Innovative school puts character first

June 05, 1994|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,Sun Staff Writer

NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- He fought in school hallways. He got high before the first class started. He told teachers in none-too-polite terms he'd rather be elsewhere.

The responses grew familiar: a stern lecture from the principal and a suspension, another three days off from school.

A year later, in another public high school a few miles away, Mike Walker didn't get off so easy. He made the mistake of bringing marijuana to school this spring, and it got him six days of tough manual labor on a nearby farm, followed by an intensive "debriefing" and self-examination.

It's called "outposting," and it's all about building character, the Hyde School way.

Last fall, the nonprofit, 28-year-old boarding school based in Bath, Maine, brought its "Character First" doctrine -- develop character, and academics follow naturally -- and its college-preparatory program to a New Haven public school. The troubled city opened the New Hyde Leadership School as part of a three-year experiment, starting with 125 ninth- and 10th-graders.

Now, Baltimore wants to follow that example, but on a much bigger scale, by letting Hyde run 1,800-student Patterson High.

Superintendent Walter G. Amprey, who has turned to private companies to help rebuild ailing city schools, hopes Hyde can revive Patterson. But he needs state approval -- which could come this week -- because Patterson in East Baltimore faces possible state takeover after years of worsening academic performance, dropout rates and attendance.

Hyde's premise, says founder Joseph W. Gauld, is simple: Stop focusing so much on subjects and focus instead on the students. Challenge them and teach them to challenge one another, recognize that each has unique gifts, get a commitment from them and hold them to it.

All of which public schools have failed to do, says Mr. Gauld: "We've got the wrong system in American education. We need a revolution."

The revolution of this veteran teacher has proved remarkably successful in the sheltered nest of the 200-student Maine boarding school, founded for teens who struggled or failed in more traditional schools. About 97 percent of its students -- more than a few of whom had battled drugs, alcohol, depression -- go on to four-year colleges.

Now Mr. Gauld is taking on perhaps his toughest challenge. He's out to prove that inner-city public schools can find salvation in Hyde's rigorous program, built around an 8 1/2 -hour school day; an advanced curriculum; required performing arts and athletics; and heavy doses of values for teens and their parents.

For the New Haven teens, it began last summer at Hyde's Maine campus, long before anybody cracked a book or pondered a math problem. There, to learn trust and self-confidence, the students endured a challenging high ropes course, walked through the woods blindfolded following a companion, and fell backward into the arms of classmates.

During that orientation and in the nine months since, the students wrote daily in journals, talked at length about their "inner feelings," sang solo on a stage in front of all their classmates. And they learned by heart Hyde's values: "Courage. Integrity. Concern for Others. Curiosity. Leadership."

Today, the students repeat the words like a mantra. And they speak of their days in "public school" in the past tense, a distant memory, in almost every case, a bad memory.

Mike Walker, who wears his sandy hair in a short pony tail, says he probably would have left school for good by now if not for Hyde.

"In public school," he says, "they just let you do what you want. It was like nobody really cared about you, and nobody set me in the right direction. Here, this school showed me they won't give up on me, that they care about me."

It's performing arts time -- the students get no fewer than two hours of it a day -- when Mike snaps a drum stick against the snare while his buddy picks out the riff from Nirvana's "Come As You Are" on an electric guitar.

Mike chuckles as he recalls the dean of discipline talking to him before his trip to the farm in April.

"You're on the farm," he was told, "until your attitude is up to snuff." After much sweating, soul-searching, counseling and journal writing, he returned, swearing off pot, vowing to live up to potential he seemed the last to discover.

Talks of college

If not for this place, he says, he could well have spent a lifetime doing manual labor. Now, on this day, in this room with so many others once written off as failures, he says his grades have improved, and he talks of college.

It's good to be here, he says, and it's good to be back from the farm.

On a sultry spring morning, Tommy Chavis-Peace slouches in a chair by an open window in English class, staring at walls and the parking lot and the floor and almost anything but his dozen classmates.

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