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Published in Print: May 20, 1998, as Hands-On Learning

Hands-On Learning

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Ted Sizer provided the critical link between the Department of Education and the Maya Angelou School, a charter school in the District of Columbia.

"Too often, a central-government agency--whether it's federal or state--is very removed from the realities of children's lives," says Theodore R. Sizer, the chairman of the Coalition of Essential Schools, a national school reform network. "The policies often miss the mark. The people who write the policies don't understand the human dimension."

Sizer provided the critical link between the Department of Education and the Maya Angelou School. James Forman Jr., one of the school's founders, is a Brown graduate whose undergraduate adviser pointed him to Sizer for advice on starting the school.

"I said to him: 'Run, don't walk, to the secretary's office and find Paul Schwarz,'" Sizer says.

Schwarz helped Forman and David Domenici, the school's other founder, submit their successful application, which will allow them to officially begin operating as a charter school next fall. And then he suggested that he and Blegen teach a course.

These days, just about every issue under discussion in the department comes into focus when the sixth-floor conference room is transformed into a classroom.

To give a couple of examples: The would-be charter school the students attend is one of a projected 1,400 such schools that the department expects will receive a piece of $80 million in grants to states and the District of Columbia. The students themselves are kids who have run into trouble in school and on the streets--the students whom educators will find the hardest to teach under the world-class academic standards Riley says must be set for all students.

Blegen and Schwarz are expected to advise their colleagues at the Education Department on how federal policies will work once they reach the school and the classroom. Without their experience with students from the Maya Angelou School, they say, they don't feel they would have as much to offer.

"I wanted to be reminded in a concrete way what school is," Schwarz says in explaining why he urged Blegen to join him in teaching the class.

As the Thursday class progresses, Schwarz is getting more than enough reminders of what it's like to be in a classroom. By the middle of the hour, Dallas is in the middle of a heated argument with Tyesha Goode over single-sex education. Blegen wants to distract them and everyone else, trying to get their attention so she can get her lesson plan back on track.

"Dallas, look at me. Tyesha, look at me," she says. "Everybody, look at me," she says, perhaps for the 12th time in the first half of the class.

Philip Russell stops her.

"You say: 'Look at me, look at me, look at me,'" says the teenager, who has short, neatly braided hair. ''It's like, if we're not looking at you, we're not listening."

Blegen isn't surprised by Philip's complaint. Later, she laughs when she's reminded of the incident.

"He had told me before: 'I can hear you without looking at you,'" she remembers. "I didn't take offense at it. He was telling me what he thought."

Dallas Cooper studies in his home, which is less than a mile from the U.S. Department of Education

Regardless, Blegen finishes the class period without using her favorite phrase again. (Three weeks later, she opened class by promising Philip she wouldn't say "Look at me" over the course of the next hour. She didn't.)

In most classrooms, Blegen and Schwarz wouldn't have the luxury of such a confrontation--and camaraderie--with Philip. He probably would be sitting in a room with 30 other students, getting little chance to speak on topics presented in class, let alone complain about his teachers' idiosyncrasies.

As two adults leading a class usually composed of seven teenagers, Blegen and Schwarz know their experience is unusual.

In three decades of teaching, Blegen grew used to five class periods a day, with 30 students each. At the end of the day, she feared looking over her rosters and not remembering if a particular student was in school that day.

"The greatest single thing kids need is to be heard," Blegen says. "In a classroom, what you want more than anything is an environment that's safe and comfortable and a place where they are free to take risks. If they aren't free to take risks, they aren't going to learn."

At Central Park East, the schedule is organized so students meet in small groups with an adult for an hour a day. As a principal, Schwarz led such a group in discussions on topics ranging from books to college applications. He and his students even made an overnight trip to visit a college.

"Every kid in every school in America ought to be known well by an adult," Schwarz says. "The structure we've created where people in the schools are strangers to one another creates dangerous situations where people are worried about their safety." That sets an atmosphere, he laments, "where people aren't very good learners."

While Washington cannot dictate school scheduling practices, it can inspire dialogue about them, suggest ways for schools to change, and offer them incentives to do so. The Clinton administration is doing so now, the educators say, by promoting plans to reduce class sizes, build new classrooms, and hire new teachers. Those plans--although stalled in Congress, where members of the Republican majority question the efficacy of such spending and the appropriateness of federal involvement--are relevant to what is happening in American classrooms, Blegen argues.

Paul Schwarz, the U.S. Department of Education's principal-in-residence, listens to Tyesha Goode.

Blegen admits that as a classroom teacher she had little interest in what the federal Education Department did. But now she is convinced it can help change for the better what is happening in the nation's schools.

"The role I see for the department is as a place where discussions can begin," she says. "It still comes down to the student and the teacher, eye to eye."

Class is over. One of Secretary Riley's young aides who assists the teachers escorts the students through the empty hallways to the building's exit. Blegen takes a deep breath and slouches forward. The class has gone OK, but something didn't click.

Still, the teachers believe they heard something significant from every student.

They're intrigued that Philip says he won't go to college. They know he's smart enough and ambitious enough to succeed there, and he has told them in the past that he wants a higher education. They wonder why he has changed his tune.

They heard once again from Dallas that his life changed when he dropped out of school as a 13-year-old. They don't know why he feels he'll never achieve his original goals because he left school for a short time. Before the end of the semester, they hope he will tell them.

Tyesha acknowledged that she has high hopes for her 3-year-old daughter. Keisha had the chance to say emphatically that single-sex schools won't work.

Even Calvin--a notoriously quiet student--opened up a little. When Blegen handed out the poem to be read at the end of class, he told her he knew it.

But Blegen and Schwarz aren't exactly pleased.

"I want to challenge their opinions," Blegen says. "In order to do that, we have to have either more controversy or more meat. The good discussion is fine, but I'm not sure they're learning anything."

The aide returns. The students have boarded the city bus that will take them back to their school. The teachers are tired and leave for home. A janitor is sweeping the hallway.

Class will resume on Monday.

Vol. 17, Issue 36, Pages 32-35

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