The Lord of Discipline
Students who have failed elsewhere in Philadelphia graduate college-bound from Vuong Thuy's charter school. But even the district's tough CEO questions the headmaster's methods.
The short, gray-haired man stands up from his desk and steps out of his office. Dressed in a navy blue jacket, a tie, and dark slacks and shoes, he moves quickly and quietly down the short hallway toward a classroom. He knocks twice on the door but doesn’t wait for an answer as he pulls it open and steps inside. In that instant, 16 high school freshmen and sophomores wearing prep school blazers leap to their feet and stand at attention.
Headmaster Vuong Thuy is in the room, and shirts better be tucked in, eyes better face forward, and a pin-drop better echo.
At Multi-Cultural Academy Charter School in Philadelphia, the diminutive Thuy, a 66-year-old Vietnamese immigrant, casts a long shadow. Once a Philadelphia public school teacher and a former professor at Temple University’s education school, Thuy (pronounced "twee") opened the grades 9-12 school in 1998, shortly after the state legislature passed its charter school law.
Almost six years later, Multi-Cultural is steps ahead of its district counterparts. At the end of the 2003 school year, it was Philadelphia’s only charter high school to meet the adequate yearly progress testing benchmarks established by No Child Left Behind. Today, in late May, it’s expecting to earn AYP status again this year and recently received a $50,000 state grant to share its best practices with other schools. It also boasts a 100 percent college-acceptance rate forseniors. The impetus for launching Multi-Cultural, Thuy says, came from his years watching public school students who struggle academically simply "fall through the cracks."
Despite its name, however, Multi-Cultural does not adhere to a painstakingly politically correct curriculum. The guiding principle behind the academy is discipline. The prep school uniforms are mandatory, three gum-chewing offenses equal expulsion, and Saturday school is required for struggling students.
And Thuy enforces the rules. Standing outside the school’s entrance each morning, he shuffles students inside, making sure they’re in full uniform, and each afternoon he shoos them home if he thinks they’re lingering too long at the corner convenience store.
In a district notorious for its discipline problems, the 170-student school is something of an oasis. Elsewhere in Philadelphia, reports of assaults on teachers and administrators have increased by 20 percent this past year alone, according to district records. What makes this statistic intriguing is that Paul Vallas, the district’s CEO since 2002, was hired, in part, to solve the discipline problem. Indeed, the once-celebrated leader of Chicago’s public school turnaround immediately established a zero-tolerance policy that is similar, in some ways, to Thuy’s own.
But the 51-year-old Vallas, like some of the Multi-Cultural parents, feels that Thuy has gone too far. Complaints about the headmaster range from unnecessarily harassing students to confiscating parental property. The most serious charge, one that Vallas has askeddistrict officials to look into, is that Thuy forces the poorest-performing students out of school before their senior year to keep the college-attendance record perfect.
"What’s he running—a boutique charter school?" Vallas asks. But this rhetorical inquiry raises an even bigger question, one that calls into question the CEO’s own approach: If you’ve promised to "get tough" with problem students, just how far are you willing to go?
At 7:30 on a Friday morning, students and teachers make their way into Multi-Cultural’s two-story building on the 4600 block of North 15th Street, a mostly minority section of Philadelphia about five miles from downtown. The streets are bustling, but the row houses are shabby, the storefronts a mishmash of small businesses and fast-food joints. A banner hanging above Multi-Cultural’s front door is the only indication that the brick buildingis a school. Because it used to house a community organization, classrooms have been squeezed into former offices and conference rooms. Additional learning space is provided by a portable trailer out back and a warehouse next door.
While it’s not uncommon for charter schools to operate out of storefronts, Thuy says the rationale behind his school’s businesslike setting is based as much on discipline as it is on a lack of facilities funding. The long hallways and big bathrooms of traditional public schools are where most students get themselves into trouble, he claims. By eliminating those—Multi-Cultural has just two single-occupant bathrooms and virtually no hallways—hebelieves he’s stemmed behavior problems.
