Curtain Goes Up on the Life Of New School

By Meg Sommerfeld — September 20, 1995 11 min read
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This series is being underwritten by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

The burglar alarm activates accidentally one morning during the first week of school, and no one knows how to turn it off.

Two days into the new school year, teachers sometimes still need to ask students what time class ends.

And, occasionally, Principal Sarah Kass forgets to ring the hand bell that sends students off to their next class.

But, for the most part, the glitches are few and far between as the City on a Hill Charter School opens its doors for the first time here.

In fact, it’s almost hard to tell that City on a Hill is a brand-new school. A raft of structures and systems is already in place, from tardiness policies to curriculum outcomes. The 65 freshmen and sophomores have been given identical calendars to jot down homework assignments, and teachers check them at the door. By day two, the teachers seem to know all their students’ names and are playfully jesting like they’ve known them for months.

A Growing Movement

City on a Hill is a public school with a mission. Its literature describes it as “an educational collaborative of public school teachers dedicated to rekindling in urban youth the hunger for learning, the habits of hard work, the commitment to public service, and the passion for democracy.”

In this series, Education Week will chronicle the life of a school in its first year of existence. Through the eyes of teachers, students, parents, and others close to City on a Hill, we will chart the ups and downs in the creation of a new school culture and community.

City on a Hill is one of 15 new charter schools being opened in Massachusetts this fall under a law enacted in 1993. They join dozens of other public schools that educational entrepreneurs have all but built from the ground up across the nation in recent years. Some are charters, some are magnets, some schools-within-a-school.

Much of the activity has been centered in the largest cities, where the movement to break up sprawling high schools into smaller units or clusters of schools has been gaining momentum. Recent multimillion-dollar grants from the Annenberg Foundation have further accelerated the pace.

New York City has at least 50 new schools, and 75 more are on the way; there are dozens more in Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, and other metropolitan areas.

Meanwhile, in states like Minnesota and California, charter-school laws have served as catalysts for the creation of autonomous public schools that operate outside district confines.

Unlike in the past, when most new schools were built to accommodate population increases, this new breed is being born out of frustration with the failings of traditional public schools.

At the root of this burgeoning movement is the crisis in urban education, says Mary Ann Raywid, a professor of education at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. “It is increasingly clear that it is not working and that very different arrangements are necessary,” she observed. “We’ve had too many kids, for too many years, going through high school with great indifference, and school never manages to engage their heads.”

The schools are being founded by veteran teachers and newly minted ones barely out of college, parents and community activists, school boards, and think tanks. These architects are crafting ambitious missions that tear down many of the building blocks of traditional schooling in hopes of reshaping them into a new foundation that encourages active learning.

Regardless of what form they take, most of the schools share several common characteristics: smaller enrollments, more personalized environments, and greater autonomy than traditional schools. Many revolve around a subject-matter theme or a specific pedagogical approach.

Carl D. Glickman, an education professor at the University of Georgia in Athens, Ga., said he believes the new models are the result of a unique merger of two powerful, and sometimes contradictory, political agendas.

“One is the entrepreneurial, economic privatization movement--letting schools have control over money, staffing, curriculum, and assessment,” he said. “But it also falls into the Jeffersonian democratic tradition of giving power to the people.”

An Ideal Setting

It is fitting, then, that City on a Hill was conceived and born in Boston, a city so steeped in Colonial history and democratic traditions that it’s hard to walk around without bumping into a monument commemorating one founding father or another. And Massachusetts, home to the nation’s first common schools, is a place where the town meeting still endures as a form of government.

The school’s name comes from a longtime moniker for the city. Proclaiming to his fellow Puritans that the city would be an exemplar for all others to follow, John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, dubbed Boston the “City upon a Hill.”

The school is housed in a ymca that straddles the Northeastern University campus and the theater district, occupying a single corridor of rooms on the second floor of the seven-story building. The Boston University Theater and Symphony Hall are neighbors, along with small businesses that cater to Northeastern students’ needs.

Out front, a small banner declares City on a Hill’s existence. Inside, in the elegant dark-paneled lobby, tourists with backpacks sign up for inexpensive rooms--singles go for $37 a night--and young professionals stop by during their lunch hour for a quick workout.

On the surface, City on a Hill co-founders Ms. Kass and Ann Connolly Tolkoff appear to have little in common. Ms. Kass, 28, is the daughter of two University of Chicago professors, single, and a doctoral student at the Harvard graduate school of education.

Ms. Tolkoff, 47, grew up in a working-class family in South Boston, the child of a firefighter and a cleaning woman. She is married to a biomedical engineer and the mother of three adult children.

But both women were born in Boston, are the products of urban public schools, and graduated from top-notch universities. They welcome their students with warmth and affection: Ms. Kass greets them with a handshake as they arrive at school; Ms. Tolkoff tosses them candy in English class.

The duo met while serving on a curriculum committee at Chelsea (Mass.) High School. Both new to the faculty, they found they shared frustrations with less-than-challenging academic standards.

“I think what appealed to me about Sarah was that she wasn’t afraid of the tough questions,” Ms. Tolkoff recalled. “When I suggested that students read ‘Hamlet,’ or that the Bible can be read as literature, she didn’t wince.”

A Long Journey

Though only in her late 20s, Ms. Kass had dreamed of starting her own school for years. In high school, she was frustrated that white students, though a minority in her school, filled 75 percent of the seats in honors courses.

At the time they met, Ms. Tolkoff was thinking about applying for a grant to start an after-school program and take students on occasional weekend trips to the symphony or to the theater.

