Bennett Brown has had his 15 minutes of fame--and then some. After the Chicago physics teacher was profiled in Education Week, The New York Times came calling. Then ABC’s “Day One” sent its cameras to Brown’s classroom for four days.
What made Brown so newsworthy was his decision to teach at DuSable High School, one of the toughest assignments in Chicago. With a perfect grade-point average in physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he could have pursued any career he wished.
While the media attention was fun, Brown says, it was also distracting. “It’s tough not to let it divert you from your mission,” he says. “The reason I teach is not for publicity.”
He complains that some journalists arrived at DuSable, which primarily serves students from the Robert Taylor Homes housing project, with preconceived notions about the low abilities of inner-city students that colored their reporting.
“That’s not the story that’s here,” says Brown, now in his third year at DuSable.
Part of the problem could have been the violence that erupted at the housing project last spring. Attendance at DuSable plummeted for about six weeks.
Brown’s students have participated enthusiastically in their school’s science fair, he notes, and last year four competed in the citywide fair.
Now teaching three physics classes, Brown is working to connect DuSable to the Internet computer network. He wrote a successful proposal to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to pay for the link and hopes the state will kick in money to network the school’s computers so every classroom has access to the Internet.
The efforts to restructure DuSable also are continuing. Students are now grouped in houses and the schedule has been changed to allow for longer class periods.
Brown plans to stay at the school as long as his girlfriend, a medical student, remains in Chicago. If she does her residency in the city, that means another four years. But if she doesn’t, he’ll leave DuSable in the spring.
“I’ve generally adapted,” he says. “I’m enjoying myself.”
In 1981, a wealthy New York City entrepreneur named Eugene Lang made an impromptu promise to a class of 61 6th graders at his alma mater in Harlem: If they graduated from high school, he would pay their college tuition.
Lang’s spur-of-the-moment pledge at P.S. 121 evolved into a lifelong relationship with the children and led him to create the I Have A Dream Foundation in 1986, through which other benefactors have “adopted” classes of children in 59 cities across the country.
Fourteen years later, Lang maintains regular contact with about two-thirds of the original class. Not a week passes that he doesn’t receive a phone call, letter, or visit from a student.
Ninety percent have completed high school or earned their General Educational Development certificate, despite predictions that as many as three-quarters would drop out. But even with the scholarship promise, the road to a college degree has proved arduous.
Of the 22 who entered four-year colleges, only eight have graduated. Three are still enrolled, and Lang expects at least one of them will eventually receive a bachelor’s degree.
Seven have completed two-year degrees, and 13 more are attending community college and also working. Lang has helped many of those who did not go to college find jobs and even start their own businesses.
“One thing is really clear: All of us started out as amateurs in education, but we have learned a great deal,” Lang observes. “I frankly feel if we were to start all over again we could do a much better job.”
Lang speaks of the original “Dreamers” as if they were his own grandchildren, telling stories of one young woman who graduated from Barnard College and is now working at the Morgan Stanley investment company.
He speaks with equal pride about a young man who repeatedly dropped out of college but now is earning $25,000 a year at a Hispanic community-service organization.
“He’s feeling very, very pleased,” Lang says. “And, of course, he’s a great booster for education.”
Having fended off one attempt to kill the U.S. Education Department, Terrel H. Bell is back for more.
Bell, President Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Education from 1981 to 1985, has joined the current fight to save the department, which is threatened by a Congress controlled by Republicans for the first time in 40 years.
His position remains consistent with the one he advanced as a Reagan Administration official, when he fought the President’s efforts to dismantle the agency. But it puts Bell at odds with two former secretaries--Lamar Alexander and William J. Bennett, both of whom have higher national profiles than Bell--who have recently gone public with statements that the department should be shut down.
Bell surfaced on Feb. 1, when he introduced current Secretary Richard W. Riley, who was giving his annual “state of American education” address.
“Reports of the death of the Department of Education,” Bell said, “have been greatly exaggerated.”
The day he introduced Riley, The Washington Post published a letter from the former Secretary. He said that abolishing the department would “send exactly the wrong signal,” and he praised both Alexander and Riley for their efforts to improve the department’s management.
Bell says he is in the process of writing a follow-up to A Nation at Risk, the 1983 federal report that helped accelerate the school-reform movement
The new report will provide an update on the progress of school reform and make recommendations on the federal government’s role in education, how effective states have been in providing quality education, and how to best use technology to improve learning.
“I’m convinced that we need to rethink federal policy in education,” Bell says.
But he is quick to distance himself from some more conservative Republicans who have advocated virtually no federal role at all. “I’m not with the Heritage Foundation or [Speaker of the House] Newt Gingrich by any means,” he cautions.
While he fundamentally agrees with the notion that states should have more responsibility over social services, including education, Bell says it’s unclear if a wholesale devolution of federal education programs would be successful because states have such a mixed record on educational achievement.
Bell has spent the past several years as a consultant in Salt Lake City, where he has offered advice to school district officials interested in school reform and restructuring. In 1991, he founded the National Academic League, which sponsors scholarly competitions for high school students in 18 cities.
A version of this article appeared in the February 22, 1995 edition of Education Week as Postscript