At 7:45, the bespectacled Thuy takes his place on the corner, directly across from the school’s entrance. Above the left breast pocket of his jacket is Multi-Cultural’s logo—an open book with a globe in the background. The tag line is "Knowledge is power." Thuy faces the door and calmly greets the students, most of them from the surrounding neighborhoods, as they enter. Simultaneously, he peers down the street, looking for those who might not make the 7:55 bell. On this fine spring day, however, there are no stragglers. Thuy steps inside.
According to a school survey conducted this past January, 89 percent of the students qualify for reduced-price or free lunches, and 40 percent are from single-parent families. Roughly 85 percent are black, 9 percent are Asian, 4 percent are Latino, and 2 percent are white. Most of the kids attended public middle or high schools prior to arriving at Multi-Cultural, and a majority of those didn’t perform well at those schools, according to Thuy. Reading scores are an indicator of how far behind they were. Typically, according to English teacher Jed Smith, 9th graders enter the school reading at the 5th or 6th grade level.
But today, at 9 a.m. in Room 101, Vadim Lekhtsiyer is busy prepping his algebra I students for next week’s final exam. "I like the strict discipline in this school," says the 64-year-old, who previously taught at New Jersey’s Camden High School, which sits across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. Multi-Cultural’s orderly classrooms are the opposite of the chaotic atmosphere at Camden High, he says.
Lekhtsiyer’s classroom is organized in neat rows of desks, all facing forward. There’s a minimum of chatter between the 9th and 10th graders as all eyes focus on the teacher, who wears wire-rimmed glasses and has a pack of Marlboros stuffed in his shirt pocket. He paces in front of the blackboard, scribbling equations while quizzing students on the steps to solving problems. Lekhtsiyer is a native of Kiev, Ukraine, and for 30 years he worked as a scientist for the former Soviet Union. He arrived in the United States 10 years ago and, like Thuy, speaks fluent, although heavily accented, English.
If students are disruptive, Lekhtsiyer—like the other seven Multi-Cultural teachers—can issue a warning. If the warning is disregarded, he can assign a "restoration of behavior and knowledge"—or RBK, as it’s known. It’s essentially a Saturday detention, during which a student is given classwork to complete.
Nearly every student is likely to serve at least one or two RBKs during the school year. Andrea Manning, a 15-year-old freshman, has served a few this year, primarily for talking in class, she says. Today, though, she’s quiet, and she quickly jots down the answers to the problems Lekhtsiyer has written on the blackboard.
She struggled with algebra when the semester began, she says, but has since caught up. As the students work diligently, Lekhtsiyer stops at each desk to check the work. Pausing by Andrea, he peeks at her notebook and nods, acknowledging the teen’s correct answer.
The inside of Multi-Cultural Academy looks nothing like the Philadelphia schools portrayed by both the press and school officials. In 2003, as part of an NCLB requirement, the state of Pennsylvania labeled 28 schools "persistently dangerous," thus giving parents the option of transferring their kids to safer places. Of those 28 schools, 27 belonged to the Philadelphia district.
Schools CEO Vallas admits he was a little surprised by the magnitude of the discipline problems when he took the job in summer 2002. "The first thing we did was revamp and reissue a zero-tolerance policy," he recalls, meaning teachers and principals were mandated to report all behavior-related incidents to the district.
So far, the new rules have swept thousands of students out of standard public schools and into alternative schools, or those whose curricula, rules, and small-class structure are geared toward helping and rehabilitating problem students, according to Vallas. The result: Only 14 Philadelphia schools have been labeled "dangerous" this year. And the increase in assault reports, Vallas explains, is due to his mandate; even an incident as slight as a kindergartner shoving a teacher is now included.
During 2004-05, he adds, the district will make room for an additional 700 students in alternative classrooms, bringing the total number of seats available to 3,500—out of roughly 200,000 students total. "Over the last two years we’ve gotten the dangerous students out of the schools," Vallas claims.
