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If walls could speak

Posted by Jim Stergios  June 2, 2011 08:00 AM

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Walk into a building and you can already tell a lot about an institution. An excellent teacher can be found in a building that screams stasis, but a culture of excellence in a school will not over time abide such a feeling of immobility. That's why you can feel the energy in a school that works--and most often you can see it upon coming to an entrance, walking the hallways, and viewing the classroom walls.

And walking through the section of Our Lady of Grace in Chelsea, home to Phoenix Charter Academy, the walls of the classrooms show serious purpose. Sure, the school does not have the level of resources that district schools get for facilities; but that's part of the deal when you start a charter school. And that's why there are boxes in the office that staff is going through, and why festive banners are up on the day that I visited PCA: The next day, they were holding a fundraiser. (Contrary to what you hear, statewide charter schools get less money than district schools and they receive only a token of support for facilities.)

The halls were extremely clean, minimal messaging there, as if to say "the action is in the classroom." I've seen lots of successful schools exhort students through messages on the hallway walls--and that can be effective--but PCA's students are being focused on classroom time.

In the English class I sat in, the walls served to guide the students. They’re filled with references and role models—Frederick Douglass, George Orwell, Langston Hughes, Abraham Lincoln—with Lincoln’s exhortation “Be sure you put your feet in the right place, then stand firm” standing out for its size.

Upon entering the class, students shake the teacher’s hand. The actual class began in advance of the bell, with the teacher telling his students, “When the bell rings you should be in your seats and already have reviewed your ‘Do-Now’ work.” The kids are seated and pretty much silent; their homework is out. When the bell rings, the teacher already is collecting their homework and handing out a quiz.

The students focusing intently on the short test wear a uniform; though PCA has a uniform, it doesn't feel like a rigid dress code. Students wear “Phoenix Academy” shirts emblazoned with the mission of the school, or they wear a PCA Basketball shirt. As they take the quiz, there is little noise in the hallway. Students peer grade the quiz and then pass theirs in.

One kid pipes up, “Hey, that’s the first time since 2nd grade that I got a 100!” That has to be heartening to the teacher—these students who are their for a second, even a third or fourth chance, are happy to do well. No one knocks that. And the teacher’s smiling response is to push harder. “There were three perfect scores on the quiz. I guess it was too easy!”

I visited on a Friday, so there was a completed wall chart marking the “Friday Assessment All Stars.” These are the names of students getting 100% or 90% on their assignments that week on Civil War documents and the Greek Theatre.

I sat in a math class that was focused on linear equations. The class was in the middle of a project that had the walls covered with the students’ work. The classroom felt safe and secure, and the students behaved well and with purpose. The number of Spanish speakers was high, and an additional staff member helped students with language difficulties. The teacher had control of the classroom and floated among pairs of students who were working together. The students [c]all the teacher “Miss.” Language was largely correct throughout, though the teacher would pick her spots (allowing “freakin’” but correcting other issues).

Too often in some urban schools, you see classes in effect ending three or four minutes early, with students already lining up at the door, peering from the glass to the hallway, as if they can’t wait to get out. At Phoenix, I was impressed by the students’ focus, which continued until the end-of-class bell.

As I looked at the students still intent on their work as the class ended, I noticed on the walls of the math class as well just how clearly present academic goals were. There were goals for assignment completion, for concepts to learn, and in addition in large letters the acronym SCHOLAR spelled out as “Service, Community, Hope, Opportunity, Leadership, Achievement, and Respect.”

These kids and young adults and young single mothers are looking for another shot. Everything in the school is geared toward giving that opportunity and guiding the students to seizing it.

PCA teachers and staff recognize that education is about more than just showing up and getting by – it’s about motivating the students to want to succeed in life. It's about respect and building momentum toward success. PCA uses its classroom walls to surround students with role models, success and values. The walls are meant to instill a sense of mutual respect, an atmosphere of focus, and a goal of high expectations.

But the walls also keep before the students their need to take their future into their own hands. Make no mistake about it: The underlying message is that life has tests--and that success requires real focus and hard work.

I didn't visit the art room (mainly because the child care center with all those little ones was too beautiful). But if they are looking for quotes, they could of course go for the usual one from Michelangelo such as “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free” or even think about his dictum that "One paints with the brain, not the hands." But most fitting of all would be this:

The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Jim Stergios is executive director of the Pioneer Institute. Before joining Pioneer, he was Chief of Staff and Undersecretary for Policy in the Commonwealth's Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, where More »

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