READING Robert Benjamin's Making Schools Work brought back memories of a visit I made last year to an integrated junior high school in Cleveland's inner city.
Cleveland's school system was a disaster area hit by teachers' strikes, near bankruptcy, a busing controversy and an immobilized school board. But the mood in this school didn't reflect any of this. The desegration of the school had gone ahead without incident a few months earlier, and teacher morale seemed remarkably high.
People were keeping their sense of humor. A sign in a remedial reading class read, "It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the Air Force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber!"
It isn't often you hear teachers blame the schools for the problems of kids, but you did in this school. "The major factor in poor reading is the failure of schools," a remedial teacher told me. "I don't think it's the home. Most kids come here believing they read adequately when they don't. Somewhere along the line somebody has done a lot of lying to these kids."
And then there was the infectious energy, enthusiasm and seriousness of purpose of an eighth-grade science teacher, a transplanted New Yorker who said he found his niche in life in this school in the heart of Cleveland's ghetto.
"I've found my home," said this teacher, whom the principal and other teachers had singled out as outstanding. "I love Central. I love teaching science. And I love teaching integrated classes."
It didn't take any flash of pedagogical insight to come to the conclusion that what made Central different from other schools in Cleveland was a principal and a few good teachers. As the saying goes, "methods don't teach kids, people do." And after you get beyond all the pedagogy, the fads, and the million-dollar studies financed by the National Institute of Education, often as not it's the character and determination of a few principals and teachers that decide whether a school works or not.
And this, I think, is also the message of Robert Benjamin's painstakingly reported examination of a handful of low-income elementary schools that are successful. Benjamin looks in detail -- almost too much detail -- at some of the methods that are getting results. He describes the strict "back to basics" approach at the Beasley Academic Center, a magnet school in Chicago. He explains "mastery learning," the system that lets kids learn at their own pace instead of using the arbitrary time limits and deadlines imposed by most schools. He gives us a schools' eye view of DISTAR, a commercial instruction program which uses a minutely sequenced, highly structured series of drills to teach children to read.
But always, when all is said and done, there seems to be a strong-willed personality (like Alice Blair at Beasley) behind the success stories. Blair made a pitch with the school board for freedom in hiring teachers and in accepting students. And anyone with the force of personality to get the Chicago Board to accept something a little different seems almost predestined to pull off the experiment itself.
Benjamin acknowledges this himself in his chapter on Garrison School in the South Bronx, which he entitles, "The Principal Is Key."
The principal is Carol Russo, who "won't let the ghetto take over."
Benjamin describes her as an 18-hours-a-day workaholic who not only deals with teachers and parents but also with the health department, the welfare department, the police and the community. And one gets the idea that in the coming era of federal budget cuts and squeezed budgets, Russo is going to manage while other principals give up and blame Washington or the local school board.
It's the same with Jim Enochs, the head of curriculum and instruction for the public schools in Modesto, California. His credo is that "the development of responsible adults is a task requiring community involvement. It cannot be left solely to the public schools." Enochs has stuck by this credo, putting the responsibility back on the parents and the community time and again when the tendency has been to blame the schools.
There's something old-fashioned about his approach, and it works. What's more Modesto's results should cause us all to rejoice. For as Benjamin says, Modesto suggests "that the path to good schools is not all that different whether it's in the South Bronx, the south side of Chicago or the West Coast." All it takes is good people.