The next step is to curb chronic bad behavior, from tardiness to disrupting class. The 276-school district, Vallas says, will beef up its professional development, focusing on classroom management practices. Support staff also will be given expanded disciplinary roles; and parent patrols, which often monitor students as they enter and exit a campus, are likely to grow, as well. "We think, combined with the alternative schools, this will help us make further progress," says Vallas.
As extreme as these tactics may sound, the CEO has argued that they’re necessary to get Philadelphia back on the disciplinary track. And they do not, he adds, threaten the civil rights of students: A system of checks and balances in the mainstream and alternative schools guarantees that problem students are disciplined in a fair and equitable manner. That way, schools—and the once-problematic students—can focus on academics. Which is, of course, what Thuy has been doing at Multi-Cultural, as well. But at his school, it’s been not the tactics but rather their execution that’s caused controversy, ultimately prompting district officials to get involved.
Teenagers are eating at their desks in English teacher Harry Boyll’s first-floor classroom during one of Multi-Cultural’s lunch periods. (There’s no cafeteria and nogymnasium—weather permitting, students head to a nearby park for gym class.) Kassandra Udenze, a14-year-old freshman, needs to blow her nose, so she heads for the restrooms. Both are occupied, so she walks up the stairs to the main office, hoping school secretary Elaine Brown can help. Thuy, just outside his office, catches the exchange. Brown looks at Thuy, andThuy looks at Kassandra. She explains her situation—bathrooms in use, runny nose,tissue needed.
On the wall behind Kassandra hang diplomalike placards proclaiming where each of the school’s seniors will attend college. When Kassandra transferred from a nearby public middle school to Multi-Cultural in September 2003, it was with the hope she’d see her name on one of those signs in four years. That thought is furthest from her mind at the moment.
"We are not here to provide you with tissues," Thuy says, finally. "Bring tissues from home if you want them."
Kassandra stares at Thuy.
"Now go back to where you belong,"he says.
She turns and walks downstairs. The headmaster slips into his office.
The secret to making the kind of disciplinary progress Vallas is seeking is really no secret at all, according to Thuy, who taught English as a Second Language at Philadelphia’s Olney High School for 17 years. "Our discipline is not stricter than other schools," he explains. "The difference is, we enforce the rules strictly. Public schools do not enforce them strictly. That’s the difference."
Thuy sent his own two children, now grown, to private schools because of his lack of faith in the public school environment. But he always had an alternative form of education in mind. In 1982, he founded the Indochinese-American Council, a nonprofit organization that offers tutoring, literacy, GED, and other programs to an ethnic mix of adult north Philadelphians.
So the leap—going from running the council to operating a charter school—in 1998 was an easy one, according to Thuy. "When we got the charter from the school district, we were already prepared," he explains.
He knew, for example, that enforcing discipline is not a one-person job. Just as the council depends upon the surrounding community for support, Multi-Cultural seeks parental guidance. "I could’ve been the principal of a public school 20 years ago, but I chose not to do it because I knew that if I ran the school my own way, they would fire me the first day," Thuy says. "That’s because of my philosophy: I feel that the parents should be equally accountable. Here we tell them, ‘If you do not do your job, don’t expect us to do our job.’"
Thuy will talk, at length, about his school and its accomplishments. But a discussion with the headmaster quickly becomes a monologue, in which nuggets of information about Multi-Cultural Academy are smothered with platitudes—"It’s not a job, it’s a mission" being a favorite. He also sees himself as something of a martyr in light of the criticism by Vallas and others.
But many parents appreciate Thuy’s hard-line approach. Duane Horne is the outgoing president of Multi-Cultural’s Home and School Association, a PTA-type organization. He transferred his daughter, Tamara, from a public high school after he heard that Multi-Cultural stresses discipline, hard work, and responsibility—the values that he and his wife instill in their two kids at home and that Philadelphia schools stressed a generation ago, he says, adding: "You just don’t hear that at other schools [today]."
Dawn Edwards, whose son, Carlos, will be a Multi-Cultural senior this fall, is equally impressed. "I like the structure," she says. She looked into other charter schools and was most impressed by Multi-Cultural’s communication with parents. "I feel like the staff and the teachers are there for Carlos," she explains. "If he’s having a problem with his work, they call me. If he’s late to school, they call me."
