Taking Teaching into New Territory Farai Chideya talks with a group of educators who have made an impact in the lives of countless young people in a big way — by breaking the rules.
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Taking Teaching into New Territory

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Taking Teaching into New Territory

Taking Teaching into New Territory

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This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

What do prisons and elementary schools have in common? Well, what if states plan to build new prisons based on a number of elementary students performing poorly in the classrooms right now?

That's exactly how some states like California do it. And getting a good early education does more than keep kids out of prison. It helps shape their jobs, neighborhoods and futures. So how do you make the system serve students? Maybe you go maverick and invent your own programs.

Today, we've got three educators who help improved students lives by breaking the rules. Vielka McFarlane is executive director and founder of the Celerity Nascent Charter School in Los Angeles; Marva Collins is the founder of the Marva Collins Preparatory School in Chicago, Illinois; and Kalamu ya Salaam is co-director of a group called Students at the Center. He's also part of the independent writing program that works for students in the New Orleans Public School System.

Welcome, everyone.

Ms. MARVA COLLINS (Founder, Marva Collins Preparatory School): Thank you.

Mr. KALAMU ya SALAAM (Co-director, Students at the Center): Thank you.

Ms. VIELKA McFARLANE (Executive Director, Founder, Celebrity Nascent Charter School): Thank you.

CHIDEYA: So, let's start by taking a look at what doesn't work. Marva, you worked in the Chicago public school system for 14 years. What did you see during your time there that made you think something here has got to change?

Ms. COLLINS: Well, I think the only reason my students succeeded those 14 years is because I was a rule breaker. I always up the standards of what was expected of children. I have always believed in the classics, or getting children to memorize great poetry, teaching them great ideas. I've always realized that there are books, and there are great books.

The problem are then, and as I go across the country today, is too many children are partaking of worksheets. And there is no one there to question of, or to make sure and certain that there's understanding, or there's no evaluation. There is no chance to form opinions. And everything to me is really about language. The first years, children certainly need to be steep in grammar.

CHIDEYA: So it sounds to me like you thought that one of the issues, maybe not the only one, was the curriculum, and that the curriculum didn't challenge the students enough.

Ms. COLLINS: Exactly. I think every school system, you don't give skim milk to some and cream to others. I think, again, our children have gotten scholarships to some of the finest universities like Harvard, Yale, Northwestern. One of our male students, (unintelligible), west side of Chicago, got the highest score in the history of MIT this year.

It can be done, but again, I think we waste the first three years - are - and not getting - having children adjust to mediocrity. I think - our 3 and 4-year-olds are reading by December each year. I think children need to understand that schooling is a serious business. It's not about socializing, or painting, enjoying and having fun all day.

CHIDEYA: Vielka, you mortgaged your house to start your first school. That is a huge risk. It could have ruined you. What made you think I'm going to do this?

Ms. McFARLANE: I'm kind of like Marva. I spent 15 years in Los Angeles Unified School Districts. I started as a classroom teacher, and then as a school administrator, and then a district administrator. And 15 years after I started, we were still having the same dropout rate, the same number of failures, and the same excuses - they're poor, they're black, they're brown. There's not that much we can do because of their family lives.

And I just decided between my son and myself - I have a 12-year-old son - this is about accountability and everybody needs to be accountable. And unless we change that, and we just stop the excuses, nothing is going to change. And why is it that I get up every day to go to a job where I don't feel like I'm making a difference.

CHIDEYA: So describe to me - Marva talked about the classics and some of the other aspects of her approach. What's your approach?

Ms. McFARLANE: My approach is that everybody in their schools - and as of two weeks ago, we have three schools now - everybody is accountable from the parent, the student, the teachers, even myself. I'm the founder and the executive director of the schools. And if our test scores don't increase and we do not outperform these schools from which we recruit our students from show substantial growth, our contracts are not renewed.

And the same with the parents. If you bring your child to school, your child needs to ready to learn. That means, they had a good night rest. They are in uniform. They are prepared. They did their homework and they're here to learn.

