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Against the Current: How One School Struggled and Succeeded with At-Risk Teens.

A few months ago, George Will devoted a column to praising one of my brother schools, St. Ignatius Academy in the inner city of Baltimore. If the school sounds like "a faint, quaint echo from another century," he writes, "so much the worse for ours." And who can doubt him? Loyola is small, intense, and Jesuit; it has high expectations and tells children how to meet them; it is highly successful. The sucker punch, though, is as obvious as the by-line. We don't need school boards, goes the subtext. We just need Jesuits.

While the idea intrigues me, it conveniently leaves the rest of us out of the picture. That's the problem with the flood of Triumphant Schools books out there -- accounts of embattled, heroic children get tossed up like tennis balls, which can be whacked into any ideological corner if untethered to a hard analysis of the facts. Remember that bizarre story of the black principal who kept order with his baseball bat? What weird message lurks there?

Michael Brosnan almost overcomes this slipperiness in Against the Current: How One School Struggled and Succeeded with At-Risk Teens. It is the lively, if not always lucid, tale of the Urban Collaborative Accelerated Program, a new two-year school which serves Providence's most "at-risk" children. Brosnan easily picks up the school's energy. He's honest enough to profile the average, non-angelic kids who don't seem to deserve their school; he also includes plenty of stories of kids who, finally given the chance most suburban Americans have had, sweat out their circumstances and succeed. In interviews with teachers, students, and the endlessly energetic founder and principal, Rob DeBlois, Brosnan pulls together a realistic story of a school with its head on straight. And he gives hints of how it can -- and cannot -- happen elsewhere.

"How do you get a kid to work on English when he has had a few bottles of beer before class?" asks one teacher. DeBlois's answer: Make that kid's school small. With only 105 students, the school can give the attention they demand and the sense of community they don't get at home. Teachers spend hours and hours cheerleading kids, trying to convince them why school matters. In a traditional, big, sink-or-swim high school, these kids would be sunk.

Just as important as size, DeBlois has also carved out independence from the public school board. Though publicly funded, the Urban Collaborative is run entirely by the teachers. Discipline is always a problem, but it's handled better here because DeBlois knows each child and his or her parents. In one encounter, a student appears to have raped a girl in the back seat of a school bus. His excuse? He'd just finished smoking pot a few seats ahead of her. DeBlois doesn't have to wait long to find the facts, make a decision with his faculty, and get the kid expelled.

And as for academics, teachers are free to pursue the program that best suits the bodies sitting in front of them. Referring to popular trends in naturalistic, "whole language" writing instruction, English teacher Lynne Abbott says, "I know a lot of people think [grammar is] a waste of time, that kids are supposed to pick up grammar through osmosis or something. But the thing is, kids don't get it." Only a teacher could tell you that. And at this school here, she's the one writing the curriculum.

This independence also means the school can offer a radical and brilliant idea that they call "acceleration." Any student can move up a grade as soon as he or she has mastered the material for that level. Motivated kids catch up in no time; lazy kids quickly learn where their laziness gets them. "Hey, why is she accelerating, and I'm not a quarter of the way through my work and I've been here longer than she has?" asks one noble soul. At that, a friend whacks him over the head with a baseball cap and says, "That's because she works, dickhead." As DeBlois puts it, "Our philosophy in an eloquent nutshell."

Some of DeBlois's philosophies are hard to swallow. Kids call their teachers by their first names ("I feel that we are on the same level or something" -- blecch), kids talk through assembly ("Getting them here is half the battle") -- but if it works, who cares? Success keeps the bureaucrats at bay: Of the Urban Collaborative's 450 graduates, 80 percent go on to finish high school. (The dropout rate in Providence is nearly 50 percent.) The book implicitly (too implicitly) supports the idea that we could do much better with a system of public, independent, inner-city schools, each with its own philosophy and success stories. After all, that's what wealthy private schools have been doing for centuries.

These are the Urban Collaborative's successes; Brosnan has a few of his own. He does, in fact, place the school within broader contexts and offers the usual solutions. East Greenwich, R.I., has $405,547 worth of taxable property per child, while Providence has only $143,643. Yet this is the way we choose to fund public schools.

There are more of these familiar, teeth-grinding facts: Last year, for instance, the Pentagon spent S40 billion on unnecessary items. Half that amount would fund 20,000 Urban Collaboratives (or 67,000 Nativity Preps) -- a far worthier investment in our national defense. Another one: the Gulf War cost $1 billion every day. (That's a thousand new schools every morning.) And closer to home, the Rhode Island state training school costs $92,000 per year per inmate -- and the vast majority are, of course, high school dropouts.

Of course. The facts are old. "Sadly," Brosnan writes, "many school reformers are beginning to talk pessimistically about it all, wondering how often the message has to be repeated before it sinks in." The thing is, they don't sink in. We've heard these stories ad nauseam, and the fascinating question is why nothing seems to happen.

Brosnan has one answer, lurking in the back of the book behind too many Triumphant Kid stories. It comes when he describes, painfully quickly, the political landscape when the Urban Collaborative "was taxiing down the runway, waiting for take-off." Rhode Island was, at the time, infusing tens of millions of dollars to save its credit unions. Brosnan describes each politician's budgetary dilemma, and how each level of government passed the problem off to the next. In a strange twist, it comes down between funding the Urban Collaborative and funding all school sports in Providence. Like so much legislative procedure, it's absurd, destructive, and apparently no one's fault. Here Brosnan makes his most insightful revelation: "Our layered system of government, regardless of its other successes and shortcomings, is simply not conducive to educational reform -- even when it is clear that reform is necessary."

In the face of this political conclusion, what relevance can a hundred stories of heroic kids have beyond sentimentality? Jonathan Kozol describes this situation -- we write these satisfying stories of "hope in the ashes," and then keep piling on more ashes. If the Urban Collaborative was next to impossible to start and operate, why exactly was that? Can these explanations give us direction on how to change the system we have now?

Even worse, the book gets confusing at the most fundamental level. How old, for instance, are these kids? I suspect that they are ninth and tenth graders, since it's a two-year program leading into high school halfway through, but Brosnan also says that they recruit mainly from the 6th and 7th grades. And other than that brief political analysis, he offers no history of the school before the doors opened. How did DeBlois get it started? How do we get there from here?

Brosnan's blueprint is nearly complete, and even the triumphant child stories are fun to read and, indeed, awesome. Yet less "hope from the ashes" and more concrete analysis would have countered the implication that the Urban Collaborative is a lucky aberration, rather than a universal possibility.

Murray Kempton

Our feelings about the late Murray Kempton, who was an original member of our editorial advisory board, were summarized in the headline and subhead that we gave David Halberstam's review of Kempton's most recent book: "The Real Founder of the New Journalism -- Tom Wolfe may be more famous, but it was Murray Kempton, starting in the '50s, who made reporting funnier and smarter." For me he was an oasis in the journalistic desert of that time, funny when most columnists thought they had to be solemn, stylistically original when everyone tried to write like Walter Lippmann, and a real reporter in an era when most pundits thought a phone conversation or a lunch with a prominent source represented the outer limit of investigative zeal.
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Author:Mayo, Michael K.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1997
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