Stories and insights on excellent education.
Growing up poor in Union City, NJ, I attended the local public schools. My parents never had a choice in where to send me. They were not great schools, and I was not a great student. Still, my parents always expected me to get good grades and rewarded me for earning A’s. I found these rewards motivating. If I received anything less than a B, my parents would immediately schedule a meeting with my teachers. That’s why I studied hard and sought help from my older sister, who tutored me when she could. By the time I got to high school, I was a respectable B student. But nobody at my school ever talked to me about college. The guidance counselor, instead, guided us to vocational school. College graduation was never my goal; it was simply to finish high school. I wanted a better education for my son, which is why I refused to send him to a failing public school in our neighborhood.
When Luke was 3 years old, we applied to a private school in Manhattan, where tuition and fees totaled $15,000 for the first year. Even though he was accepted, I had misgivings about the school. I felt that the teachers were too inexperienced and didn’t have a clear plan for my son’s progress. At one parent-teacher conference, after giving us a very good progress report on our son, his teacher told us to consider having him repeat a grade. Looking at our puzzled faces, she quickly said, “But I’m not an expert in this topic. There are plenty of articles about it on the Internet.” So for $15,000, I thought, I get to search the Internet for advice.
We decided not to go back to the private school the following year. Instead, we sent Luke to a local Catholic school. Overall, it was a better school, but the classes were too big and the teachers could provide only so much coverage for each student. There was also quite a bit of chaos whenever students transitioned between activities or switched rooms. The assistant teachers were not teachers as much as they were helpers. During one parent-teacher conference, we saw photographs of our son’s work, including a complex structure that he had built with blocks. His teacher told us that he was ahead of most students. But she also said that Luke was struggling to follow directions and was acting out in class. She concluded that our son was bored and recommended another school for him. She said she wished she had more time to challenge Luke but that it was not possible with a large class.
When Luke was ready for kindergarten, we applied to six schools: Success Academy Hell’s Kitchen, PS 212 Midtown West, PS 51 Elias Howe, PS 33 Chelsea Prep, PS 9 Sarah Anderson, and, our last choice, PS 111 Adolph Ochs, which was our zoned school. We were disappointed with the city’s selection. The DOE told us that Luke would have to attend PS 111, a school with below-average academic scores. Fortunately, the following week, Success Academy informed us that Luke was on the waitlist. A month later, he was off the waitlist and enrolled at SA Hell’s Kitchen.
The transition to SA Hell’s Kitchen was not easy for Luke. He had to adjust to strict rules and a heavy homework load. Early in the year, he received behavior infractions. We reinforced the school’s high expectations at home. After a month, his behavior had turned around. My wife and I were both shocked at the workload but also amazed at his progress. Our son now writes out his thoughts and ideas in basic English, reads books to us at bedtime, and excels at math. He comes home every week with interesting science facts that he learned in school and explains to me how chess pieces move on the board. I don’t remember reading like my son is reading until first or second grade, and I didn’t learn chess until I was 8 (I’m still not very good).
I have read many articles in the past year about Success Academy, both in favor and against the schools. I continue to believe that some of the basic principles of their philosophy make absolute sense: 1) challenge the children and they will respond because they want to do well, 2) set high expectations and provide the tools to achieve them, 3) the goal for every child is to graduate from college, no exceptions, 4) great teachers result in great students.
I have been a management consultant for 22 years. I graduated from Rutgers University with a bachelor’s degree and an M.B.A. I make a good living, and I live in a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment in the middle of Manhattan. When I reflect on my own education and where I am today in my personal and professional life, it is obvious to me that the public schools I attended are not responsible for my success. The credit goes to my parents, who, despite being raised on a farm and having a sixth-grade education, knew that a good education was important, that not excelling in school was not an option, and that there were no limits to my possibilities as long as I worked hard. Credit also goes to a handful of elementary, high school, and college teachers who went above and beyond to point out what was not obvious to me — I was smart, but I wasn’t making the effort. In short, they were great teachers, and they helped turn me into a great student because they taught me more than anything else to believe in myself.
I cannot understand how anybody can criticize a school network that addresses every one of these requirements for academic excellence. I guarantee you that Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, and other Ivy League schools demand that their students put in the effort. And I can tell you that the companies I have worked for and the clients that I have served for the past 22 years have always expected my very best effort. Why would I want my son to be taught in any environment that would expect less from him?