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Great Little Schools Without a Name

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 18, 2008 10:55 AM

For several years, I have been writing about an assortment of small inner-city and rural schools that are, I think, the most encouraging development in American public education in decades. Many of them are part of charter school groups, such as Achievement First, Aspire, Edison, Green Dot, IDEA, Imagine, Noble Street, Uncommon, YES and, the most notable in my view, KIPP. They have different names, different leaders and different slogans, but share a commitment to placing low-income children in small, intense learning environments, often with longer school days and a strong focus on test results.

I have tried to think up a catchy name for them. They comprise a single, definable species, if you can use that word for schools. Their leaders and teachers are friendly with each other. They trade ideas and staff and training methods and fundraising approaches. At educational conferences, they are often spoken of as one movement.

Yet no good name for them has occurred to me yet.

For awhile I figured that didn't matter. These schools are raising student achievement to new heights without a cool, overarching label. Maybe they don't need one. But I changed my mind about that after reading David Whitman's splendid new book about these schools, "Sweating the Small Stuff."

Whitman is a terrific reporter whose 365-page paperback, published by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, provides a lively, readable and exhaustive account of this fast-growing phenomenon. Whitman focuses on six schools that represent different forms of this approach--the American Indian Public Charter School in Oakland, Calif.; the Amistad Academy in New Haven, Conn.; the Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago; the KIPP Academy in New York's South Bronx; the District's SEED Public Charter School and the University Park Campus School in Worcester, Mass. The profiles of the schools and their founders are well-written. Whitman's analysis of what has made them work is thoughtful and clear.

My problem is this: I hate his subtitle, "Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism." And I like his decision to refer to this group as "the paternalistic schools" even less.

He makes a legitimate, if unpersuasive, case for his choice. He reaches back into the dark ages of paternalistic education, like the Indian boarding school crusade that yanked children out of their homes and forced on them the blessings of the white man's culture. He argues that this alleged new paternalism is different. He says it is a well-considered attempt to change the culture of disadvantaged children, embraced by their community leaders and their families, and long overdue. It may be that the controversial name will mean big sales for the book, particularly at education schools where students and professors love to argue about nomenclature. They may snap up copies to inspire some gut-busting arguments in the common room after dinner.

But calling these creative, productive and stimulating schools "paternalistic" still leaves me cold. As Whitman admits, the school founders don't think his adjective fits either. Anyone who reads the book carefully will see what Whitman is driving at, but many people will just look at the subtitle and decide that the popular reading of "paternalistic" -- the clumsy and often harmful doings of stiff-necked dads -- applies to these schools, when the truth is quite different. Among other things, the label makes these inner-city successes sound like a guy thing, when in fact many of their principals and most of their teachers are women.

Maybe there was a time when paternalistic was a useful term with no pejorative spin, but now it carries one of the heaviest loads of negativity I can imagine. This convinces me it is time to get these great schools a label they deserve.

For that I need your help. Suggest some better names. Please. And quickly. The New Paternalism is the formulation of an author friendly to these educators' efforts. Some participants in the great debate over improving education don't like what these schools are doing. They may embrace the paternalistic label--a smart move on their part--or come up with something even worse.

I don't care if your suggestions are negative, positive or neutral. Whitman is obviously more fond of his label than I am, and maybe he is right to be. Paternalistic may prove to be popular with everyone, and I will be dismissed as an old crank. But I think there must be a descriptive phrase that will give parents a better sense of these schools and move the conversation forward without a lot of distracting whining, like mine, about the name.

There have been other suggestions. I have tried calling this group "the tough little schools," but that has gone nowhere. Leo Linbeck III, a Houston business executive and management professor who advises KIPP, calls them the PHILO schools, for public high-impact low-income open-enrollment group. That may be too technical.

Here are some other names I made up, mostly out of desperation: tough-love schools, teacher-driven schools, challenge schools, strong-principal schools, achievement-focus schools. In his book, Whitman occasionally calls them the no-excuses school, a reference to Samuel Casey Carter's 2001 book, "No Excuses: Lessons from 21 High-Performing, High-Poverty Schools." I suppose we could use Carter's subtitle and call them the HPHP schools, or the HP squared schools. My wife, an editor expert in turning complex thoughts into short headlines, had an idea I like: high-intensity schools.

Although I don't think it is such a hot name either, maternalistic schools works better for me than paternalistic. The ones I have looked at energetically recruit and train teachers who will give their small campuses a family feeling, with firm rules for behavior but warmth and respect for each child, more Meryl Streep than Robert De Niro, more Laura Bush than George Patton.

I will reveal the best entries in this name-the-schools contest in a future column. Labels have power. Don't forget "A Boy Named Sue," the Shel Silverstein song made famous by Johnny Cash. The boy's father gave him the name with perverse, if well-meant, intentions to make him such a magnet for abuse that he would grow up strong. Okay, it worked, the singer admits, and maybe Whitman's label for our best low-income schools is similarly useful, in its way. But remember the song's last line:

"And if I ever have a son, I think I'm gonna name him . . .

"Bill or George! Anything but Sue! I still hate that name!"

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