Edwards transferred Carlos to Multi-Cultural after he was banished from a mainstream high school and sent to an alternative school because of behavior problems. Since Carlos began attending Multi-Cultural, "he’s matured a lot," Edwards says. Carlos concurs, crediting the school’s environment. "Without rules," he explains, "I’m all over the place."
So where, exactly, do get-tough proponents Thuy and Vallas diverge? A hint may lie in the comments of Ronald Stephens, executive director of the California-based National School Safety Center. Established in 1984 by the federal government, NSSC offers training and technical assistance to districts in the areas of crime prevention and safe-school planning. "‘Zero tolerance’ doesn’t mean zero good judgment," Stephens says. The dilemma he sees educators grappling with is "How do you create a safe school without turning it into an armed camp?" He encourages school leaders to step into the shoes of their students and consider how they might want to be treated.
"If Dr. Thuy has one fault, it’s that he comes across a little abrasive," admits Horne. At least, that’s what Horne’s heard; he hasn’texperienced that side of Thuy himself. But others have.
"I wanted to take parents above him because he was obstinate," says Ethan Thornton, a Philadelphia pastor who enrolled his son, Tyrone, at the school in September 2002. During that year, he says, Thuy failed to address a number of complaints made by parents. The biggest regarded the uniform policy—students are sent home if anything’s missing—and the collection of field trip fees, ranging from $30 for freshman to $200 for seniors, at the beginning of the school year.
Thornton, for a time, became the point person for disgruntled parents and served as a liaison between the school district and Multi-Cultural. Ultimately he withdrew his son from the school because he felt there was too much conflict between the headmaster and the parents. "It’s Thuy’s way or the highway," he claims. "A lot of parents felt intimidated."
A case in point is what’s come to be known as the "cell phone incident." Based on several accounts, it goes something like this: Earlyin the 2003-04 school year, a student accidentally brought her mother’s cell phone to school. In accordance with school rules, the phone was confiscated. When the student’s mother tried to retrieve the phone, she was rebuffed. Thuy told her she could collect the phone at the end of the school year, after paying a $50 storage fee—as outlined in the school handbook, which is given to every student in September.
The parent, Renee Means (who did not return calls for an interview), took her case to anyone who would listen, starting with Multi-Cultural’s Home and School Association, saying she needed the phone for work. Finally, on December 17, she pleaded her case to the district’s School Reform Commission and was assured by Vallas himself that the phone would be returned. Alice Heller, head of the district’s charter school office, then called Thuy, asking him to do so. But Thuy refused, saying it wasn’t up to him, he was simply following school rules. Heller asked again. Again, Thuy refused.
Heller acknowledges that the district as a whole has a "no cell phone" policy. But typically, she adds, a phone is confiscated, then immediately returned to a parent. The Multi-Cultural brouhaha, she says, is simply a case of common sense gone missing. "Thuy wouldn’t budge."
Horne, however, claims that, a few disgruntled parents aside, most had Thuy’s back. "He’s a fair person and committed to the kids," he says. "When the cell phone nonsense came to a head, just about every parent signed a petition in full support of him."
The headmaster’s commitment to a strict school environment comes in part from his own education. Thuy says that after the French occupation ended in 1954, his family moved from their village in North Vietnam to Saigon, where Thuy went to school seven days a week—five in a public school, Saturdays and Sundays in a private school. In 1964, he says, he won a fellowship to the Welsh College of Advanced Technology in Cardiff, Wales, where he studied physics and linguistics. From there, he went to Paris to study at the Sorbonne and complete his doctorate in linguistics. Thuy says he then accepted a teaching job at Cornell University in 1967 and has lived in the United States ever since.
In 1975, Thuy left Cornell—upstate New York was "to oremote," he explains—and moved to New York City, where he directed a language program for Vietnamese refugees who were arriving in the United States at the end of the Vietnam War. He also worked as an ESL coordinator for New York’s public schools and traveled to other cities lecturing on ESL and dual-language instruction. After one of his lectures, Thuy recalls, the head of Temple’s education school asked him if he’d be interested in joining the university’s faculty. Thuy said yes and moved his family to Philadelphia in 1977.
