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Exceeding Expectations

October 16, 2006
By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer

NEW HAVEN -- As Katie Poynter points to a list of numbers on a blackboard, her fifth-graders know exactly what to do. In her math class, they don't just study their multiplication tables - they shout them.

"...Thirty-two, thirty-six, forty - UH-HUH! Forty-four, forty-EIGHHHHHT! ..."

Over and over, Poynter, a tall, energetic 26-year-old, makes students repeat the chant as she erases numbers, one by one, forcing students to commit the list to memory. Their lively shouts echo down the hallways at Elm City College Preparatory School, an experimental charter school that is making noise of its own by posting big academic gains among some of the state's poorest children.

On this year's Connecticut Mastery Test, the school's most striking results came in mathematics, where 82 percent of Elm City's sixth-graders met the state goal, surpassing the performance of students in affluent suburbs such as West Hartford and Greenwich.

"Even for us, this was a new standard," said Dacia Toll, president of Achievement First, a nonprofit group running a network of six charter schools in New Haven and New York City.

Achievement First has developed promising strategies to address one of education's thorniest problems - the chronic low achievement of many poor and minority children. At Elm City, the formula includes a longer school day and school year, a relentless focus on academics, and strict attention to detail - right down to how to sit up in class.

But the heart of this unusual school is a corps of high-energy teachers, a collection of mostly young educators, many in their 20s, including several who followed unconventional paths to teaching. One, for example, once worked in a New York City theater workshop. Another studied foreign service at Georgetown University. The school's director is a former Peace Corps volunteer.

"We are a school basically built around having a great teacher in every classroom," said Toll, a Yale Law School graduate who was one of the founders of New Haven's Amistad Academy, which opened in 1999 and became the model for other Achievement First schools.

Many of the nation's schools measure - and pay - teachers based on experience and academic background, but schools such as Elm City and Amistad Academy look for other, less tangible, signs of potential, too.

"We hire for attitude," Toll said. "They have to have high expectations of themselves and be very open to feedback. ... They have to really believe in and care about the kids."

Although some of the school's teachers transferred from other public schools with traditional teaching backgrounds, others arrived with less experience and did not come through conventional education colleges.

Several, including Katie Poynter, came from Teach for America, a program that recruits some of the nation's brightest college graduates to work in poor rural and urban schools. They undergo brief, but intense, training programs. In Connecticut, they must continue working toward licensure.

Some critics have questioned Teach for America, contending it puts teachers with little experience in some of the nation's neediest and most challenging classrooms. But Toll said the recruits undergo a significant amount of additional training in the Achievement First approach and often develop into top-notch teachers.

"They have just really high expectations of themselves ... and a real commitment to closing the achievement gap," she said.

Poynter, for example, was in Uganda studying economic development during a college semester abroad when she began thinking about teaching. "I thought, I'm going to do something to make the world better," she said. "I just decided education was the best way."

She taught in the Mississippi Delta before moving to New Haven, where she was first hired to fill in at Amistad Academy for a teacher on maternity leave. She came to Elm City when the school opened two years ago. She now works as the school's academic dean, but does double duty as a fifth-grade math teacher.

In her class, Poynter runs a non-stop, rapid-fire mix of drills, quizzes and lively practice sessions such as the rousing multiplication chants. She divides lessons into precise segments, using a hand-held timer.

Nearly all of Elm City's 156 middle school students are black or Hispanic, and most are poor. They are selected by lottery. When fifth-graders first arrive at Elm City, they are an average of two years below grade level, according to Toll. That is why Poynter spends time teaching skills such as multiplication tables - something students should have learned long before fifth grade.

At Elm City, students wear uniforms and practice how to sit in class, how to face the person who is talking, how to address one another. Everybody does homework every night. Teachers test student progress every six weeks. The school preaches the merits of going to college.

"Climb the Mountain to College," one hallway sign says. College pennants cover the walls: Florida State, Duke, LSU, Purdue, Indiana.

Along with the impressive scores in math on the state mastery test, Elm City students made substantial gains in reading and writing, with two-thirds of last year's sixth-graders reaching state goals in those subjects - a rate slightly better than the statewide average and roughly twice the rate in New Haven's public schools.

"When I started at Elm City, [two years ago,] I was on a second-grade reading level," said 12-year-old Tyla Baines, who reached mastery in reading, writing and mathematics on last spring's sixth-grade test. "I just started reading a lot because you have to read here. My sixth-grade teacher, Miss Lyons - she pushed me and made me read harder books."

Public charter schools sprang up around the nation in the 1990s with mixed results. The experimental schools operate under a contract, or charter, with states or local districts and are free of many of the union and administrative rules that govern traditional public schools.

Despite the success of the Achievement First schools, the organization is unlikely to expand further in Connecticut unless the state's charter funding formula improves, according to Toll, the group's president.

Under state law, charter schools get $8,000 per pupil in state support - well below the $10,677 statewide average per pupil spending for public schools. As a result, Amistad and Elm City have had to rely in part on private donations to survive. In New York City, however, charter schools get financial support roughly equal to that of other public schools - an incentive that influenced Achievement First to open schools there.

"We encouraged them to work in New York City when we saw their results in New Haven," said Garth Harries, chief executive of the Office of New Schools in New York City's public school system. "We like their entrepreneurial spirit, their commitment to the underlying challenge."

At Elm City, teachers say that spirit infuses the school.

"Basically, it's just teamwork," said science teacher Stephaine Freeman. "We feel like a family, not just co-workers." Freeman came to Elm City this fall after five years in a public middle school in New Haven, where she said students often found different rules and different expectations from one classroom to the next.

At Elm City, she said, "the biggest adjustment [for students] are the rules we set - and that we follow through ... every single teacher in every single class."

"At first," said seventh-grader Sakirah Epps, "it feels like they're picking on you. ... When you get used to it, it's like a piece of cake."

Sakirah's classmate Kevin Suggs said that studying subjects such as algebra "makes me feel smart." Before coming to Elm City, he said, "I didn't know algebra existed." Teachers such as Poynter have helped him understand math, he said.

"She's strict, but she, like, has fun with the kids," he said of Poynter, who was his fifth- and sixth-grade math teacher. But, he added, "She doesn't cross the line between having too much fun and not learning a lot."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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