Asian Imports

By Patti Hartigan — January 01, 2002 10 min read
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A Boston charter school borrows from the Far East to build a culture of discipline, duty, and success.

The Academy of the Pacific Rim is three long flights up—53 steps, to be exact—from the ground floor of a converted factory in a working-class Boston neighborhood. The bright yellow stairwells are adorned with hand-painted quotes intended to motivate students on their daily climb. “If you can dream it, you can do it,” Walt Disney suggests on the first landing. One flight up, Winston Churchill offers this advice: “Never, never, never quit.”

Some students at this demanding school occasionally need extra encouragement, and on a warm October day, 6th grader Nathan Fenton is among them. His homeroom teacher, Michael Knight, is calling for order as Nathan bursts in a few minutes late with a basketball in his hands and a grin on his face. Knight, an imposing 44-year-old, shoots the youngster a sharp look, and Nathan rushes to join the others. Then the teacher raises his hand in a ritual request for silence, and the students lift theirs in response. Everyone settles down, save one chatty girl in the back. “Go to the office,” Knight says sternly, and Nathan appears relieved that, for the moment, he’s not the one in trouble. The girl leaves without arguing.

With its emphasis on good behavior, character development, and rigorous standards, the Academy is a marked contrast to most public schools. At the 6th through 11th grade charter school, educators try to meld the best of East and West in the culture and curriculum. And strict discipline is just the beginning. The school day runs from 8:10 a.m. to 4:10 p.m., and students clean their own classrooms. Constantly graded and evaluated, the kids must meet with their advisers weekly. For the most part, though, they respond to the extra demands like little foot soldiers eager to please.

Today, as usual, they gather for their morning assembly. With minimal prompting, the students arrange themselves in neat rows in a space that doubles as cafeteria and auditorium. Sitting cross-legged on the floor in uniforms of maroon shirts and tan pants or skirts, most listen attentively as principal Piel Hollingsworth shares some good news: The Academy’s 8th and 10th graders performed remarkably well on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exams. In fact, all the 10th graders passed in the first year the test is required for graduation. The students applaud enthusiastically. Nathan squirms, but when Knight gives him that look again, he sits still.

There’s good news for Nathan’s class, as well: It won yesterday’s homeroom competition. The daily contest measures behavior and homework completion, and the winning students earn a special treat of their choosing—ice cream, for instance. The kids cheer, and Knight does a little victory dance.

The Academy’s pervasive system of rewards and punishments can be a jolt for new students accustomed to more lax environments. Nathan, for one, is still adjusting. Before enrolling this past fall, he attended both public and private schools as his mother sought the appropriate place for her strong-willed, spirited child. Nothing, however, prepared him for the Academy. “In the beginning, I would get suspended day in and day out,” Nathan says with characteristic honesty. “I would give the teachers lip. In my other school, if you gave lip, they would take it. But here, they send you to the office.”

Constantly graded, the kids meet weekly with advisers. For the most part, they respond to the extra demands like little foot soldiers.

Knight, who ran a home for troubled teens prior to joining the Academy staff, is determined to guide Nathan through his transition. As the boy’s adviser, he has had many meetings with Nathan’s mother, and together they developed a plan to help the 11-year-old focus. “He requires redirection—a little more than some, a little less than others,” Knight explains. “When he gets off track, his day can go south rapidly.”

Nathan’s still on track, for the moment. His morning classes are lively. When the teachers ask questions, more than half the students, including Nathan, raise their hands. But despite his participation, Nathan isn’t entirely sold on the system. “The discipline is good because without it you won’t get anywhere in life. But it’s bad because . . . ” He pauses, searching for a reason. “It’s bad because I don’t like it!”

He’s not alone in his distaste for strict rules and regulations. Critics of reward-and-punishment systems say they force youngsters, at the expense of critical thinking, into conformity. And though the Academy’s unusual culture results in high test scores and low absenteeism, some say the “Eastern” aspects of the school aren’t really Asian at all.

The Academy of the Pacific Rim is the brainchild of Robert Guen and Robert Consalvo, who, in the early ’90s, were members of the Boston School Committee. Educators at the time were seeking alternatives to the city’s traditional schools, which were in distress both financially and academically. Guen, who is a first-generation Chinese American, was impressed with the Taiwanese school system, which he observed during several business trips to Taipei in the late ’80s. Gradually, a blueprint emerged that would blend Japanese, Chinese, and American practices. The Academy opened in 1997, admitting 6th and 7th graders first and adding one new level every year since. The school now serves 295 Boston students who are selected via lottery from an applicant list, as required by state law. Both Guen and Consalvo serve on the board, and Guen has a personal stake in the place: His two daughters, ages 12 and 15, are students at the Academy.

The school’s mission—to combine the high standards, character education, and discipline of the East with the individualism, creativity, and diversity of the West—is reinforced in many ways, from a school year 30 days longer than usual to enrichment projects at the local zoo. “It’s hard to capture what we do in a word or a phrase,” says Academy director Spencer Blasdale, who is responsible for fund raising and administrative issues.

