Education is without question one of the most complicated topics in America. Once glorified for production of some of the globe’s finest minds, our public school system has been slipping in world rankings for some time and faces constant criticism. Many people blame teachers, or least the few bad apples within this noble profession—manipulating the system through tags such as “tenure” and standing behind unions to remain employed. Administrators often come under fire, as do elected officials sitting in each state capital for poor allocation of funds and general disconnect. Though determining the course of American public education as a whole is a difficult task, there may be nothing easier than recognizing when someone is doing it right.
Kelly Davenport is Head of School at Philadelphia’s Freire Charter School, located only blocks from City Hall. Though within the city’s wealthiest zip code, the school doesn’t cater to the residents of the townhouses surrounding nearby Rittenhouse square. It’s a fact hard to discern when looking at their accomplishments. “In the eight years we’ve been placing kids into college we’ve had anywhere from as high as 95% of our kids going to college to today we are at 85%. The downturn is the economy. About 75-80% attend four-year colleges,” explains Davenport. “Through the National Clearing House, which is a Federal big brother program that watches kids as they graduate and go to college, we’ve learned we have a sticking rate of 79%. Which means that of all our kids that go to college, 79% are staying there and graduating.”
By any standard the numbers are impressive, particularly for a public school. Now factor in that Freire caters specifically to college prep for underserved students and it becomes a question of what exactly do they have that other schools don’t? For starters they have Davenport, a woman who seems to have had a grip on what is truly important when it comes to education her entire career.
“I decided to get a Master’s degree in Spanish literature from Indiana University. I went to Bloomington and about half way through it I decided that this was absolutely useless to the world,” she recalls. “I had been teaching Spanish, Portuguese, and English to college, high school, and adult age, really anything from 9th grade on that whole time. I realized the teaching part was useful but the actual pursuit of the poetry and the arguments about whether a certain poet was really meaning to say this or that served no greater purpose.”
It’s a realization that not only displays her recognition of the disconnect that can grow from teaching to heavily through theory but also that, if the goal is to impact future generations, its better to be in the trenches than an ivory tower. She decided to return to the University of Pennsylvania, where she had already earned a degree in Spanish Literature, to pursue a doctorate in Urban Education. Davenport holds a strong bond with the Latino people, as evidenced by her courses of study but also her time teaching English in Portugal, as well as stateside along with Spanish and Portuguese. This led her to gain a job at a predominantly Latino school in the Philadelphia suburbs, while pursuing her doctorate. It also led to the loss of that position.
“I was terminated, discharged because I began to really question what we were doing to support the Latino students,” recalls Davenport. “Why did they have English at the same time as Geometry? That meant they couldn’t take geometry, which meant they couldn’t go to college, period.”
Only four days later Dr. Jay Guben, the founder of Freire, asked her to join the staff of his yet to open charter high school. In an institution with greater autonomy and a determined boss, Davenport began to thrive and became a leader almost immediately. Though the stated mission at the outset was college prep, as it continues to be, it was not long before Freire’s greatest need presented itself and an enduring mission began to unfold.
“There was a critical point that happened. I started here in July. We opened the school (for the first time) in September and I think it was 17 days in we had, ironically, one of our only Latina students drew a knife from her purse to try to stab another student,” says Davenport. “That was a watershed moment for me. The minute that happened I realized I probably do have the skills to make this school safe. The whole focus of the school from that day on has been to be safe and we are non-violent here.”
Though not yet in any official leadership position, Davenport jumped into action. With a small safe schools grant in tow, Davenport set out to craft an environment where kids could comfortably learn. She trained eight students in ethnography, the science of observational research typically employed by sociologists when studying a neighborhood or specific group of people. The mission was to interview their classmates and discover what each wanted out of the new school. With enrollment at only 100 or so at the time, obtaining the pulse of the student body could still be a personal, yet thorough task. The results were resounding. “I think for 95% of the kids the first word was safe,” says Davenport. “Since then it has been my mandate.”
