Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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December 8, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

OUR SCHOOL....What with Christmas the holiday season approaching, I figure I should blog about the books I'm reading these days. Plenty of good gift ideas there!

My latest is Our School, by Joanne Jacobs, a former education columnist for the San Jose Mercury News and currently a freelance writer and education blogger. It's the story of Downtown College Prep, a charter school that started up in San Jose five years ago with the specific mission of attracting kids who were getting lousy grades and putting them on track for college careers. DCP's goal was for every one of its students to go on to a four-year college.

About the book itself, I had a mixed reaction. Its biggest problem is its tone: Jacobs is obviously both a fan of charter schools as well as a personal booster of DCP, and because of that the book suffers from an "authorized biography" flavor that it never quite shakes. Warts and all, far from hurting DCP's case, would probably have made its story both better and richer.

At the same time, though, I was sorry to see the book end. In fact, I think it could easily have been twice the length it was. I was left wishing for an even deeper look at some of the students and their families as well as a deeper discussion of charter schools in general and how effective they are.

Still, any book that you're sorry to see end obviously has something going for it, and Our School does. In particular, it really is an inspiring story that features some pretty inspiring people. DCP recruits its students, which makes it impossible to say whether its student body is representative of low income kids in general, but it almost doesn't matter. Recruited or not, the mostly Hispanic kids DCP gets really are the dregs: they've all got low grades (Ds and Fs), nonexistent motivation, no role models, and no vision for their own futures. Virtually the only thing they have going for them is that someone has managed to talk them into giving DCP a try.

That's not much, but DCP makes it enough through its formula of small classes, long class days, daily homework, constant nagging, and lots of personal attention. Out of its original class of 102 ninth graders, 54 graduated in 2004 and every single one of them went on to a four-year college. Obviously the DCP formula didn't work for the ones who left during that period, but still: 54 out of 102 going on to a four-year college is little short of miraculous. After all, when they started at DCP most of these kids read at a fifth grade level, couldn't do more than basic arithmetic, and in many cases barely spoke English.

So could the DCP formula be replicated on a widespread basis? The evidence of the book makes me think probably not, but in a sense, who cares? DCP acts as sort of an existence proof: some kids who seem like hopeless cases obviously aren't. If schools like DCP can work their magic on even a modest percentage of children who would otherwise drift into the equivalent of an educational coma, it's worth it. After all, panaceas are in short supply these days.

Kevin Drum 8:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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