CHIDEYA: Kalamu, before we talk about what you're doing now, let's back up a little bit. You run a school, Ahidiana, from preschool to fourth grade. What was this school's approach? Who did that school, sir?

Mr. SALAAM: It was Ahidiana Work Study Center. Yeah, it was.

CHIDEYA: Ahidiana.

Mr. SALAAM: Right. And it's pan-African nationalist organization. I have a slightly different approach in the previous two speakers. And I know of Marva Collins work. I've never met her. And I have a lot of respect for her. But I don't believe that what we're seeing in the educational system across this country is either an accident or an example of schools not working.

We refuse to accept the fact that we live in a society that is genocidal by nature, killed the Native Americans. It stole this land and enslaved African-Americans. And as has recently been seen in New Orleans, it deliberately misled immigrants to come and work in this society and then threw them away.

The school system is doing exactly what they want it to do. If they can put a man on the moon, they can teach a child to read.

CHIDEYA: Tell us about the programs that you're working with right now.

Mr. SALAAM: I work with the program called Students at the Center. And Students at the Center is a writing program. Specifically, I'm a writer. I define myself as a neo-griot, griot from the West African storyteller historian, which would take two principles: One, to deal with the history of the community with which you identify; and two, to deal with social commentary on your contemporary conditions.

The neo part is digital technology. I believe in writing with text, sound and light. Text is, of course, paper and pencil but also the computer and specifically the Internet. Sound is recordings and, you know, making records and radio broadcasts. And light is video. And we teach classes that range from English 3, English 4, AP classes, and creative writing classes. And involve our students. We use to follow Ferrer's(ph) technique of libratory(ph) education as opposed of banking education. The best way I can sum it up for you is a good question is better than a simple answer.

CHIDEYA: Tell me about your greatest successes and failures. And, Vielka, I'm going to start with you. And I want really personal stories of a kid that you think you helped and one that maybe fell to the cracks despite your best efforts.

Ms. McFARLANE: I'll tell you the story that really - in my second year last year - that really made me cry. I had a parent who showed up to the office and actually speak to me. And she was crying and she was saying that when she enrolled her sixth grade daughter into our school, our daughter - her daughter was many years behind, just like many of the kids that come to the school. And that she was having serious issues. She didn't like to read. She didn't like to go to school. She didn't like to do any homework because it was painful for her.

And that during the course of last year, her daughter would be highly motivated to come home and do her homework and read and excel. And she had moved two grade levels in that one year.

And the reason why, it was because her daughter, for the first time, saw a woman of African descent who, not only was a business person who was opening schools, but was also walking through the hallways and checking the classes and talking to the students and asking them how they were doing and how did they do in the test from yesterday, or how - what problems they had over their homework, or how could the school help them better.

And that to her had made such a huge difference in having a role model because to tell a child to study because you have to study is different than telling a child, look, you, too, can do it.

So that was, for me, the most rewarding and - experience because in theory, I know that what we're doing is good. In practice, we see our test scores. But when you have a parent coming into your room crying, saying you have made a concrete difference, you have changed my daughter's life, that, in itself, tells you everything you have done is worth it.

CHIDEYA: What about - have there ever been students that you just can't help or that couldn't take to your kind of learning?

Ms. McFARLANE: I think that my philosophy has always been, give me any child when I can teach the child. I think that my greatest failure is when adults are involved who have not bought into the program because if the parent does not work in collaboratorily(ph) with the school and the parent is not reinforcing the school's cultures and values and vision, then that's when we have failure. So it's a collective failure of the adults, not necessarily of the children.

CHIDEYA: I want to reintroduce what we're doing if you're just tuning in. I'm Farai Chideya. This is NPR's NEWS & NOTES.

We are just talking to Vielka McFarlane, executive director and founder of the Celerity Nascent Charter School in Los Angeles, California; Marva Collins, founder of the Marva Collins Preparatory School in Chicago, Illinois; and Kalamu ya Salaam, co-director of Students at the Center and working with the Independent Writing Program in the New Orleans' public school system. We're talking about basically how you can be a maverick in education.

Kalamu, again, give us a personal story of how a student has been transformed.