While Thuy has been harshly criticized over such incidents as the one involving the cell phone, his trump card is that on June 17, 2004, all of Multi-Cultural’s 23 seniors will receive their diplomas, then head to college in the fall. None, he admits, are off to Harvard or Yale, and most will attend local schools such as Penn State, Temple, and the Community College of Philadelphia. Still, for many students, having a high school diploma, let alone a college-acceptance letter, is a tremendous accomplishment, says Thuy.
But as complaints from some Multi-Cultural families mounted this past year, Vallas and Heller, in her role as charter school chief, began looking closely at Thuy’s claims of success and noticed a trend. Records supplied by Heller show that only 10 of the students who entered the school as freshmen in fall 1999 stayed through their senior year. And of this year’s 23 graduates, again, just 10 started as freshmen at Multi-Cultural.
Thuy claims he doesn’t keep track of how many freshmen stay the course, mainly because as a charter, Multi-Cultural is not required to do so. (The school district, however, does track such figures.) He adds that the school also takes in students as sophomores and juniors, which is how this year’s graduating class reached 23.
He denies the numerous claims that students are pushed out of Multi-Cultural for bad grades. "We allow kids to make mistakes," he says, citing several opportunities they have to improve their academic standing—anextended school day, Saturday school, and summer school.
For many, the extra work has paid off. Senior Natalie Harris is headed to nearby Arcadia University in fall 2004. She arrived at Multi-Cultural as a freshman, straight from parochial school. "Multi-Cultural was even more strict," she says. But because her sisters attended the school, she knew what to expect. When it came time for college applications, Thuy urged her to go after as many scholarships as possible. "He really pushed me to apply for this Comcast scholarship," she says. Harris did, and she received $1,000.
Spurred by parental complaints and an in-depth examination of the school’s practices, Paul Vallas and the School Reform Commission recently took their own hard-line approach. They demanded that Thuy change a few school policies, among them the reenrollment provision stating that those students who fail to correct academic deficiencies may be prohibited from returning and a warning in the school handbook stating that parents face "grave consequences" for not adhering to school rules. If Thuy refuses, Multi-Cultural faces the possibility of having its charter revoked by the commission.
Thuy, it turns out, will give an inch later this summer—by removing the "grave consequences" line from an updated handbook. This is enough to appease Heller, who will say, "The major issues have been resolved. Whatever minor details remain, we can work through them."
But there may not be much work to do. Today, during the last week of June, Thuy is talking about retiring, and he’s not sure who would replace him as the school’s CEO and headmaster. He’s been hunting for nearly a year for someone and will continue to do so in the fall, perhaps by promoting one of his teachers. Either way, he and Multi-Cultural will be back in 2004-05. That’s why he’s poring over applications and meeting with parents who hope to enroll their kids in September. Sifting through the paperwork and eyeing the line of people outside his office, he pauses and gives an honest assessment of his predicament: "It’s dangerous to have one person doing so many jobs."
That comment brings to mind Vallas, who, like Thuy, is a bit of a zealot, turning one question about a single school into a 10-minute discourse on the entire district’s accomplishments over the past 18 months. The tenures of most big-city school chiefs are notoriously short, with Vallas’ six-year stint in Chicago a near record. Two years from now, talk of Vallas’ next move (he fell just short of being the Democratic nominee for governor of Illinois in 2002) will likely begin in earnest. Vallas, then, is surely not going to jeopardize his public-sector future for a 170-student charter school or its contentious leader. "He’s not big on my radar," Vallas claims.
At Multi-Cultural, however, Thuy is much more than a blip on the screen; he fills it. His latest challenge is to find a successor as unapologetically strict and, perhaps, dramatic as he is. "Paul Vallas tried to crush me," says Thuy. "And he failed."
Vol. 16, Issue 2, Pages 34-39Published in Print: October 1, 2004, as The Lord of DISCIPLINE