$124 million for a model high school

Zack Munson’s dark, dingy, crumbling alma mater, Woodrow Wilson High in Washington, D.C.,  has been rebuilt at a cost of $124 million, he writes in High School Monumental. The new Wilson, envisioned as a model urban high school, is airy, pleasant and loaded with technology. But is that enough?

The energetic new principal let Munson tour the rebuilt Wilson High.

The classrooms have teleported from the 20th century to the 21st and beyond. Gone are the projectors and VCRs and LaserDisc players (yes, that cutting-edge technology that reigned supreme for a good year or two). The whole building has Wi-Fi. There is a cyber café and a media center, the latter a white, glowing sea of brand new Macs. There’s even a TV production studio! The whole place is really, really nice. Not just nicer than it used to be; nicer than the college I went to. . . . There is a robotics lab, and a robotics team that competes nationally . . .

Each class has a flat-screen TV, an LCD projector or a Promethean Board (interactive, touch-screen projection device). The bathroom stalls have doors.

Even better, there’s no trash or graffiti. The halls are quiet and empty during classes. Suspensions are down and attendance is up slightly.

Yet, Munson has doubts.

If the last 40 years have demonstrated anything, it’s that dumping money and technology onto faltering public institutions often does little but waste the money and create massive warehouses of rapidly obsolescing technology.

Shortly after he toured the school, a group of students set some of the bathrooms on fire, causing $150,000 in damage.

Order in the school

Columbus Collegiate Academy, the highest-performing middle school in Columbus, Ohio, won a national award for improving students’ achievement.  Nearly all students are low-income and black.  What’s the secret? This Examiner story cites excellent teachers, a curriculum designed to teach what’s in the state standards and a “laser-like focus on academics.” I was struck by the emphasis on order.

(In each classroom), identical signs illustrate the hand signals students should use for common requests like tissues, pencils, or questions, and where teachers give out individual and class merits and demerits for good or bad behavior. The school’s culture is one of personal and group restraint, with all available energy and attention trained on the urgent task of getting each student prepared, ultimately, for college. Social studies, science, and history teacher Kathryn Anstaett explains that “an aura of professionalism” pervades the school. She and Ben Pacht both agree that the school’s established structure—its clear guidelines for student behavior, instructional practices, and discipline—frees the kids and grownups alike to focus on learning.

Co-director John Dues ends lunch by counting “one, two, three, ” signaling students to stand, push in the chair, discard trash and get in line.  “The cafeteria spotless, the students soundless, Dues directed the children back to their classrooms.”

The Fordham-sponsored charter has a longer day and year — the equivalent of an extra 64 days — and tries to use every second.

Update: James Lileks remembers his junior high school vice principal. Mr. Lear wasn’t anyone’s friend.

Mr. Lear’s preferred method of getting a kid to behave was to lift him up by the short hairs on the nape of his neck, which are directly connected to the portions of the brain that handle pain, fear, humiliation, and resentment. What earned this? Horseplay. Tomfoolery. And, of course, hijinx. But if you said a bad word you walked on tiptoe to his office, held aloft by your neck hairs.

There were never any fights at school, and no one swore out loud.

When a local mother visited the high school Lileks’ daughter might attend, a student called her “bitch,” for no apparent reason, “and all the other kids giggled and whooped.”

Chaos is bad for kids

Kids growing up in chaotic homes with no clear rules or routines have  lower IQs and more behavior problems, concludes a study analyzed by Daniel Willingham on The Answer Sheet.

Rsearchers factored out “the parents’ education level, parent’s IQ, a measure of the literacy environment in the home (number of books and so on), the housing situation, a measure of parental warmth/negativity, and a measure of stressful events.” Chaos still emerged as a negative factor for children’s IQ and behavior.

Chaos hurts in the classroom too, speculates Robert Pondiscio.

It’s not hard to imagine higher level of student achievement, if not IQ, in classrooms that are well managed and orderly.  At the very least, the lack of those qualities is one of the most visible signposts of poorly run schools.

A Teach for America teacher in D.C. uses the “respect bell” to keep order. When a student curses, insults someone or strays off task, the teacher rings a hotel-style bell ($5 at Staples).

(Students) insisted, pleaded, begged that I stop. But I wouldn’t – at least until they, themselves, stopped saying or doing disrespectful things. Surprisingly, my decision to hold my ground led students to police each other in a positive way. They told each other to quiet down, to stop using profanity and to focus in on the lesson. For a moment, I had a class that was completely silent and on-task!

I think kids feel secure with an authoritative adult in charge.

Unsafe for learning

I’ve got a column up at Pajamas Media on bringing order and safety to chaotic, dangerous schools.

Pacific Research’s Not As Safe As You Think finds it’s very easy to avoid reporting any school as “persistently dangerous.”  The legal requirement is useless.