In North Star classes, there is no dead air. Fifth grade math was rhythmic recitation of multiplication tables punctuated by questions from the teacher, Julie Jackson. Hands shot into the air. The correct answer was rewarded with a ticket to be added to the pot for a drawing at the end of the week. Then the next table began. "Twelve, twenty-four, thirty-six, forty-eight . . . "
The pace of the class was relentless. Jackson, charged with bringing lagging students up to grade level, had the peripheral vision of a hawk--not to spot transgressions but to ensure that nobody is left behind. "She holds them in the very highest esteem," Verrilli said in the doorway.
A tour of classes in the upper grades showed less recitation but equally intense interaction between teachers and students. There was no fidgeting, much less misbehavior. Earlier, Verrilli had explained the stages of discipline at the school, but it seemed these students would never step out of line. That, Verrilli said, was the result of weeks and months of very hard work. "It's a little bit like a boot camp experience when they first come," he said. "They've had a lot of experience with adults who say things they don't mean. And we mean what we say."
They say there is no fighting. No disrespect toward teachers or peers. And no place to hide. "We know everything they do, we watch everything they do," Verrilli said. "The standards of behavior here, it's a much higher bar than it is in the schools they come from. In the schools they come from there's a lot of chaos, a lot of violence. It varies from teacher to teacher. You might have a good teacher, there might be a lot of order in the room. You don't have a good teacher, it's chaotic."
Because of its small size, North Star's teachers are observed frequently. Because of the longer school day and school year (September to late July), they tend to be dedicated by nature. They gauge their effectiveness not only by assessment tests but by students' aspirations. "They told me I can do anything I want to," said ninth grader Marron Pickett, "so I want to go to Harvard. None of my family members went to college so that's something I definitely want to do."
Verrilli said the job won't be done until North Star places its first class of students in colleges three years from now. And though he's pleased with the school's performance, he is the first to admit that the North Star model isn't the solution to all of the problems facing the nation's schools.
"I think we have one of many answers," he said, "a piece of the puzzle here. The problem is people are looking for simple answers. There's no simple answer. The problem is poverty. And until we solve that, we're not going to solve the educational problems of this country."
HOW SHOULD WE TEACH?
Small Triumphs: Alex Quigley '99 finds reason for both hope and despair in the Mississippi Delta
A Ray of Hope: Brittany Ray '93 inspires where she found her inspiration
An Education CEO: Robert Furek '65 brings accountability to Hartford public schools
Charting Success: James Verrilli '83 directs charter school turn-around in Newark
Perspectives on Reform: Colby experts discuss reform and the purpose of education
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