Who Are We
Proud to Be?
Using chants, rewards, consequences, and lots of hard work, staff members at Amistad Academy charter school in New Haven, Connecticut, are helping urban students set and meet goals. Included: Description of the Amistad Academy approach.
They stepped to the microphone with confidence, describing where they had been, who they had become, and where they hoped to go, their testimony infused with self-assurance and insight that seemed beyond their middle-school ages.
Teacher Roxanna Lopez works with students.
(Education World photo)
"When I first came to Amistad Academy in the fifth grade, I barely could do addition and knew nothing about subtraction," said James, an eighth grader, one of the speakers.
"I've been working really hard for four years; I didn't think I could do it," James continued, speaking to an auditorium full of classmates, faculty, state, local officials, and U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige. "Now my teammates and I are almost finished with algebra. When I took the state tests this year, I knew my math skills were strong. It's amazing how you feel about a subject when you know how to do it. Amistad has helped me develop goals and put goals in reach." When James added that he planned to attend a Roman Catholic high school in the fall, the room filled with applause.
A charter school serving minority students in New Haven, Connecticut, Amistad has attracted national attention from many, including Paige, who visited in April 2004. (See Education World's Paige Applauds School's Commitment to High Expectations.)
Another eighth grader who came to the microphone said she attended summer school before entering Amistad in the fifth grade. "Now I can write a detailed literary analysis of what I read," she said. "I'm planning to become a dentist; I know Amistad gave me the skills to succeed in high school and college. And if you need a dentist in 2016, look me up."
While every school has its success stories, staff members want success to be Amistad's only story. Helping low-income, urban students achieve is a complex problem, but framing the success at this school are simple principles: a relentless drive for self-improvement, for everyone from students to administrators, and a conviction that all children can perform at high levels.
"The kids come to us as they come," said principal Dacia Toll. "Luck determines if they land with us; we're not skimming off the top."
MAKING SMART COOL
The charge to do well at Amistad is as constant and pervasive as a ticking clock, following the students from the moment they enter school at 7:30 a.m. to when they leave at 5 p.m. Banners announce Home of the Hardest Working Students in Connecticut, and proclaim the school's mantra REACH: Respect, Enthusiasm, Achievement, Citizenship, Hard Work. Students chant, "Who are we proud to be? Amistad Academy. Who is responsible for our success? We are responsible for our actions, we control our destinies."
Despite the rigorous standards, the school's 246 students are a fraction of those who would like to attend. Students are selected by lottery, and Amistad receives eight times more applications than it has seats. For fall 2004, the school received more than 500 applications and admitted 69 students.
Upstairs hallways are decorated with pennants from colleges and prep schools, and outside every classroom door a sign lists the teacher's name and the colleges he or she attended.
"The message about going to college is not subtle," said Tina Clark Beamon, director of development and public relations for Amistad and Achievement First, an organization committed to replicating the Amistad model. "We really emphasize college and academic values. If they don't meet the values, they don't get the rewards. We instill the idea that doing well is cool."
Students receive Scholar Dollars every week based on their attitude, behavior, and academic performance. Every month, students who earn a certain number of Scholar Dollars go on a trip.
Amistad staff members make it clear that students have to work hard at everything to succeed. All infractions, including untucked shirts and rolled eyes, are addressed. All new students wear white shirts until they earn their blue Amistad shirts by displaying solid academic performance and behavior. Lapses in schoolwork and attitude can mean a return to wearing white until teachers see improvement.
During Paige's visit, Oscar, a student who said it took him six months to earn his blue shirt because he had to learn self-control, presented the secretary of education with a blue Amistad shirt.
"You didn't just earn a blue shirt -- you earned an opportunity to be something special," Paige told Oscar. "This is one of the greatest honors I have ever received."
The unceasing attention to detail is paying off. Students outscore their peers in New Haven and statewide on the Connecticut Mastery Tests, which are administered to students in fourth, sixth, and eighth grades. All the more noteworthy because on average, fifth graders enter Amistad more than two years below grade level in reading and math, Toll said.
The school's curriculum includes intensive math instruction and two reading and one writing class every day. Most students attend summer school. By the time students graduate, most have completed algebra.
"We won't let them fail," Toll said. "Kids failing math go to a lot of extra help."
Secretary of Education Rod Paige visits a science lab at Amistad Academy.
(Education World photo)
About one-third of graduating eighth graders are accepted to private high schools, including nationally-known prep schools like Choate Rosemary Hall and The Gunnery. The classes of 2002 and 2003 combined earned more than $2 million in scholarship money for high school.
