When great expectations pay off
``My kids are really something,'' says Vanessa Beverly, a teacher at the all-black Marcus Garvey School in Los Angeles. ``I've been teaching them geometry and algebra. They can calculate the circumference of a circle using pi - that's pretty good for fourth-graders. And some of them skipped into fourth grade from the second grade. In fact, we've been using sixth-grade books, and I've recently started using 10th-grade algebra books.'' Marcus Garvey is a private school with an all-black faculty and more than 300 children from preschool through junior high. As we talk, Ms. Beverly shines with enthusiasm for her work and pride in her students. Her fourth-graders have no literacy problems, which is not likely true in the local public school. ``All the reading books I use are sixth-grade level and above,'' she says. ``I have some students reading on a college level.'' Marcus Garvey reaches too few pupils
Her students appear to be highly motivated toward prestigious careers, too. Ms. Beverly has aspiring doctors, lawyers, anthropologists, and geologists in her class. And it seems likely that many will achieve these goals.
The only trouble with the Marcus Garvey School is that it is not reaching more of the children who need it most - the poorest black children in Los Angeles. About 20 percent of the students are on scholarship. The rest pay tuition that varies from $60 to $64 a week.
The students are mostly middle class. Some of their parents are professionals. Others ``have to make sacrifices to send their children here,'' says principal Anyim Palmer.
What makes the Garvey School so good?
Primarily, it's a palpable quality of caring and involvement on the part of the teachers - a quality too often missing in public schools that serve black children.
In public elementary and junior high schools visited by the Monitor, many children - sometimes all those not sitting in the front row - were daydreaming, or talking their way through classes. Often teachers simply did not take the time or make the effort to ensure that children understood one point before moving on to the next. A sense of disconnectedness, confusion, frustration, and boredom was evident. Children are often conditioned by their teachers to guess at answers rather than to use the deductive and inductive reasoning processes that reflect true learning. A ``multiple choice'' mentality, devoid of real understanding, rules.
Not all inner-city public schools are bad, however. In every city there are examples of well-staffed, well-maintained, and well-equipped schools where children are taught carefully and where imaginative and effective methods are used.
At one elementary school in Harlem, an innovative program called the Writing Process helps first- and second-graders read and write by encouraging them to produce their own ``books'' of original stories.
Each class maintains a ``library'' where children can borrow and read one another's books as well as a plentiful and well-thumbed stock of standard children's literature.
Children learn best when teachers are confident of their abilities. Critics of the public school system contend that teachers often have low expectations of their low-income and minority students. Such low expectations shape the behavior of teachers toward these students, and thus become self-fulfilling. Steven Raudenbush, an instructor and researcher at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, asserts, ``Expectancy as a belief or prediction of children's success or failure has a real effect on how well they do.'' The effects of `institutional racism'
Joan First, executive director of the National Coalition of Advocates for Students, goes as far as to label this attitude of teachers toward their minority students ``institutional racism.''
``Schools often pigeonhole children at very early ages into tracks with various expectation levels attached to them,'' Ms. First says.
``Minority kids pick up on the low expectations often placed on them through those tracks and they come out the other end functionally illiterate - except for a few - or functioning way below where they should be. Or they simply get discouraged and drop out,'' she says.
The phenomenon of negative expectations for black students, and a determination to reverse it, was what prompted Anyim Palmer to found the Garvey School 13 years ago. He had worked for many years in the public school system, first as a teacher, then an administrator.
``When I was an administrator, teachers would tell me, `Why try to teach these kids? They can't learn,''' Mr. Palmer recalls. ``Once a science teacher said that he was actually telling kids not to bother trying to learn. He thought if he taught them science it would be too much for their nervous systems. He said, `Hey, the kids are happy, I give them all A's.''' Kids need a `massive love'
``As a child I went to a segregated school in Texas - this was before the days of integration,'' Palmer says. ``Our school was ragged - when it rained, it would rain inside the building. Few of my teachers had teaching credentials. But they had a massive love for us. It was scary, they loved us so much. The result was that most of us went on to college.''
For a teacher, this kind of ``massive love'' is manifested in a belief that every child can learn and in the expectation that their students will meet high standards. Whatever else schools offer, these qualities are essential if real education is to take place. This commitment makes itself felt in many educational contexts, including efforts by individuals working outside the schools.
Kent Amos is a highly successful black businessman. He was a senior executive with the Xerox Corporation for 15 years and now heads his own consulting firm. Six years ago, he began transforming the dining room of his elegant home in an exclusive Washington suburb into a study hall for high school students who go to the same inner-city school he attended.
Mr. Amos opens his home every day after school (and whenever any of his ``family'' of students need him) to provide tutoring, financial help, and general fatherly support to a total of more than 40 young people.
Of these, more than half have already entered college, and all plan to go. Before they met Amos, most of them had never dreamed of it. Sharing a sense of values
``It started when the kids from my second marriage began bringing their friends home from school,'' says Amos. ``Kids who come into my house are treated like family. When it's time to do homework, they do homework. They simply follow the rules of the house.''
``I try to share with them a clear, unequivocal sense of values,'' he says. ``I believe in the work ethic, and I let them know that. I believe in service to one's community. And I believe in being totally consistent in the love and support I give them. When I say I'm going to do something, I do it. And I expect the same commitment from them.''
Amos's high expectations have paid off.
One of the first students he helped is Darryl Webster, a young man from a typically ``bad'' inner-city community who just graduated from George Washington University, where he spent his last semester on the dean's list.
``If I'd never met Mr. Amos, I probably would have very little ambition,'' Darryl says. ``I wouldn't have any goal in life, and I wouldn't believe in myself as much as I should.''
``When I first went to school, I hated to study,'' he recalls. ``I cut classes and everything. I used to look at the library and say, `Library? Are you kidding me?' Now I go to the library and I study for hours. Before, I couldn't study for five minutes without wanting to look at TV or run outside and break into cars - all types of crazy stuff.''
Another boy, Derek, feels the same way: ``Before I met Mr. Amos, I never had as much attention as he gives me. If it weren't for him, I'd probably be getting into something real terrible. I know I wouldn't have finished school. I probably would have dropped out like my friends did.''