Like many parents who like to consider themselves progressive, the phrase has a nice ring to it. Who wants a "conservative" education for their kids, when they can be assured that they're getting forward-thinking and cutting-edge schooling (and free for the price of taxes to boot)? Whether you're considering going to private or public schools, the type of schooling is often among the top priorities, along with cost, location, and, let's be honest here, demographics. The Q's noticed in the last couple years of school-gazing that schools get branded as one thing or another, often by a single online review, and it becomes nearly impossible to undo the diagnosis. In our fair district - 17 - the pronouncements can be quite damning, and often unfair.
I've heard folks repeat certain depictions of schools over and over again, often quoting verbatim one source or another. On more than one occasion, I've heard folks repeat my own wording from a post on a school. (That's the internet for you. Blowhard laypeople get aped alongside the experts!) Here are some of the stereotypes: PS92? Too strict, stuck in the past. PS770, The New American Academy? Progressive-ish, 60 kids per class w/4 well-paid teachers. PS249 The Caton School? Homey but not particularly progressive. Great for dual language Spanish. PS375 Jackie Robinson? Improving, super poor, with a lack of diversity. Explore Charter School? Again, not diverse, and a nose-to-the grindstone, "no excuses" kinda school. To diversity, NY Times went as far as to base a whole article on segregation on Sonny Kleinfeld's experience at that one school, Q post here. There are tons more examples, so don't think I'm trying to leave anyone out. It's just so heartbreaking to see parents tortured decisions being made on such shreds of evidence!
Then there's the rest of Brooklyn. Where once there were a couple, now there are literally dozens of gentrifier-approved public schools. Many use the descriptor "progressive" to distinguish themselves from...from...from what exactly? The fact is that unless you're sending your kid to the Brooklyn Free School (super loosey goosey) or some military-styled "yes ma'am" "academy" that teaches basics, basics, basics, you're probably gonna get a healthy mix of discipline styles, curricula and school cultures. The bread and butter, of course, is your kid's teacher, and even at great schools there are bad apples, or ones suffering from breakdowns or personal dramas, or who leave mid-year. And one guy who knows told me you can expect at least ONE bad teacher in your kid's run at elementary school. Still, 5 outa 6 ain't bad. (Little tidbit: that was Meat Loaf's original title for his #1 smash single from '78, but his producer felt the chorus was too long.*)
If you've been following the currents of new school development in the BK, you may have heard of a new school being started by a leadership team of three who met while working at Community Roots. I recently sat down with Todd Sutler, a man just crazy enough to try to put the "progressive" back in progressive. He and his two partners - Brooke Peters and Michelle Healy - spent a year criss-crossing the nation looking for exemplary schools, teachers and methods. Called The Odyssey Initiative, their tour convinced them more than ever that "experiential" or progressive models can be applied successfully to kids of any means, class, race or culture. Now the trio has a charter, and are starting the Compass Charter School this fall with Kindergarten and First Grades only, adding a grade each year. And hey, they're into looping! I only just heard about it this year, but I kinda dig it in theory. You stay with the same teacher(s) for more than one year, and in the case of Compass that means for two year stretches at a time. And the founders are most certainly dedicated to seeing that their student body reflect Brooklyn's demo. The newbies often have certain expectations of what their school should offer, but that doesn't mean the same techniques don't work for all.When it comes to teaching the most educationally vulnerable, as Todd sees it, there's something paternalistic and bigoted about expecting that the only way, say, a poor black kid can learn is through brow-beating and constant testing, always looking at results over experiences. As if one group of kids don't need the same things as other kids? Project learning. Best practices in math. Socratic method. Arts. Individualized attention. Integrated Studies. The whole nine.
I sat down with Todd to talk turkey about his new school, opening in District 13 (sigh, not 17) this fall. Since he and his colleagues/co-founders seem to have such a splendid grasp on the currents of education it's a real drag that the DOE couldn't find a spot for Compass in our fair and underserved District. They lobbied for 17, as well as 13, but the space was only to be found in Ft. Greene, not far from the school at which the three met and joined forces - Community Roots. Croots (as I like to call it, though no one else in their right mind would) is a fan favorite and has been since its Bank Street educated leaders built it eight years ago now. If you want to read as thorough a description of the "progressive education model" as I've come across, or rather the kind that you might be able to understand as a non-academic, it would look something like this. Croots puts it all out there, and from what I've heard from close friends who attend, they achieve their objectives. It's therefore one of the tougher tickets to scalp, kinda like gaining entrance to a Stones club date before their world tour. As in it helps to know Jagger or Richards, or in this case, I guess Mick Jagger would be Alison Keil and Keith Richards would be Sara Stone, the co-founder-directors (or vice-versa - I don't know them personally, or well enough to say which plays guitar and which handles lead vocals). But Charters work by lottery, with siblings getting in first, so it's not like KNOWING them gets you in, but then relationships ARE important even on supposedly impartial waiting lists and...well, this post isn't about kindergarten admission strategies, but suffice to say a lot of parents go through hoops, or pay through the nose, in order to get into their fave schools. Think stories of parents renting an extra apartment in a favored district are urban myths? Think again. If you have the dough, it's darn effective, though parents may be loathe to admit it. Lying about addresses? Yep. Begging? You bet. And what does that ultimately say? The most entitled get the most entitlements. Same as it ever was. (I'm no saint, but I did decide I wasn't interested in starting my kids educational journey with a big lie. It's just me, and I don't really fault anyone for going the distance for a perceived head start for their kid. Still, I can't think that I'm doing my daughter any favors by modeling sneakiness. That damn conscience! What has he ever done for me anyway? Why you I oughta...)