Most of the remaining two-thirds of the classes enroll in the honors track at a public high school. All of this is done with less money than the district schools receive. Connecticut allocates $7,250 per pupil to charter schools, more than $4,000 less than what the New Haven Public School system spends per student. Fundraising makes up the difference.
The school has been cited as one of the country's most effective charter schools. Amistad's successes were featured in an August 2004 PBS documentary, and cited in the book, No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning, by Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom.
For parents, Amistad has become an academic lifeline, offering both rescue and a future. One woman wept when her child was accepted, Clark Beamon said.
A DESIRE TO SEE KIDS DO BETTER
A determination to help urban children succeed and shrink the achievement gap motivated Amistad's founders, which included a group of Yale Law School students, area business leaders, and organizations. The achievement gap between white and minority students in 1999 was about four years, Toll said. In 2004, only about 22 percent of New Haven students read at grade level.
"We got the feeling that people thought the kids could do substantially better," said Toll, herself a Yale Law School graduate. "A bunch of us set out to tryI graduated from law school and came right here. I did not think I'd be opening a school, let alone running it."
While the founders did not have a firm vision of what Amistad would look like, they started by studying the highest performing urban schools in the U.S., and decided to graft together aspects of their programs to create Amistad. Their models included the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), which now has schools in 13 states and Washington, D.C., and, North Star Academy, a charter school in Newark, New Jersey. KIPP principals now train at Amistad.
"We are all learning as we go," Toll said. "But if a kid doesn't do well, we spend a lot of time asking ourselves why. I can't figure out how to do this without working harder."
Amistad teachers learned, for example, that some of its graduates were struggling in high school to write research papers in history classes, because they had not been assigned them at Amistad. Now they are. Also based on feedback, the school improved how it conducts science labs and how students write them up. "If alumni go to high school and struggle, we want to know why," Toll said.
Toll continues to expand her own learning; she teaches a different subject every year, so she can better understand the experience of classroom teachers. This past year she taught sixth grade math. "I just felt I needed to do it," she said. "It's a credibility issue. Now we [she and faculty members] can have different conversations."
One area still needing work is parent involvement. Parents sign a contract agreeing to be involved in their children's education, but the school is not seeing as much parent involvement as it would like, Toll said. About 78 percent of the children come from one-parent families. "Some [parents] don't understand why they [students] have an hour of homework and 20 minutes of reading each night," she said. "I would say about 10 percent [of parents] are very involved, 10 percent resistant [to the school's requirements], and 80 percent want what's best for their kids, but their own lives are so overwhelming they have problems getting involved."
Knowing that many of the students have challenging home lives, Amistad provides students with a safe, stable environment for almost ten hours a day. While classes end at 3:50 p.m. Monday through Thursday, students are required to attend the after school program called Encore until 5 p.m. Students who are having trouble with schoolwork are tutored part of the time; others participate in art, music, and athletic programs. On Fridays, school is dismissed at 1:20 p.m., to provide teachers time for professional development and team meetings.
Activities such as the school's morning meeting, a concept borrowed from North Star, also build community.
A combination community meeting and pep rally, the morning meeting re-enforces the school's core values. Students and faculty are called to the morning meeting by the sound of drumming. In a circle in the gymnasium, students call out one of their many chants. Pupils also are recognized for positive and negative behavior. While students earn praise for accomplishments, students who were suspended or committed an offense must come to the circle with a parent and apologize to the community, admit what they did, and what REACH values they violated.
Students participate in an advanced math class.
(Education World photo)
At one morning meeting, several teachers praised students for good behavior during an outing. "I hope the white shirts are listening," Toll said to the group. "We heard some great stories about students; now do what you need to do."
She also took the opportunity to remind students about the dress code. "As the weather is warming up, you will be allowed to wear khaki shorts, but they must be below the knee," Toll noted. "If they are not below the knee, I will get out my little ruler, measure, and you will not be allowed to go to class [if they are too short.] The same goes for young ladies in skirts."
NOT AFRAID OF ASSESSMENTS
Classrooms also have a no-nonsense air. Each class period starts with five quick questions that most students are able to answer, to help them feel successful, said Sue Walling, the school's academic dean.
During Paige's visit, he chatted with students in a seventh-grade science class. Luis, 13, told Paige he liked Amistad because the learning is more advanced. "Imagine hearing that?" Paige asked.
