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No excuses

"No excuses" Continued...

Issue: "Profiles in effective compassion," Sept. 26, 2009

In another part of the Bronx, a group of kindergarten girls, dressed in navy jumpers and white shirts with "Girls Prep" stitched on the sleeves, are getting noisy. Their teacher rings a bell and the girls suddenly sit poised and still until he tells them, "OK, you can melt!" and they finally exhale. They line up to file through the bright orange and yellow halls-past classrooms dedicated to local and national female heroes-quiet and holding hands.

Boykin Curry, the chairman of Girls Prep Bronx and co-founder of Girls Prep Lower East Side, embraced school reform after working with the Advisory Board Company, a company that found the best ideas for improving organizations and shared them with its members.

It tried to do the same with education, bringing together the superintendents of America's 20 largest school districts and asking what they needed to make their schools better.

"There was just silence," Curry said. The educators finally said they already knew exactly what they needed to do-get rid of incompetent teachers, pay the best teachers more, change ineffective curriculum or adjust it for individual needs-and they couldn't because all the solutions were vetoed by everyone from the mayor to the school board to the teachers union to the janitors union.

Curry realized the problem wasn't lack of knowledge but a crippling governance structure. So he got involved in the school-choice movement and helped begin Girls Prep Lower East Side, a charter school that could give poor families the same option rich families had: a quality, all-girls education.

In the Lower East Side, the first principal built a warm school environment but achieved only mediocre math scores. So the leaders fired the old principal and hired a new one who kept the same teachers, retooled the program, and one year later had every girl passing the state math exam. A traditional public school could never have fired the first principal, Curry points out: "She was a B plus. . . . She just wasn't achieving excellence." Public Prep has expanded to build a middle school, Girls Prep Bronx, and hopefully a boy's school in 2011.

"These are the kids that everyone says, 'Oh you can't educate them. It's not about the schools, it's about their families. They're doomed,'" said Curry. But he, Flake, and Drammeh prove that educators can raise standards, slash bureaucracy, and build community. Of course, it's harder if you come from a single-parent family and your mom is working two jobs and didn't graduate from college herself, said Curry: "We don't view that as an excuse to quit."

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