The Horace Mann School

By , Jim Bencivenga is the Monitor's education editor.

OK, so this isn't where Archie Bunker's kid went to school. With an annual tuition of $6,720, it's not PS 89 in the Bronx, either. But the standards of academic excellence at Horace Mann School and the methods by which they're attained hold lessons for public high schools throughout the United States.

Much of what Horace Mann - a private, nonsectarian day school in the Bronx - does could be adopted by any high school, given the commitment to excellence. It has high standards of achievement (out of a senior class of 146 last year, 112 received advanced-placement credit, and everyone goes to college); a very low teacher-student ratio (at most 15 to 1 in English, math, and history), with teachers having no more than four classes a day; a comprehensive program of physical education and athletics, including both team and individual sports; a full choice of extracurricular activities, with an emphasis on the arts; and a focus on ethical and moral values, because it's assumed the students will become leaders in society.

Horace Mann was founded in 1887 as an adjunct of Teachers College, Columbia University, and each of the school's academic disciplines has a written philosophy and statement of purpose. The minimum course requirements read like the honors program at some schools: mathematics through intermediate algebra and trigonometry; biology plus one major course in a laboratory science; four years of English, with the seminar format the rule in junior and senior years; and writing, writing, and more writing.

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What brings a student to Horace Mann?

''Primarily parents,'' says R. Inslee Clark Jr., president of the school, who goes by the nickname ''Ink.'' ''When we see parents at admissions they usually have two agendas: one, 'I have to get my kid in' - they've already made up their mind and they know the value of the education we offer; two, 'Why take such a radical step as private school?' ''

It's clear that parents ''want certain values'' when they come here, Mr. Inslee says. Included in the school's effort to meet this demand, he explains, is the exploration of the works of deeply moral and spiritual thinkers. It is not a ''forced ethical approach,'' he says.

''We speak very openly about the development of young adults, with the subject matter to get at these deeper values of life,'' he says. He uses a sports analogy: ''We're highly competitive, there's no getting around that. . . . Our students are extremely conscious of academic honors and getting in the right schools (half of last year's graduating class was accepted by one of the eight Ivy League colleges). But as administrators, you're on the bench, and you're ready when a kid makes an error and you can go in and help.''

After three days of observation at Horace Mann (including teaching two classes in English), what stands out for this reporter is the high level of scholarship expected of students by faculty and the purposefulness that students show in meeting this expectation. When the 11th-grade poetry class of headmaster Michael Lacopo is assigned Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem ''Ulysses,'' Mr. Lacopo can correctly assume that all of the students present have read Homer's ''Odyssey'' (in translation). A common, core curriculum is rich in the classics and academically demanding.

What is also apparent as one walks through the crowded halls at Horace Mann is that the school is set up to let teachers teach.

Theodore Sizer, author of ''Horace's Compromise'' (a book spawned by the recent flood of reports and studies on education reform), says such high-quality teaching is the sine qua non of an effective school. For Dr. Sizer, the teacher is the crucial member of the triad for successful learning - a teacher, a student, and a subject to be engaged. All the curriculum coordinators, guidance counselors, secretarial support staff, and central office planning in the world won't count for much if the teachers aren't talented. Horace Mann focuses on that fact. Keeping the support staff lean helps keep the teacher-to-student ratio low. There is no great secret in this. It is a conscious priority.

Tek Lin has been teaching English here for 31 years. To students at Horace Mann his classroom is holy ground. Yet, on first meeting, Mr. Lin is humble enough to say that even mediocre teachers would do well at Horace Mann, given the caliber of the students. In his three decades at the school, Lin has not missed a single day for illness.

He insists students ''learn traditional English grammar in the purest form possible.'' This is why he so much enjoys teaching the Bible as literature. For Lin, a Taoist, you ''can't really capture knowledge about the English language without reading the King James Version.''

His work in the classroom is typical of the kind of inspired teaching that prompted one student here to say, ''If you were to come in without your homework done, or an assignment read, the teacher would just be so hurt, so disappointed that you didn't do your part, you'd feel terrible.''

