For Connecticut charter school, small details drive big changes

Academy finds success turning struggling pupils into thriving students

September 28, 2004|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

NEW HAVEN, Conn. - To succeed as a student at Amistad Academy is to learn that it is easier to stay out of trouble.

Don't do your homework and you'll be staying for three extra hours on Friday afternoon. Lose control and shout out an obscenity in front of classmates, you'll stand before the whole school to apologize. Put your head down on the desk or forget to follow the teacher with your eyes, the whole lesson will stop while the class waits for you to start paying attention.

With its near obsession with getting the small details right and enforcing consequences for poor behavior, Amistad has found a formula to mold its undisciplined and low-achieving fifth-grade students into eighth-graders who study hard and beat the odds.

Amistad, one of Connecticut's charter schools, set out to prove that poor, minority children can succeed as well as white middle-class students if only they are given the right education.

So their children get much of what a student at a good suburban public school would learn and be exposed to at school and at home. They go to school from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., with most of the afternoon spent on their choice of music, art, dance or sports.

Students must shake hands with adults when they greet them, say thank you and keep the shirttails of their uniforms tucked in. They are told again and again that they will go to college - the only question is where. And they have a lot of adults who care about them.

"It is different here," says seventh-grader Nyasia Porter. "The teachers are like your school parents. They stay after school. They are dedicated to helping you." Porter's brother graduated from Amistad and moved on to a private high school.

Six years after it opened, Amistad's 97 percent black and Latino population is posting test scores better than those in New Haven and the state of Connecticut on statewide eighth-grade tests. Last year, 86 percent of its eighth-graders passed the writing test, above the statewide average of 62 percent and better than the public schools of wealthy Greenwich.

In most cases, those same students - 84 percent of whom are poor enough to qualify for a free or reduced lunch - were reading and doing math about two years below grade level when they started at Amistad in fifth grade. By sixth grade the scores had gone up, but were only slightly better than the city average.

"Amistad has rewritten the book on closing the achievement gap," says Mark Linabury, charter school program manager for Connecticut.

Born out of the minds of Yale University law school students who believed the achievement gap was the civil rights issue of their time, Amistad is a plain, crisp-looking school housed in a former office supply business, not far from a stunning, modern public school.

The school isn't fancy. Furnishings in the classrooms are spare, but the walls are colorful and filled with sayings such as: "Excuses are the tools of the incompetent."

Student artwork lines the white halls, and the cafeteria is a big, bright windowless room with no-frills tables and chairs. Most school principals would walk into Amistad's cafeteria and think it was immaculate, but director Dacia Toll walks in, spies a small, plastic wrapper from the straw of a juice box and sighs. She will have to talk to the students about this, she says, picking it up.

The school's curriculum isn't unusual either. It stresses the basics of reading, writing, vocabulary and math. The emphasis is on efficient use of classroom time.

The staff creates ways to cut down on time lost to fooling around. On one of the first days of school this month, nearly every teacher was explaining a schoolwide system for paperwork. Papers are handed left or right and then up the aisle. Students practiced with a stop watch to make sure it could be done in less than 30 seconds.

Students can't escape the mandate to attend to details and strive to learn. On every sheet of paper turned in to teachers, students must write their name, date and the motto "Education is Freedom." They are told they must turn in homework and that it won't count if it has stains or isn't complete. They are even trained in restroom behavior: Don't write on the walls, don't clog the toilets, wash your hands.

Demanding responsibility from parents is just as important, says Billy Johnson, assistant dean of students, and so he will visit parents at their work if phone calls home aren't returned.

Because charter schools are often criticized for cherry-picking children whose parents care most, Amistad has made it easy to apply. The New Haven system oversees the lottery to pick enrollment.

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