Monday, January 04, 2010

Trading portfolios for lesson plans

An amazing article about a rock-star teacher (and the equally amazing principal) at Harlem’s Frederick Douglass Academy.  FDA has been one of the superstar schools in the REACH program, where students, educators and the school have earned well over $200,000 based on hundreds of AP exams passed.  I’m thrilled to report that the FDA student who I helped with his college essays as part of the new REACH Stretch program was admitted Early Action to MIT this week!  I’m going to be a guest teacher in Jane’s AP Microeconomics class this spring, teaching students about investing and financial statement analysis.

Viau, 45, is a former investment banker turned math teacher, who has a knack for explaining bone-dry concepts like price ceilings by turning them into something worthy of the Facebook generation’s attention.

For the last eight years Viau has been making math easy for her students to understand, and the proof is in the percentages. Last year her advanced placement statistics class had a 91 percent passing rate, compared with the national rate of 59 percent. But the disparity in numbers is consistent with the school’s reputation.

The school, located at 148th Street and Seventh Avenue, is a bright spot for the New York City public school system; a predominantly African-American student population, that boasts a 90 percent 4-year graduation rate. Compared with the 60.8 percent citywide graduation rate, Frederick Douglass seems to be doing something different with its emphasis on structure and discipline, mandated uniforms, and intense focus on college preparation.

…Frederick Douglass Academy’s demographics, she said, are the same as her previous school; predominantly African-American and from low-income families. “It’s not like the kids are any different than the kids at the other school. But the difference is that they know there is a ladder of command, and they know there are consequences if they don’t behave.”

Dr. Gregory Hodge is at the top of that ladder, as the school’s principal, where he’s been for the last 14 of his 33-year long career as an educator. Hodge seems to know how to make his school function. With budget cutbacks that means he’s acting as secretary; answering his own phone calls, e-mails, and letters that are piling high in his office. This saves the school $25,000 a year. This is also the first year he is teaching two senior classes where he is focusing on how to properly write college research papers.

“We are short on funds, what can I tell you?” he said. “It has been a very interesting economic year, but this is Frederick Douglass and without struggle there is no progress, so we keep stepping.”

Hodge sees no reason why his 1600 students shouldn’t have the same education as those who attend a private school. That means the school offers students the opportunities to study Japanese, Latin, music and dance. It also means hiring dedicated teachers, 76 percent of which have a Master’s degree or doctorate, and fostering their potential.

When Viau approached him last year with requests to teach advanced placement economics, he initially refused; the school didn’t have the funding. Hodge said that she was “borderline obsessive,” in trying to get the course up and running.

“She’s like a guard dog, very tenacious, very persistent, and you are not going to get past her,” he said, adding that he has faith the class will be a success.

Viau’s grant writing achievements fits very well with Hodge’s model for funding: donations. “We are basically an inner city school but we do tremendous things with getting like-minded people; hustling, borrowing, begging, pleading. But you got to believe in what you are doing,” he said.

…“She really cares about us. You can sense it. She’s not just doing it for the money. I mean she has a business degree; she can go and do whatever. Not a lot of teachers around here are like that,” Brown said.

And Brown’s sentiments towards Viau have been recognized by a number of organizations. Last June she won the 2009 NYC Teaching Fellows Award for Classroom Excellence, where she accepted the award accompanied by her students.

Viau may have left Wall Street, but like many bankers she still takes her work home. Recently she and her husband became certified foster parents so they can legally house a former student, who is a ward of the state. Over the winter break Viau will take on this new challenge by having the student, now an 18-year-old college freshman, living in her house. An extraordinary measure, but for Viau it’s just the right thing to do.


Trading portfolios for lesson plans

Posted on December 14th, 2009 by Stephanie Marcus in Education, Featured

On the third floor of Harlem’s Frederick Douglass Academy, 21 senior students are discussing the moral implications of organ transplant markets. A student raises her hand and wonders if doctors would be motivated to harvest a criminal’s organs before he was actually dead. The unfolding ethical debate isn’t typical for a microeconomics course, but in Jane Viau’s classroom engaged, inquisitive students are the norm.

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