“I can say we foster a culture of achievement, but that is expressed in a hundred different rituals a day.” Those rituals start first thing in the morning when, weather permitting, Blasdale stands outside to welcome each student with a handshake. Homeroom begins with a call to order as the youngsters rise and greet their teacher— “Good morning, Mr. Knight!”—in unison. Classes end with teachers assigning scores that later will be used to determine the homeroom competition winner. If a class scores poorly in behavior, everyone loses a recess break, even if just one child is to blame.

In the past three years, Academy students have scored higher on the MCAS than other Boston youngsters.

New students have a hard time dealing with such rigid rules. “Oh man, 6th grade was so hard,” says 15-year-old Rousseau Mieze, who’s now a sophomore. “I was the type of kid who was in the office three times a week.” He was, in fact, frequently in trouble and doing poorly in many classes. But this morning, he’s a model student. In English, the class is just beginning Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller’s classic play, with a reading. Rousseau eagerly volunteers for the part of Willy Loman, the ill-fated title character who harbors illusions about his place in a capitalist society. While many of his classmates find the first scene slow going, Rousseau throws himself into his role. At period’s end, one student complains, “This play is a drag.” But an energized Rousseau says, “I’m giving it a chance.”

So how did this once-failing student turn himself around? Rousseau explains that, when he was in 8th grade, he had something of an epiphany. “I realized it wasn’t worth getting in trouble,” he recalls. “They always tell you here, ‘You have to do better.’ I always said, ‘I’ll do it later.’ Then I realized, now is later.”

Although it works for many kids, the Academy is not without shortcomings. For one, 10 to 20 percent of its students withdraw each year. As for those who stay, progressive- education guru Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards, worries that pervasive incentives can strip students of self-motivation. “The more you reward people for doing things, the more they tend to lose interest in what they do to get the award,” he argues.

But most of the 30 teachers at the Academy defend the system. “Because the discipline is so strong, I don’t have to spend time putting out fires,” says reading instructor Elizabeth Weston. “I can really get down to the exciting business of teaching.” In fact, the school encourages an intense focus on the craft. Each teacher has a desk, a phone, and a computer in the faculty room, and two hours a day are reserved for grading and lesson preparation. Students also get extra breaks to help them let off steam.

There are, however, some limits placed on curricula and activities. The only language offered at the Academy is Mandarin Chinese—a discipline so demanding, school officials argue, that it’s sure to serve as a foundation for successful language studies later. And kids take martial arts instead of gym. Also imported from the Far East is the school’s janitorial practice. On any given day, Academy students may be seen swabbing floors and dusting desks, activities intended to instill communal responsibility and school pride.

Though the Academy borrows from Asian traditions, some experts note that Japanese educators now are traveling to the United States for ideas. The visitors particularly admire the freedoms U.S. students enjoy, such as a wide array of course selections, according to Gerald Le Tendre, a Penn State University associate professor who studies Japanese schools. “They see [such choices] as American individualism and initiative, and they wish they could have more of it,” he says.

‘Because the discipline is so strong, I don’t have to spend time putting out fires. I can really get down to the exciting busness of teaching’

Elizabeth Weston,
Academy of the Pacific Rim

Le Tendre also notes that much about the Academy of the Pacific Rim is not genuinely Asian. Although he’s never visited the school, he explains that Japanese teachers, for example, do not judge their classes as a group. And, referring to a daily ceremony during which an Academy student is singled out for “perseverance,” he adds, “The Japanese would be mortified if [a school] did that.”

Hollingsworth, the Academy’s principal, acknowledges the inconsistencies. “This is an Asian-American hybrid that we’ve developed internally to meet our needs,” she explains. Though it’s a hodgepodge, the system works well by many measures, including standardized test scores—in the past three years, students at the Academy consistently scored higher on the MCAS than other Boston youngsters.

Donna Bracey, an 8th grade English teacher, attributes the school’s success to its challenging environment. “Whatever we expect students to do, they will always rise to those expectations,” she says, adding that her kids are no different from others in the Boston district. “There is no handpicking [at the Academy],” she says. “These high standards could work in any public school.”

Today, at least, Nathan Fenton is meeting those standards. After lunch, he had a run-in with his adviser about incomplete homework, but now he’s on track in history class. As his classmates review answers to a geography test, Nathan raises his hand. “I spelled this answer wrong, but you still gave me credit,” he points out. The teacher, explaining that he sometimes overlooks small errors, seems amused. After all, how many kids volunteer to have their grades lowered?

The school day soon winds to an end, but Nathan’s been told that he has to stay late to finish his homework. He’s not happy with this decision, but his mother supports any extra push. “If he sticks with it, it will be a breeze for him when he goes to college,” Michelle Fenton says. “I’m 33, and I’m still going to college, and it hasn’t been that easy for me. But Nathan will be prepared.”

When his long day finally is over, at about 5 p.m., Nathan grabs his basketball and shakes the principal’s hand on the way out. Then he heads down those 53 steps, past all the inspirational quotes. Near the bottom of the stairs, one looks like it was written for Nathan personally. “Courage doesn’t always roar,” it reads. “Sometimes courage is that little voice at the end of the day that says, ‘I’ll try again tomorrow.’ ”


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