By SUSAN DOMINUS, NYT
George Leonard, the principal of the Bedford Academy High School in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, used to take a straightforward approach to ensuring that students at the school he founded showed up for after-school tutoring when he or their teachers thought they needed it.
“We’d block the exits,” Mr. Leonard said. His background as a star educator qualified him for the job of principal; his hulking six-foot frame qualified him for the job of reverse bouncer, a position he would still have if Bedford Academy hadn’t relocated shortly after its first year in 2003, moving to a building where the doors outnumber the teachers who could block them.
Mr. Leonard is a man of many solutions, many of them innovative, many of them, apparently, also effective. In New York City, only about 50 percent of students manage to graduate in four years. At Bedford Academy, 63 percent of the students qualify for free lunch, a majority are being raised by a single mother and another significant number are being raised by someone other than a parent. Yet close to 95 percent of students graduate, and virtually every one of those goes on to college.
Mr. Leonard does not achieve those results by stocking the school full of nothing but high-testing students, an option he has had since 2004, when thousands of students started applying for just over 100 slots at the school each year. To the contrary, he has committed to keeping a third of the entering slots open for students who previously tested in the city’s bottom half on statewide math and reading exams.
“I wanted to prove that no matter what the competency — special ed, regular ed — a child could still be successful,” said Mr. Leonard, dressed in French cuffs and suspenders, a wall full of college acceptance letters decorating his Bedford Academy office.
Mr. Leonard first made a name as an educator in the late ’80s, when he took a group of typical elementary students enrolled in an after-school science program in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, and decided he could teach them to pass the Regents exam in biology, which is normally given in the ninth grade. He succeeded, and then repeated the experiment in later years. That convinced him that there was no reason for any disciplined high schooler to achieve less. “Whatever a student’s competency, it couldn’t be less than the third graders I taught,” he said.
As all-powerful and bureaucratic as the Department of Education appears to so many parents, it allows room for carefully chosen educators to call their own shots, particularly in Empowerment Schools like Bedford Academy, where principals have an unusual amount of control over budget matters.
For Mr. Leonard, that autonomy means insisting that all entering students spend their Saturday mornings in preparatory classes the summer before they enroll.
“We tell them they can’t enroll in the fall unless they come over the summer,” said Mr. Leonard. “It’s not true, but we lie anyway.”
Autonomy also means an automatic weeklong suspension for any student who “disrespects a female,” said Mr. Leonard. It means requiring struggling students, in the weeks before the Regents exams, to attend studying sessions on Saturday from 9 in the morning until 9 at night. It means the most senior, experienced teachers, including Mr. Leonard, teach not the school’s academic jewels, but the most struggling students.
AND it means the school’s teachers administer almost no homework. “We found it was a waste of time for the teachers and the students,” said Mr. Leonard. Instead, they emphasize after-school tutoring where the teachers can keep a better eye on whether the student is actually grasping the material.
Quality control is all — quality of the teaching, that is, not the students. The exacting Mr. Leonard has let half his teaching staff go every year. His mandatory teaching technique involves constant testing, not to keep the students on their toes, but to let teachers know whether they’re getting through.
“Quiz them to death,” Mr. Leonard was advising a group of prospective principals in his office this week. “You need ways to monitor their progress that don’t depend on what they’ll just tell you. A kid can go to school all day and not remember a thing he’s learned except what he had for lunch.”
Of the students arriving with lower test scores, Mr. Leonard says he is not looking for the students with the highest grades, or even the best behavior (“We can work with bad behavior,” he says). He’s looking for the ones with caregivers who understand his basic mission of discipline and respect, and are willing to commit to his regimen.
It sometimes seems as if there is something mysteriously unfixable about New York City’s public schools, some intractable problem that has held them back even as parks have blossomed and markets have boomed and crime has faded. Mr. Leonard’s model obviously isn’t replicable everywhere, but it suggests that there is some formula that can take a school out of its history of academic failure: passionate leadership, parents who respect that, and long hours all around.
“I tell parents at orientation, just stay out of my way and let me create the scholar, because you’re usually the problem,” he said. “I’ll see you at graduation.”
When they do commit, he said, he can make it happen, and make his point — that every child has inherent teachability. He wants fellow educators to see he’s had remarkable success even though “this man is taking children who are not considered the elite,” he said. “He’s just taking humans.”