The culmination of that first year was the Freire Charter School Non-Violence Policy, the first clause in the Code of Conduct jointly authored by Davenport and her students. “Those words are theirs and they are now memorialized,” says Davenport. It reads, “Freire is a non- violent community. This policy mandates recommendation for expulsion for all acts of violence regardless of the circumstances surrounding any specific event or the disciplinary history of any student involved.”
Geography also plays a part in what Freire has been able to accomplish. More than the affluence of the area it is important to note that Freire is in a part of town none of the kids call home. Most students venture to Center City from North and West Philadelphia, sections of the city containing some of the more dangerous neighborhoods. Each receives tokens to ride public transportation to and from school. “The stories that we heard from kids during their first year here about the schools they were coming from. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing: kids jumping kids, teachers jumping kids, kids jumping teachers,” she recalls. Davenport believes removal from their respective neighborhoods provides a valuable buffer that allows students to stand on equal turf. “We have 500 kids in a very nice part of town. We are on neutral territory here,” explains Davenport. “This is your city [I tell them]. Use it. Be a part of it.”
All incoming students also participate in an induction prior to their first year. Wholly student run, the program teaches the tools of mediation and allows current students to mentor and lead other new ones. It also stresses conflict resolution through deescalating emotions. Davenport is sure to point out it isn’t a perfect system but it has started to perpetuate itself. “We do have our issues. They happen maybe once a year but now that we are 13 years into the school kids patrol other kids. They say you need to be safe here.”
When entering Freire Charter School, there is no metal detector to walk through and no small plastic dish to place keys in. No security guard stands there to make small talk with as his hands run over your pockets and no receptionist waits behind three-inch thick plexiglass to take down guest’s information. Conventional wisdom says having those measures should convey security but experience proves that they tend to do just the opposite.
Charter schools are fueled by the freedom they gain from the regulations and rules imposed on other public schools based on the higher standards they set for themselves. Each charter school defines itself in an agreement with their district, offering an approach different from traditional public schools on some level. Community needs and demographics often play a role in how these schools are designed, as well as specific subjects a charter school may gear its curriculum towards, such as arts, math, or science. Viewed as incubators for novel techniques and learning methods that can then spread to other schools if successful, charter schools can be valuable in that regard even if they close or are unsuccessful. Meeting requirements often means doing more with less funding, charter schools receive less tax dollars per student than traditional public schools. In Freire’s case it means getting kids on track for college success in four short years, despite the reality that most enter four or five levels behind in reading and math.
“In 9th grade we catch them up and in 10th then 11th we have to catapult them to the next level. We’ve been doing that,” says Davenport. The quick and substantial growth of students at Freire was recognized with an EPIC award in 2011, honoring “high-need urban charter schools driving dramatic student achievement gains.” Only a handful of schools in the entire country receive the award.
Such dramatic gains do not come easy and, though there is an endlessly friendly atmosphere at the school, expectations are high and the curriculum rigorous. “If you come here you are told from day one that you come here because you want to go to college, you come here because you have fire in your belly, and you come here because you want to work hard,” says Davenport. Though Freire does teach to the Common Core Standards, which have now been adopted as the benchmark in 45 states, educating to that end is teacher driven and community centric. According to Davenport, daily lessons are not dictated by the administration and teachers are not told how or what to teach. Instead, they are provided the Common Core, together with the tools of their colleagues and field experts. The rest is up to them. “We do this because we say teachers are professionals,” explains Davenport. “We hire the best the brightest, the ones who can think most critically and relate to the kids. [The ones] Who can produce an environment that is conducive to learning and can figure out how to take those Common Core Standards and make them come alive for the kids.” Freire’s teacher retention rate was 90% in 2010, according to their annual report to the PA Department of Education. Despite being non-union, Freire draws a crop of bright, young teachers that don’t want to leave. The dividends of the teacher friendly approach have been huge. Of the high schools in Philadelphia, a list comprised of other charter schools, public schools, and even the magnet schools (a group of 12 high schools that accept only already advanced students), Freire’s test scores rank in the top seven. District scores average about 50% of kids at proficient levels in reading and math, Freire ranges from 67-75% in both subjects.
