July 13, 2020

A black school that does well, imagine that

At the risk of setting off another festival of disbelief amongst the debunkers of schools that work for black people, here’s a little story about a school where black students rock.

What you should know about Madison Preparatory Academy in Baton Rouge is that it runs on love. You feel it from the moment you walk in. The grounds are tidy. People wear broad smiles. The hospitality is incredible. Students greet visitors as if the campus is theirs and they’re happy to have guests.

If you peak in classrooms you see engaged students. Their eyes are lit and their faces radiating.

I wasn’t sure what to expect given the demographics and terrain. The school is in a community that has more crime than 92% of American communities. That statistic was made real with a recent shooting across the street that sent the school into lockdown. Madison’s website says the area has “astounding rates of adult illiteracy, teenage pregnancy on the rise and high school dropout rates”

Madison is nearly 100% black.  Most students (83%) are “economically disadvantaged.” What does that tell you? Those two things (being black and poor) are supposed to be fatal for a school.

But not here.

U.S. News and World Reports lists Madison as one of best high schools in the country.

91% of the students are proficient in English and 95% are proficient in Algebra. 98% of their graduates were accepted to college last year. 1% joined the military.

If you ask how they do it you’ll learn that their success is neither magic, nor an accident.

Success by design

As an education activist and writer I’m accustomed to the shrill voices of school reform that make an art of hasty generalizations. The world looks very different when you sit down with actual educators who are energized about their work and don’t wear victim status like a lapel pin.

One of the four teachers I met with told me twice with pride that Madison is a “charter-by-design.” That means they were not a turnaround or replacement for a failing school like many Louisiana charters, but a deliberately built school designed for the students they intended to serve from day one.

It’s a small school with under 400 students and a small staff. Class sizes are small too. Things are under control. And, the teachers are an inspirational mix. Some are seasoned veterans from district and charter schools. Some are newer, from traditional and non-traditional teacher preparation programs. All of them lively with an easy charm and comfortable rapport with their students.

I sat in the British literature classroom and talked for a couple of hours with them about the the main factors for their success.

They spoke with enthusiasm and humility, like technicians detailing complex pedagogical problems (e.g. Common Core math sent some of them for a loop, but they figured it out as a team).

As they talked I kept listening for the proverbial silver bullet responsible for their students doing well. Was it the web-based technology they used to extend the classroom to their students’ homes? Was it some new off-the-shelf reading product or expensive professional development?

They had all of that, but none of it rated highly enough with them to be considered the thing.

In the end I was disappointed to find that most of the factors that explain their success are boring (in a good way).

Their principal is a strong, trusting, collaborative leader with a shared vision for a coherent, well-rounded education of students. They value literature, technology, sports, and fun.

Teachers in this school run things. They’re real partners in the operation of the school and they have a real voice in determining what and how they teach.

One teacher who came from the neighboring district said she felt “liberated” when she came to Madison and was treated like a professional.  Unlike the district schools there isn’t all the top-down over-management, prescription, and teacher-proofing of the learning process.  There are no pacing guides or scripted plans at Madison. Teachers teach, students learn – there’s your miracle. That’s the luxury you have when your staff has been carefully, and thoughtfully, hired.

One question often comes to mind for me when talking to education leaders: “would you put your own kid in your school.”?

For Madison’s charter network CEO the answer is yes. He has his own children enrolled in the school, as do some of the teachers. That adds to staff investment in high expectations for safety, culture, achievement, and extracurriculars (they have one of the best high school basketball teams in Louisiana).

Toward the end of our conversation I said “you know, we’ve talked for a while and you all have never once mentioned poverty or problems caused by your student’s home lives.”

They weren’t having it.

Their eyes and smiles gently laughed me off.

One of them said “I can’t expect less of them because of that. The state doesn’t expect less, so I won’t either.”

That filled my heart a balloon.

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