Lots of smart folks like Todd-Michelle-Brooke aren't interested in kissing the oligarchy's ass by ignoring the needs of the least privileged. They want a school that works for all, and doesn't market itself just to one group or the other. It's clear that a diverse student body is an audacious goal, particularly in a stratified class society like we have today, but you can tell Todd means business. I'm no sociologist, but I'd dare say that the Horatio Alger myth has never been more myth than it is today. A few educational examples:
- One can pay top dollar now to get your kid tested "gifted and talented."
- I know a dude in Princeton, NJ who charges more per hour than most lawyers for an hour with your child to study...the SATs.
- Need-blind admissions are becoming increasingly rare at the best colleges.
- Parents actively or passively shun schools that are too poor or too black, even when the schools get good grades
- That little thing about renting apartments in better zones and working "connections" to get a spot at a fave school?
- Affirmative Action's been stripped of effectiveness.
- Very few powers-that-be talk seriously about school integration anymore
- Charters often consider one style of teaching to be good for poor kids; another for affluent ones, further exacerbating segragation
Most folks consider busing to have been a miserable failure, and few new attempts have made to seriously address what most educators would call a major problem affecting not only nonwhite school performance, but also cementing the toxic notion of cultural otherness and by extension, unworthiness. If your world is segregated from the moment you become aware of society, i.e. school, what chance do you have of living King's dream? If that dream has relevance. Sometimes I wonder.
Oops. Got sidetracked again. Todd and I had the same problem in our wide-ranging conversation. We kept trying to get back to our core agenda, so I could maybe write a thoughtful piece on his school. He kept wanting to talk specifically about what his school was going to be; I kept wanting to get at the heart of what it means to be "progressive" in a world where words like "inquiry" and "integrated" and "holistic" and "diverse" get tossed around like so much feed in a chicken coop. And then of course, the question of the constant sloshing of capital in Brooklyn comes up, and the whitening of black Brooklyn, and the entitlement gap, and...anyway, Todd's my kinda guy, and though I may not live in district, I certainly share the same air when it comes to this stuff. I sat on a founding board for a dismal charter school application (don't ask) so I read his team's app with great curiosity. If you're someone who likes the nitty gritty, you can read the whole dang thing here.
Here's the sort of stuff the Q likes to read about a school, and it's right there on the Compass website:
Here's another snippet I dig:Students at all grade levels will engage in meaningful inquiry based interdisciplinary projects. All students will participate in a variety of research practices including observations, question development, interviews, artifact collection, field visits, note taking and hands-on experiments.
Sustainability education and sustainable practices will be infused through the daily practices and curriculum of CCS. Our interdisciplinary units of study will give students opportunities to examine the concepts of environmental stewardship, resource management, social justice, and economic justice. We will incorporate sustainable practices like recycling, eating responsibly sourced food, and using energy efficient products in our school environment. We will also encourage students, families, and staff to adopt these practices in their lives outside of school.
Yes, ma'am! And for an arty-farty guy like myself, you know I like:
CCS will value the arts as a form of communication and expression. Visual arts, music, and movement/dance will be incorporated into the CCS model. Arts specialists will design discipline based courses as well as plan lessons and co-teach with classroom educators to fully integrate the arts into the core subjects.
At the very least I urge you to check out Todd and Michelle and Brooke in person at one of their upcoming outreach sessions, like the one coming up on this Thursday at the Central Library. Even if you don't think the school is right for you, either practically (it's on Adelphi 'tween Dekalb and Lafayette) or ideologically, you can ask these folks the kinds of questions you might not get to ask in your typical school tour.
And besides, you really shouldn't formulate any depictions on what some pasty chubby old dude writes on his blog, now, should you?
"Original lyrics to Two Out of Three Ain't Bad - "I Want You, I Need You, I Heard You, I Employ You, I Gave You a Necklace For Your Birthday, But there ain't no way..."