Mr. SALAAM: Let's see. Last semester - at the end of the semester, we asked our students to prepare their portfolios and part of the preparation is to write a short essay that's an introductory essay so whomever would pick it up and read it would have an idea of what it is that you wrote about and why it was important to you. One of our students read a piece - her piece in class - and that's part of our methodologies. Students read it in class and get comments from their peers, et cetera.

She said - and I'm paraphrasing it, condensing(ph) it for radio, of course - she said, when - I knew this was a different class the first day I walked in, and they were sitting in the circle. And then, they were introducing themselves and saying something about themselves and as the question came around to me, I knew I couldn't say, hi, my name is Candice, I'm suicidal. But I didn't know what else to say so I didn't say anything except I'm Candice. And then, she goes on to write, she can remember sitting in the bathtub and watching the blood from the cut on her thigh flow down the drain like the Mississippi River. And at the end of the essay, she says, I'm happy to report that when you read these essays, you will not only see what my life has been like, but you will also get to know that I'm no longer suicidal.

CHIDEYA: Marva, what about you, success or failure?

Ms. COLLINS: Oh, I think that one of the greatest successes - there have been so many, but one was our 24-year-old male that came from Creighton University, who had spent four years at Creighton and he came to my school. Creighton called me and asked if I could help him.

He came to the school reading at a second-grade reading level. And after 10 months, I had him tested at an outside source. He scored at the college freshman level. And I think again just to see the devastation and the apathy of that young man whose self-esteem was really just zero and to see the difference in that life(ph). And then another young lady was, had been our label(ph) a learning disability and she, 60 minutes (unintelligible) graduate magna cum laude from the University of Virginia.

But there just have been so many. The basic thing is really not to use negative language with any child, and to every one of our students begins the day with writing what they will accomplish that's phenomenal that day. At the end of the day, they report what they have done that's phenomenal. It gives them a vision of what their day should be like and it helps them reach for greatness.

CHIDEYA: Briefly each of you, if you're speaking to a parent who may not have found the right school for their kid yet, what would you say? Marva?

Ms. COLLINS: Well, I think again, parents know that something is wrong with the schools but they do not have the articulation skills, they do not know exactly what is wrong, and I think a good school does not look at what the parents can do, does not do. I think, again, we have to realize some systems have miseducated the parents.

So I take the attitude that this will be the first generation that will succeed. Our children have gone on to Oxford as young as 14, 15. Their parents have no idea how to get into Oxford or to get into the best universities. So again, I take the responsibility of knowing that every child I taught will become - will see their dreams coming to reality.

CHIDEYA: Kalamu, again quickly, despair in New Orleans, you must face it every day, what do you say to parents who haven't found a place that they trust for their kids?

Mr. SALAAM: Yes. Just about every parent in the city well, I'm joking but we live in a society in New Orleans today that's the new apartheid. Briefly right before the hurricane, the scores, test scores, you can work for which you use to measure the students indicated that New Orleans had the best public schools in the state, ahead of every other school for white children, and the absolute worse in the state for black children and it was the same school system. This is not an accident. I say to parents that what we are facing is a system that does not want us to achieve and we cannot respond simply on an individual level and think we're going to make a difference.

CHIDEYA: Vielka?

Ms. McFARLANE: What we say to parents is nobody loves your child more than you and nobody understands and knows your child better than you. Do not trust the system, even my school. Go into the schools and hold us accountable, audit the classes, make sure the teachers are doing what they're doing and make sure the executive director's doing what she said she's doing.

CHIDEYA: Well, I want to thank all of you for your time.

Mr. SALAAM: Thank you.

Ms. COLLINS: Oh, you're welcome. Thank you.

Ms. McFARLANE: Thank you very much.

CHIDEYA: We've been talking to Vielka McFarlane, executive director and founder of the Celerity Nascent Charter School. She joined me here at our NPR West studios. Marva Collins is the founder of the Marva Collins Preparatory School, and Kalamu ya Salaam is co-director of a group called Students at the Center, part of the Independent Writing Program that works with students in the New Orleans' public school system. And he spoke with us from member station WWNO in New Orleans, Louisiana.

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