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June 11, 2004

Oh the humanities

From: Providence Journal, RI - Jun 11, 2004

Journal Staff Writer

PROVIDENCE -- The eighth graders are anxious. After lunch, they have to take a 2 1/2-hour exam in the humanities -- their first final.

Royce Conner, their humanities teacher, tries to calm their fears. He begins with a story about dealing with stress. Two students, he says, got into a minor fight that morning, something about who would sit where. Conner asks his students how they handle stress.

"I try to write down what I feel," one girl says.

"I eat everything in sight," says another.

Conner explains what will be on the exam, then gives his class a pep talk. He says, "You know much more than you think," and "Skip the questions you don't know and come back to them later."

Students pepper him with questions: How many questions will be on the exam? Do we have to memorize dates? Will you be there to give the test?

Conner tells them, "You are not going to fail."

COMMUNITY PREPARATORY School began with three teachers, two classrooms and the belief that poor, inner-city children could master challenging courses if given the right mix of attention, academic rigor and parental support.

Twenty years later, the private school for grades three through eight in the city's shopworn South Side has remained true to its mission: providing a prep school education to a remarkably diverse student body.

Of the school's 155 students, 87 percent are black, Latino, Asian or some other racial minority. Only 10 percent pay the full tuition of $8,700. Religions from Muslim to Mormon are represented. And the student body includes two part-time students from the Rhode Island School for the Deaf, a partnership that began in 1988.

The day begins with a community meeting in which everyone recites the school pledge: "I promise I shall use this day to the fullest. I realize it can never come back again. I realize this is my life to use or to throw away."

The children, most of whom wear khaki pants and button-down blue shirts or red gym suits, use sign language to say the pledge out of respect for their deaf classmates. When the first deaf students arrived 15 years ago, it was their classmates who asked if they could learn American Sign Language.

Ideas bubble up from the bottom here. Hired to teach eighth-grade language arts and social studies, Conner told education director Judy Ryan that he would prefer to combine the two courses into one humanities class with a longer, "block" schedule. Ryan told him to go ahead.

"We keep evolving and changing," Conner says. "It's not a place that institutionalizes itself. I've never taught the same thing twice."

On this Wednesday, students are enthusiastic and engaged. Some classes are noisy. One is a little unfocused. But there is no doubt that learning is taking place here.

In Tamar Paull's English class, the seventh graders are reading Romeo and Juliet, a play that is usually taught in ninth grade. The class breaks into small groups. Each one is preparing a contemporary version of the Shakespeare tragedy.

One student director tries to persuade Juliet to kiss Romeo. Juliet won't have any part of it. The director rolls her eyes and says jokingly, "Trinity Rep doesn't have to deal with this! I quit!"

Earlier, the class engaged in a thoughtful discussion of West Side Story, which they had just seen at Trinity. Paull fires questions at them about the role that race and color play in West Side Story. Hands shoot up. Everyone has an opinion. And the girls are as talkative as the boys.

"The kids want to be here," Paull says later. "They don't want to leave."

When Dan Corley founded Community Prep with his Brown University roommate, Bob Hahn, he wanted to challenge the misconception that inner-city children are not "college material."

One of the reasons why minority and poor students don't perform better in school is because teachers -- and parents -- don't hold them to high standards, research has shown. Corley decided Community Prep would be different. Everyone takes Spanish, which is introduced in grades three and four. Eighth graders are required to take Algebra I, a course that is usually offered in ninth grade. And all students take two hours of art a week.

Community Prep doesn't close its doors when the last class ends at 3 p.m. Most students stay for study hall, which is required of any child who is struggling academically. Many children stay until 5:30 p.m. to participate in arts and crafts, sports and various clubs.

Teachers say their opinions are valued. They have their own budgets and decide how to spend the money. They can choose to team teach, teach a longer block or change the curriculum. And, if something doesn't work, they can try something new.

As Paull says, "I can teach any book I want. We're trusted to make those kinds of decisions."

In many schools, having a few minutes to talk with a colleague about a child's progress is a luxury. Because Community Prep is small, the entire faculty is able to meet for 90 minutes every Friday. Teams from each grade meet weekly to review every student's performance.

Each teacher has a key to the building, located in the former Tyler School on Somerset Street, and Corley says it's not unusual to see faculty members working on weekends.

In some public schools, parents are reluctant to walk into the building, much less ask questions of the faculty. At Community Prep, parental involvement is not only encouraged, it's required. When a student is accepted, both parent and student sign a contract, a commitment to be an active part of the child's education. Parents also meet with their child's teachers four times a year.

Jacqueline Hallsmith, who is the parent of a fifth grader at Community Prep, says she would make her views known no matter where her daughter went to school. But she says Community Prep is "the only place where I felt my input was important."

Hallsmith chose Prep because it was small and dedicated to the proposition that students will excel if they are properly challenged. Two years later, Hallsmith is satisfied with her daughter's education but says the school should aim higher:

"There comes a point when you say, 'We're not here because we want to be better than a public school; we're here because we want to compete with other independent schools.' "

When Community Prep first opened, Corley taught gifted students and students with special needs in the same classroom. By the second year, Corley decided that approach wasn't working.

"We asked ourselves, 'Do we want to work with students who are working below grade level or those who are at grade level or above,' " he says. "We decided to accept the average child from South Providence and work to get him into college."

Community Prep does not accept students with weak grades whose reading skills are below grade level -- a standard that has opened the school to charges of elitism. Corley says he felt the school couldn't do a good job of meeting every child's needs, so he made a conscious decision to challenge students who already showed a willingness to learn.

"Community Prep is very true to its mission," says Joanne Hoffman, who is head of school at Moses Brown. "It's a true neighborhood school. It serves the members of its community. It works because it has a really committed head of school who believes in providing an education to children who would not have access to a prep school otherwise."

What's remarkable about Community Prep is its willingness to change. This year, Hallsmith says the board of trustees created several committees to reexamine the school's mission. The big question was: Do we want to increase our enrollment by expanding to include grades 9 through 12 or do we want to enhance what we already have?

After considerable soul searching, the trustees decided to improve the existing school by strengthening the arts curriculum, improving the athletic offerings and beefing up the after-school programs.

Last week, teachers and trustees met with Paul Sproll, chairman of the Rhode Island School of Design's teacher-education program, to discuss whether Prep students could take classes with the college's students and staff. The high school is also exploring partnerships with the Music School in Providence and an artist in the city's West End.

One measure of a school's success is how well their graduates are doing 5 or 10 years later. At Community Prep, 80 percent of the eighth-grade class is accepted to Classical High School, the city's only examination school. A similar percentage of students go on to college.

Stephanie Ogidan Preston was one of those students for whom Community Prep was a wakeup call and a blessing. Preston, now a branch manager for Bank RI, grew up in South Providence with her two siblings. All of them went to Community Prep; all of them went to private high schools and then college.

Preston recalls one of those little moments that alter the shape of things to come. A quick study, Preston would chat with her classmates once she was finished with her own work. Rather than punish Preston, one teacher tried a different tactic:

"She paired me with the slowest kid in my class and told me I couldn't talk until both of us were done," Preston says. When Preston was a sophomore at Moses Brown, she found herself teaching fractions to younger students. Her teacher had turned a chatterbox into a leader.

"Community Prep set the expectations high and gave me the education that I deserved."

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