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Jewish World Review June 12, 2001 / 22 Sivan, 5761

Nat Hentoff

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Consumer Reports

How to make public
schools work -- I'VE been visiting and writing about schools for some 40 years. Once in a while, I find someone who has reinvented the wheel and discovered how to get all children to learn, regardless of the income or education of their parents, and regardless of whether the children have only one parent at home.

A current reinventor of the wheel of learning is Dr. Gregory Hodge, the principal of the Frederick Douglass Academy in central Harlem, a predominantly black and Hispanic area of New York City.

I was not surprised when I read a story about his school earlier this year in The New York Times because I once wrote a book -- "Does Anybody Give a Damn: Nat Hentoff on Education" (Knopf, 1977) -- about schools in "disadvantaged" neighborhoods that also expected all of their students to learn. And they did learn.

Of the 1,100 students at the Frederick Douglass Academy, a public school, 80 percent are black and 19 percent are Hispanic. Some come from homes far below the poverty line. In a few of those homes, one or both parents are drug addicts. Seventy-two percent of the students are eligible for free lunch.

The dropout rate is 0.3 percent. If a student doesn't show up at a tutoring session, his teacher calls his mother, father, or other caregiver. Every student is expected to go to college. As The New York Times reported, "In June of last year, 114 students graduated and 113 attended colleges, some going to Ivy League or comparable schools." The 114th student was accepted by the Naval Academy.

During the Great Depression, I went to a similar public school. All of us were expected to go to college. Most of us were poor. At the Boston Latin School, as at the Frederick Douglas Academy, there was firm, but not abusive, discipline. And we had three hours of homework a night. There were no excuses for not turning in the work. At the Frederick Douglass Academy, the students have four hours of homework a night. The students there take Japanese and Latin in middle school and can switch to French or Spanish in high school. At Boston Latin, we had to take Latin and Greek as well as American history. The kids at Frederick Douglass can take advanced placement courses not only in American history, but also in calculus and physics. I flunked beginning physics.

Moreover, the students at Frederick Douglass mentor elementary-school children at the public school next door. "The idea," Dr. Hodge told The New York Times, "is to show students that they have responsibilities to the Harlem community. And they are expected to be leaders and help Harlem grow."

Near Boston Latin Schools, there were elementary school kids who, without mentoring, didn't have much of a chance to believe that they could someday go to college. But our Boston Latin principal didn't send us out to be part of a larger responsibility.

So how come Frederick Douglass Academy does what a public school is supposed to do -- lift all boats? The principal, who reads every one of the 1,100 report cards, demands that his teachers expect each child to learn. The school works, he says, because it has committed teachers. "They come in early and stay late. The teachers go with them to colleges. Some have gone in their own pockets for supplies. ... Teachers here will do everything they can to make sure kids are successful."

A senior who had been in a high school outside New York City explained the success of the school -- and his own success there -- succinctly: "They want you to learn here."

I have been in schools at which principals are seldom seen because they don't want to take responsibility for problems that arise. And I know teachers who have enabled kids to learn in their classrooms, but worry about sending the students on to teachers who are convinced that children from mean streets and homes without books can learn only so much.

And I remember a president named Clinton who spent a lot of time focusing on affirmative action to get minority kids into college. For the most part, he ignored the students who never get close to going to college because of principals, teachers and school boards who do not expect all kids to learn, and so do not demand that they do.

At a New York City school board meeting years ago, I heard a black parent accuse the silent officials: "When you fail, when everybody fails my child, what happens? Nothing. Nobody gets fired. Nothing happens to nobody, except my child."

He was torn between grief and rage. So are many American parents these days. At the Frederick Douglass Academy, parents see their children grow in every way. And it is a public school.

JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Amendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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© 2001, NEA