Tuesday, February 10, 2009

What’s New? Cultures of Success at New Schools

Too often we say to students things like, “You can become whatever you want to—a doctor, lawyer, scientist, teacher, journalist, artist, entertainer, politician, entrepreneur, etc.,” but it’s an empty platitude. We know that at Brandeis High School, which is closing down, more students become high school dropouts in the short term than computer programmers, investment bankers, and biotech engineers. The on-time graduation rate at Brandeis last year was 35%.

Brandeis High School will be replaced by three new schools. At each of these schools, the principals can gather their new students and say, “We’re going to provide you with the tools, inspiration, rigor, intensity, support, and love so that you WILL become doctors, lawyers, scientists, teachers, etc.” There’s no history to refute the possibility that the students will go on to achieve the highest levels of success, so it seems tangibly possible in a way that it does not at Brandeis today.

In new schools, there’s the “anything is possible, sky’s the limit” energy and excitement that puts students and teachers in the mindset of success. The message that everyone will be successful and achieve at high levels, becoming masters of the universe, can be relentlessly repeated and reinforced. A few methods by which the new Brandeis schools can do this include naming classrooms after Ivy League colleges, posting career information on display boards in hallways, propagating inspiring chants and slogans, inviting motivational speakers to talk about goal-setting, and setting up mentoring programs with corporate partners.

The practices and culture of successful charter schools, Urban Assembly schools, and other small schools, like Bronx Lab, Bronx Leadership, and the Young Women’s Leadership schools, were created in the founding moment of new-ness, demonstrating that in some cases, like that of Brandeis, the best school reform is complete school overhaul.

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