide.


   The cause of this unflattering attention was a new superintendent named

Michael Bennet, one of a loose cadre of former business, military, and

government leaders, all education novices, who have taken control of some of the

largest, most troubled school systems in the country. Joel Klein, New York

City's schools chancellor (and a former Assistant Attorney General of the United

States), may be the best known of the group; Bennet is, at forty-two, one of the

youngest. A former editor-in-chief of the Yale Law Journal who had become bored

by the legal profession, he spent his thirties making a small fortune as a

corporate-turnaround artist. Then his thoughts shifted to public service. In

2003, when a friend, John Hickenlooper, was elected mayor of Denver, Bennet

became his chief of staff. Two years later, the superintendency came open for

the fifth time in a decade, and Hickenlooper suggested that Bennet apply.


   To Bennet, who aspired to public office, running an urban school district

seemed more likely to end a political career than to launch it. Most of the

children in the district were poor, and eighty per cent were minorities,

including a huge number of Latino immigrants. Nationally, Latinas are twice as

likely to become mothers in their teens, and Latinos of both sexes are two times

as likely to drop out. Moreover, while student achievement is closely correlated

with parental involvement, many Denver parents hadn't attended high school in

their native countries, and some were illegal residents in their new one. The

illegals tended to steer clear of public institutions, including their

children's schools.


   Still, Bennet was struck by the fact that a few schools across the country

had raised the test scores of their poor and minority student bodies-successes

that seemed counter to the idea that underlying social conditions had to be

redressed before disadvantaged minority students could do well. As Bennet

studied those exceptional schools-a Knowledge Is Power Program charter school in

the Bronx, public schools in Norfolk and Aldine, Texas-he began to think about

how some of their strategies might be expanded to reform a whole district.

Ambitions began to coalesce, and the school board chose him over two strong

minority candidates.


   In July, 2005, when Bennet took control of the district's hundred and fifty

schools, he still knew little about life inside public-school classrooms. He

knew less about children like Norberto. Nevertheless, he moved quickly to impose

on his seventy-three thousand charges the toughest graduation requirements in

the state, aiming to prepare the majority for college.


   Some of Bennet's forty-four hundred teachers and principals looked askance at

this abrupt elevation of standards, cautioning that many students would fall

short, and then drop out. Bennet considered this view to be cynical, and saw in

the underpopulated, seemingly irremediable Manual High an opportunity to show

how intolerant of low expectations he planned to be. The school was costly to

run half-empty, and, when he'd paid a visit on the first day of the school year,

he'd found the students and teachers already exhausted. The principals were

feuding, and their attention to children was so erratic that some of them had

taken and passed freshman English only to be forced to repeat the course as

sophomores. "Nobody in America should have to go to a school like that," he told

his wife that night. A few months later, when he had in hand a commissioned

study of the school's dim prospects, he told his school board, "We shouldn't let

any more students enroll there." Board members agreed, and went further: the

current students shouldn't stay and languish, either. In February, as a warning

to the dozens of other schools in the district that were failing to properly

educate poor and minority children-and with little warning to students and

neighborhood residents-the board moved, with Bennet's approval, to shut down

Manual at the end of the semester. It was an admission, Bennet said, of a school

district's absolute failure.


   Bennet has an open, lightly freckled face, and an air of capable good

spirits-qualities that only partly mask the intensity and severity of his

judgments. (Even asleep, his wife had noticed, he issued orders, as if crisply

directing his dreams.) His arguments occasionally got ahead of themselves, with

interpretations that outran the facts, but this was not, in the main, a careless

tendency. It was the practice of an overachiever. He liked to announce

improbable goals, then defy expectations of failure. Among the challenges that

now intrigued him were the six hundred students of Manual High.

A Reporter At Large


Can the students who became a symbol of failed reform be rescued?

by Katherine Boo, The New Yorker, January 15, 2007

  Like most juniors at Manual High School, in the impoverished northeast

quarter of Denver, Colorado, Norberto Felix-Cruz was Mexican, multiply pierced,

and laden with chains. Although he was quiet by nature, he clanked when he

walked. On his way to school from the small house he shared with many relatives,

he sometimes passed a park with brown grass and a curious sign: " 'Tis not birth

nor wealth nor state, but get up and get which makes any man great." Norberto

wasn't expecting greatness, however, and he often arrived late. His departures

were just as unhurried. Manual's peacock-blue hallways were peaceful, owing to

the presence of armed police officers, and he found them a good place to linger.

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