Of everything Davenport and her staff have achieved the greatest success may be the practical and career oriented programs that are intertwined with the classroom. It’s an element that begins with extracurricular activities such as student government, which Davenport asserts has an important chair at the table, and continues to programs that present students with real world exposure to varying career paths. “What happens to kids is that they start to work so hard, they forget why in the world they are working so hard,” explains Davenport. “And then these career oriented programs link the kids back to their future and why they are being asked to work so hard.”
One thriving program that has Davenport particularly proud has brought students interested in medicine together with the medical community and even teaching real life medical skills. Two years ago, academia reached out in the form of medical journal Postgraduate Medicine and its Editor in Chief, Howard Miller, MD. Founded in 1916 by Charles Mayo, MD, the journal is an exceedingly prestigious publication that offers research-based articles to the medical community. It is peer-reviewed, meaning to be accepted all pieces must be critiqued, reviewed, then finally approved by a select group of doctors working in the same field. Standards are high and publication can be career advancing. His idea was to offer publication under the Postgraduate Medicine banner to qualified residents if they participated in a mentoring program that connected them with underprivileged students interested in medical careers. It was dubbed Postgraduate Medicine Community Outreach.
“It is a 6 week program where students go to one of the local hospitals to work with a resident of that hospital to learn the general aspects of medicine, the different categories and fields of medicine, and what each of them requires from a studying or student perspective,” explains Davenport “They get some up close and personal looks at those fields of medicine from people that are studying those fields as well. Also they experience what Dr. Miller calls the gory part, the blood and guts part. They look at medicine, feel medicine through some hands on experiences. There is one exercise before the program is over where they get to walk through a diagnosis with the residents.”
Davenport is one of the program’s main facilitators and Freire is its main source of students because of it. Postgraduate Medicine Community Outreach has been so successful that phase two of the program has recently been launched at the conclusion of the original program’s second year. Designed to allow graduates of the program to continue their pursuit, it shifted the focus from academic medicine to social medicine— teaching students real world skills that they can bring to their respective communities. “When I see those kids (Postgraduate Medicine Community Outreach graduates) in the hallways here at Freire they beg me for more,” says Davenport.
Using the example of diabetes, a problem that many of the students’ families are faced with, Davenport envisions the program helping students gain not only understanding but also the skills to help with management. Being able to take a family member’s blood pressure or blood sugar and understand what those numbers mean, are contributions these kids can make that she believes can start to truly affect communities. The next phase meshes perfectly with Freire’s own Peace and Social Change Project, a requirement that calls all graduating seniors to become agents of peace or/and social change. “Before we even adopted the Postgraduate Medicine Community Outreach Program a lot of our seniors chose to study social medicine issues because they were already worried to death about some of the things plaguing their communities from a medical standpoint,” says Davenport, explaining just how apt the match was.
Nine stories above the bustle of Chestnut Street sits the JeffSTAT Education Center, an EMS training facility for health professionals as well as well as lay people. The suite was understandably quiet on a Tuesday night at 6 P.M., most instructors and other university employees having joined the city below, which came alive after a sweltering summer day had gave way to a gorgeous July evening. Only one room was lit, echoing with conversation. Inside eight students of the Freire Charter School donned lab coats and ate apples while waiting for their class to start. Not one was forced to attend. They’re set to learn CPR and by the lesson’s end would be certified to perform it in their respective communities. It turns out nobody knows her students better than Kelly Davenport.
“The kids taught me this metaphor. They talk about fleas. If you stick fleas in a jar and say its seven inches high. The fleas will learn to jump right up to the top without hitting their head. If you then raise the lid twelve inches higher they will jump that high, “ she explained. “Our kids are not fleas but they have the same will to jump as high as the lid will let them go. So setting the bar on being doctors, surgeons, and PhD thinkers around medicine, it encourages our kids to jump as high as they can. It tells them implicitly that their institutions think they can go as high as they want.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tom Conway is the Associate Editor and a writer for Collier’s Magazine. For more information on Postgraduate Medicine Community Outreach, or to donate, please visit www.pgmcommunityoutreach.org.