But start a new school? That was an entirely different matter.

“I kept saying, ‘That’s treason, that’s going outside the city, that’s anti-union, that people who set up charters are enemies of public schools,”’ she said.

Though Ms. Tolkoff concedes that she still harbors some reservations about whether charters can have an impact beyond their own walls, her own professional frustrations eventually led her to reconsider the wisdom of at least giving a new school a shot.

The twosome’s proposal described a small school with challenging academic standards. Weekly town meetings would serve as a forum for the exchange of ideas, and there would be plenty of opportunities for hands-on learning and service.

“I feel so strongly that I want the kids to inherit the city in a better way than it was handed to me, and to have a sense of place,” Ms. Tolkoff explained. “I want them to have ... the same love affair with this city that I have.”

They decided to start with 60 students in the 9th and 10th grades and gradually to expand to no more than 250 students in grades 7-12. They formed dozens of partnerships with other institutions, from Northeastern University to the public-television station WGBH.

In the space of two years, they raised $350,000. The school receives about $7,500 per student each year in public funding.

After an extensive search, they found space at the ymca: a long corridor with space for four classrooms, two computer rooms, a small office, a conference room, and a large sunny common room just right for town meetings. A youth center downstairs allowed them to use its space for a lunchroom. The ymca made its athletic facilities, including a pool and an aerobics studio, available for physical-education classes, and two of its employees work half-time as PE instructors. And they contracted with HablEspa¤a, a community language institute, to provide Spanish instructors.

Like a bride and groom registering for gifts, they signed the school up at the office-supply store Staples, New England School Supply, and Computer Marketplace, making it easy for would-be benefactors to donate items the school needed. “CD player. Tape recorder. A month’s supply of paper. Overhead projector,” one list reads.

On opening day, Ms. Kass made sure there were fresh flowers and baskets of apples awaiting the students. “I care that school is a place ... where people are joyful, where there’s companionship and fellowship, a place that is warm and inviting.”

Building a Staff

Hiring the teachers was the hardest part, Ms. Tolkoff said.

The co-founders’ vision appealed to a lot of applicants--360 to be precise. Even now, r‚sum‚s are still arriving. Although they interviewed 100 candidates, choosing 14 finalists to participate in a two-day battery of interviews, they selected only one candidate through this formal process, science teacher Paul S. Hays.

Mr. Hays, who spent two years in Baton Rouge, La., with the teaching corps Teach for America, heard about the school at a tfa alumni gathering earlier this year. He comes across as a soft-spoken but deadly serious disciplinarian at first. “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go,” he admonishes tardy students. But it’s quickly apparent that he’s also the staff ham, using “Far Side” comics and dramatic voices to engage his students in a lesson.

He views taking a job at this brand-new school as a blessing, not a risk. “I was offered jobs in upstate New York with comparable pay, but without the intellectual excitement of being able to design my own curriculum and purchase my own supplies,” he said.

Like Mr. Hays, math teacher Jesse Solomon had few doubts about accepting the offer.

“I was very impressed by Ann and Sarah,” he recalled. “I think it was a combination of entrepreneurship in connection with what’s good for kids. I mean, I am the math department. You can’t ask for a better situation if you have some ideas you want to try out.”

Though they ACT like they’ve been a team for ages, Mr. Hays, Mr. Solomon, and history teacher Oy‚shiku B. Carr were only hired in June. Early last month, the staff had a two-day retreat at Ms. Tolkoff’s house on Cape Cod at which they drafted a student handbook spelling out everything from dress codes to student legal rights.

Mr. Carr and Mr. Solomon both observe separately that one thing binding the staff is that each person is highly opinionated. “We’ve had our disagreements, but I think everyone respects the other person’s opinion, and would rather have opinionated discussions than directives telling you what to do.”

‘So Far, So Good’

The school officially opened its doors on Wednesday, Sept. 6. A pool of 145 students applied for the 60 initial slots, a figure the school was later allowed to increase to 65. A judge drew wooden spoons in a lottery to determine who would get in, and the rest were assigned to a waiting list.

Most students said they heard about the school through a family member, and ended up enrolling because they figured a school that was new and smaller would probably be better and safer.

Asked to assess the first week of school, Lisa O’Neill replied: “So far, so good. It’s so different. We have more responsibility.” Crystal Galvin agreed. “When I met the teachers at orientation, they were more like a friend to me than a teacher. They have so much energy, it makes you feel better.”

Though the first town meeting on Friday served mainly as an introduction to parliamentary procedure, it’s clear a few contentious issues are already looming on the horizon. “We’ve discussed in my advisory group that we all don’t like that we have to wear uniforms but that the teachers don’t,” Ms. O’Neill declared at the meeting to a standing ovation.

Students are already grumbling about too much homework and long school days--they don’t get out until 3:46 p.m. each day but Friday.

“Yeah, they are going to have to change this, or I’m out of here,” declared Brazil T. Campbell, a tall, outspoken girl with large hoop earrings.

But other students said the workload isn’t that bad. “All the teachers said they will help us, and our history teacher gave us his phone number at home,” said Wayne Edwards as he headed off to swim at the Y after school.

However the town meetings and the debates there play out, most students say they are looking forward to taking on leadership roles and trying out new activities.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Ms. Galvin said. “But right now, it feels like it’s going to go places, and I want to be a part of it.”

This series is being underwritten by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts.
A version of this article appeared in the September 20, 1995 edition of Education Week as Curtain Goes Up on the Life Of New School


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