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Opinion writer

Ginn Academy resembles no urban public school I’ve ever visited: all-male, a uniform of dress shirt and tie, the Socratic method in classrooms. School spirit seems imported from a prep school; discipline, from a playing field; aspiration, from a church pew. Students file in to their weekly assembly to the spiritual song “You’re Just Right for a Miracle.” One gives a public reading of an essay about his mother: “She sees my potential. She sees what others can’t.” Inspirational speakers often stop by; a West Point graduate from the neighborhood recently left a strong impression.

Students are urged to be “Ginn men.” It is an ideal with the strong imprint of a particular man, Ted Ginn, the high school football coach who was seized with the initial vision for the academy. While possessing few academic qualifications, Coach Ginn has a credential often lacking in prison-like, urban public schools: a passionate belief in the potential of at-risk children. “You can’t have people around young people who don’t love kids,” he says. “If you don’t have love, you don’t have nothing.” Love creates a child’s internal desire to meet external expectations.

It is impressive that the Cleveland public school system — both the administration and the powerful education union — supports Ginn and other efforts at shaping student character in more traditional school settings. Some of this attitude reflects the lingering shock of an event at a different Cleveland school in 2007, in which a suspended student shot two children and two teachers before turning the gun on himself. It was both a horror and a demonstration that the inner lives of students are directly relevant to the educational task.

As usual, educators find it necessary to surround good ideas with an impenetrable hedge of jargon. These efforts are generally known as SEL — social and emotional learning. In Cleveland, they talk of “Humanware” — as though humans like their hopes and dreams to be compared to the latest OS update.

But the basic idea is sound and should be familiar to anyone who has read cultural anthropology or changed diapers. From the very earliest age, children need one adult — preferably more — who believes in them utterly. And that belief is expressed in a series of social and moral expectations. (At Ginn, for example, the boys must learn to iron a dress shirt, a ritual reinforcement of the fact that there are rules for everyone.) The early connection between love and rules creates behaviors — sitting still, keeping your hands to yourself, focusing, respecting others, deferring gratification — that make the educational task possible.

This raises one of the main challenges for school districts such as Cleveland’s. For a variety of reasons, many students arriving at kindergarten are already lagging in the social and emotional tools of learning. “Some,” one educator told me, “essentially have PTSD. They are in defensive mode every day. They have nothing to eat. Their parents are overwhelmed.”

Republicans tend to ignore the urgency of this cultural challenge. It is not enough to blame parents (who are often deeply disadvantaged) or to call on charities to fill the mentoring gap (since the scale of the need is too large for volunteerism).

Democrats tend to underestimate the complexity of the cultural challenge. This gap of adult commitment and involvement will not be filled simply by extending schooling downward by a year to cover 4-year-olds. Even the best early-childhood education programs seem to have fleeting or marginal effects unless they are followed (and preceded) by complementary efforts. Programs such as the Nurse-Family Partnership — in which nurses visit first-time, low-income mothers to provide information on nutrition and parenting — may be a more focused (and cost-effective) way to increase the school readiness of at-risk kids.

The most innovative part of the Ginn approach is the use of “life coaches” — one for every 25 boys — who are mentors from the community, embedded in classrooms and available 24 hours a day. “You learn everything you can about the child,” one life coach said, “if they have a single parent, if they need extra cereal in the morning, who is having a bad day. If you catch it early, you’ve changed the course of his day — and maybe not just his day. Who knows what might be his choice on that day?”

Education is the cumulative result of such choices. And Ginn provides a vivid expression of the educational task: Iron your shirt and get “right for a miracle.”

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