Students are grouped by ability and assessed every six weeks. Toll said she believes in assessments, as long as they are valid. "I'm very comfortable about the [state] tests," she said. "The Connecticut test is one of the best; the math section has open-ended questions besides computation. I see the Connecticut tests as very comprehensive."
The No Child Left Behind Act, with its emphasis on accountability and assessment, is bringing more attention to the achievement gap and the need to help all children succeed, she added. "I think the core principles of NCLB are very important," Toll said. "I think it got school districts' attention. It got us all focused on how all kids doing. I feel at least like now we are having the right conversation."
While students are assessed often, teachers still have a lot of room for creativity in their lessons, said reading teacher Carolyn Streets. "We evaluate kids after a six-week cycle. We show what they learned and how they improved, but we hardly teach to the test; we teach to skills."
LOOKING FOR DEDICATED TEACHERS
Teaching at Amistad is more demanding than some other schools, Streets added. "It's harder to teach here. The standards are higher. The expectation is that you will produce students who produce high-quality work."
At the same time, the support the school provides helps teachers in their work. "I like that everything is structured, yet you have the freedom to be creative," Streets told Education World. "You are constantly checking against the standards. You are not teaching in the dark."
"I like the structure, and how students are given the help that they need," added Rory Edwards, dean of students, and the "keeper of school culture." "I believe urban students have been shortchanged."
Amistad recruits its teachers by word of mouth and advertising. While the school's 24 teachers do not belong to a union, nothing prevents them from starting one. Teachers have year-to-year contracts, so they can leave after a year if Amistad is not a good fit for them. Teachers not involved in the Encore program are allowed to leave at 4 p.m., but many don't. "There are a lot who want what's best for kids," Toll said.
"I like interacting with students, not just as a disciplinarian, but I try to engage them in all aspects of life," said Edwards, who also runs a bereavement group and is starting a mentoring program for African-American boys. "I want them to see that the person who disciplines them cares about them."
WHO ARE WE PROUD TO BE?
Youngsters sense that the staff members are on a mission, and it is for them. At the assembly during Paige's visit, a student named Kaylani, announced, "The teachers here are the best you'll meet anywhere. Some teachers don't go home until hours after school."
Students in classrooms and hallways were just as poised and polite as they were on stage.
"I love it here," said Geris, 11, a fifth grader. "I like getting paychecks and all the kids are nice and the teachers help the students." He did add that "the teachers are strict for the littlest things," as if to explain why he still was wearing a white shirt in May. "I'm working on earning my blue shirt."
Several youngsters told Education World that while initially, Amistad's extended day and strict guidelines did not appeal to them, now they see how their education is shaping their futures.
"At first I didn't want to come here because of the long hours," said seventh grader Laquevia, 12, who aspires to be a brain surgeon. "But now I'm used to everything, all the routines. This is much better than my old school. At my old school, we weren't learning anything. Here, I'm doing algebra."
Her friend Alex, 12, also a seventh grader, said she also quickly adjusted to the longer school day. "In fifth grade, I got used to it, and when I got home, I could say educated things," Alex told Education World. Added Alex, who wants to be a lawyer or a psychologist, "I wouldn't have had enough education at my old school. I wouldn't know anything about private school."
SPREADING THE MESSAGE
Besides boosting the achievement of its own students, Amistad's other mission is public school reform, primarily in urban areas. "I think the conversation has shifted from 'We can't do it' to 'We can if we have a long day and change the rules,'" Toll said. "I guess most schools aren't doing it [changing the rules] because of a combination of skill and will."
The U.S. Department of Education's support of charter schools has created a welcoming atmosphere for more schools.
Already sprouting from the Amistad seed is Elm City College Preparatory School. The K-8 charter school, also, in New Haven, and with ties to Amistad, opened in September 2004.
"We're trying to codify the model," said Douglas McCurry, executive director of Achievement First. "I think it's possible to create great urban schools. I'm hopeful we can change education outcomes."
As part of its expansion plans, Achievement First has applied for five K-12 charters in New York City. The proposal calls for opening three of the schools in fall 2005 and the remaining two in fall 2006. According to the proposal, the schools will open with two or three grades each, and eventually grow to full capacity as K-12 schools.
Money from Achievement First and donations will fund additional schools, according to McCurry.
That is just the kind of news Amistad fans like to hear. "This is just an amazing institution," Paige said during his visit. "Members of the state legislature should be proud that they provided the laws to permit this. Every step of the way, every policymaker should be proud that they have made this possible. Many students would be very different students without this institution."
Article by Ellen R. Delisio
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