Academic Rigor Is Focus in Conn.

Principal Dacia Toll oversees New Haven's Amistad Academy, where students  --  and parents  --  sign contracts to abide by the campus's core values.
Principal Dacia Toll oversees New Haven's Amistad Academy, where students -- and parents -- sign contracts to abide by the campus's core values. (By Michael Dobbs -- The Washington Post)
By Michael Dobbs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 14, 2005

NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- When Amistad Academy students showed interest in a suggestive rap song, their teachers did not ban the music. Instead, they helped the students rewrite the lyrics to emphasize a very different message: "We like big books, and we cannot lie."

Putting a positive twist on the less savory aspects of youth culture is one of the unlikely techniques that have helped propel the New Haven public charter school to the forefront of a nationwide drive to close the "achievement gap" that separates minority students from white counterparts. The school's methods have been so successful that Amistad, whose student population is 97 percent black and Hispanic, is one of the highest-performing middle schools in Connecticut.

Founded in 1999 by Yale law students who wanted to tackle what principal Dacia Toll describes as "the number one civil rights issue in the nation," Amistad is attempting to replicate its success elsewhere. Over the past year, Amistad has spawned a new elementary school and middle school in New Haven, will open three campuses in New York City this fall and plans two more in 2006.

Amistad is part an informal network of "no excuses" schools challenging the notion that black and Hispanic students are doomed to perform at a lower level than their white and Asian American counterparts. Its educational philosophy is similar to that of the KIPP, or the Knowledge is Power Program, which now has more than 40 schools nationwide, including two in the District.

Key to the Amistad formula, teachers and students say, is an obsessive attention to detail and a highly regulated system of reward and punishment that keeps the 275 pupils focused on improving their academic performance. Students and parents are required to sign contracts promising to live up to school standards on dress, attendance and homework completion, as well as core values such as respect and hard work.

The school day begins with a rally known as "morning circle" at which students who have fallen short in one way or another are required to formally apologize to the rest of the school. Throughout the day, students are monitored relentlessly for minor disciplinary infractions that would pass unnoticed in most schools -- an untied shoelace or a grimace at a teacher.

"We fight the small battles so we don't have to fight the big ones," said Doug McCurry, the superintendent of Achievement First, a nonprofit organization established to supervise Amistad's expansion. "If you can stop them rolling their eyes at you, they are not going to curse at you."

McCurry compares the school's educational philosophy to the "zero tolerance" approach that has resulted in cleaner subway systems in New York and Washington. A favorite Amistad slogan is: "We sweat the small stuff."

The emphasis on discipline is combined with high academic expectations. All eighth-graders study algebra, and seventh-graders tackle works by Shakespeare and Toni Morrison.

Classroom walls are decorated with slogans such as "Education is Freedom," "Be a Star" and "Read, baby, read." All the students are dressed in blue shirts and tan trousers, except for one who has lost the "privilege" of wearing a standard Amistad shirt, and is wearing a white shirt instead.

"It's like real life," Toll said of the reward-and-punishment system. "Any society, including a street gang, provides its members with status symbols. In many cases, what is getting valued is drugs, sex and money. We have to control what is valued in society. To get these kids to learn, we have to get them to believe that it is cool to do well in school."

Amistad, Toll explains, is trying to turn the values of the street upside down. The school teaches students that it is "cool" to do your homework, "uncool" to be a bully.

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