''My teachers are my friends,'' says senior Nicki Parisier. ''Dr. Stein - when she teaches physics, it is like a religious experience . . . ,'' like a gift to her students. (Two out of 3 students elect physics before graduating.)

Jonathan Chinn, another senior, finds the variety of instructional styles at Horace Mann far more enriching than the teaching he experienced in his native England, where he attended St. Paul's School, a comparably elite, private school. One of the key differences, he notes, is that ''I have had exposure to eager, bright, younger teachers at Horace Mann.'' He feels the elite schools in England ''won't take the risk and have the number of younger teachers that you do here.'' Young Mr. Chinn, conversant with the strategy of Hannibal, the Carthaginian general who crossed the Alps with elephants because the Roman fleet had him bottled up in Gaul, is the kind of student most high school history teachers only dream of. But if there is a commitment among teachers here to see students through to success, there is also intense pressure on students to succeed. A chorus of students from one junior English class testified to that. ''We're not just supposed to get into college here, we're to get into the right college,'' they say. Getting a combined Scholastic Aptitude Test score lower than 1,350 can be seen as a stigma, says one junior.

The first semester of the senior year, when students are waiting to hear about early college acceptance, can be the most difficult, says Nicki Parisier. But then for her and many of her classmates, senior year is almost totally devoted to college-level work anyway. She takes three advanced-placement courses.

Teaching students to deal with competitive pressure in a positive way is one of the school's main responsibilities, says Headmaster Lacopo.

The 922 students in Grades 7 to 12 are broken into three groups, Grades 7-8, 9-10, and 11-12. Disciplinary matters within each group are handled by a division head. Each student has a faculty adviser. Seventh- and eighth-graders are assigned one, and parents of seventh-graders required to meet weekly with the adviser. In Grades 9 through 12 students select their own adviser.

For ninth-graders, the year's first 10 weeks in English are spent entirely on writing. Sitting in Bill McCutcheon's class of 12 students, it is obvious no one is going to slip through the cracks. Every paper written will be read, corrected , and returned in short order.

According to a recent report by the US Census Bureau, private high school students do twice as much homework as those in public schools, with secondary students in private schools averaging 14.2 hours a week on homework, compared with 6.5 hours for public school students. Students here greet those figures with a ''So what's news about that?''

When students want a course - for example, political philosophy - they request it, and chances are it will be introduced within the year. (The campus no-smoking rule, incidentally, was put in by the students.) And then there is the city - New York, perhaps the greatest public art gallery and history museum in the world. The right mix of creative teachers and willing students makes it the ''big apple'' of field trips.

Mr. Lacopo shares a trade secret in recruiting excellent teachers. He notes that the baby-boom generation is aging. Many of that generation's would-be academics went to graduate school with hopes of teaching at the university level , completed their PhDs, and taught in a tenure track for six years. (On most campuses, tenure is usually awarded after six years of successful teaching, combined with published scholarship in a professor's specialty.)

But with declining numbers of college-age Americans and increased costs, many campuses are unwilling or unable to give tenure to young faculty. It's called ''tenure crunch.'' For Lacopo it provides the best place to look for excellent teachers. John Santore teaches European history to advanced-placement students at Horace Mann. He ran up against tenure crunch at Columbia University. ''This is an important place for me,'' he says. ''I didn't have to abandon teaching.'' Rather than face the intellectual exile of history 101 at ''Podunk'' community college, Dr. Santore responded to Lacopo's point that ''You'll be teaching the same caliber of students as at Princeton and Yale, only a couple of years earlier.'' Salaries at Horace Mann are ''comparable to assistant professors with PhDs,'' Santore says. ''I lecture and use my notes as if I were in college. I have time for my own research, which is important to me.'' But every bit as important to him is the fact that ''I don't have an apathetic student. Even in the best colleges, in survey courses, you have some taking the course because it is a requirement.''

In the final analysis, responsibility for any student's success rests with the student, says Mr. Lin. Few would disagree with that. Simply going to Horace Mann, or any school, is no guarantee of admission to an Ivy League college. ''You can hire chemists, you can hire physicists, but you can't hire someone to do your thinking for you,'' the English teacher says, eyes open and expressive.

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