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Go to the head of the class
National debates on education reform have never been fiercer. Four new memoirs that range from inspiring to determined to hilarious fuel the discussion as their authors reflect on challenges and innovations in public schools, charter schools, educational nonprofit programs and even homeschooling.
ROOKIE IN THE CLASSROOM
Before his successful career in acting, Tony Danza earned a degree in history education, fully intending to become a teacher. When he found himself pushing 60, separated from his wife of more than 20 years and dealing with the cancellation of his talk show, Danza decided to return to his first, unfulfilled passion: teaching. His year spent as a 10th grade English teacher at Northeast High, an inner-city public school in Philadelphia, was depicted in the brief 2010 A&E television series, “Teach.” In I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had, to be published in September, he gives an enlightening, behind-the-scenes look at what happened when the cameras weren’t filming.
In his toughest role yet, with his harshest critics seated right in front of him, a tearful and frustrated Danza struggles to uphold the school’s mantra—“engage the students.” Often at odds with his producers, who only want to heighten the drama for television, he fights to keep his experience as authentic as possible for both himself and his students. His observations about teaching, from wondering how technology will shape the way kids learn to the emphasis on testing, echo common national concerns. With the help of his “half-sandwich club,” based on his father’s practice of sharing his sandwiches, he reaches out to any student in need. Ultimately finding teaching to be rewarding yet emotionally grueling, Danza brings the profession the recognition it deserves in this touching and candid account.
A BORN LEADER
Founder and CEO of Harlem Village Academies Deborah Kenny has always believed in social justice, but after her husband’s death from leukemia in 2001, she realized that if she really wanted to make a difference in the world, she would have to put her sadness aside. Born to Rise chronicles her arduous path to open not one but two charter schools in Harlem neighborhoods that had some of New York’s lowest test scores. In a time when there was little information on starting a charter school in the state of New York, Kenny quit her job and raised her three children on her meager savings while building the schools’ framework, seeking startup funding and performing hundreds of other pivotal tasks.
Deciding early on that an ideal school should focus on hiring and developing superior teachers rather than setting up a curriculum to be strictly followed, Kenny revolutionized public education. Her heartfelt narration reveals numerous mistakes along the way, from not remembering to have the school building unlocked on the first day to forgetting her own sense of fun amid the business of running a school, and celebrates such triumphs as ranking first in math scores across the state’s public schools and the bittersweet farewell of Harlem Village Academies’ first high school graduates. In the process of building these schools, Kenny realizes that she’s also built a culture and community. Anyone interested in school reform—whether parents, teachers or leaders—should begin with this powerful story.
A Year Up by Gerald Chertavian shows that school age children are not America’s only underserved population. As the nation’s demand for high-quality, entry-level workers increases, an estimated 5 million young adults ages 18-24 are currently unemployed and don’t possess more than a high school diploma. Suddenly a multi-millionaire when his startup dot-com business was sold and inspired by his “little brother” David, from the Big Brothers Big Sisters mentoring program, social entrepreneur Chertavian created Year Up, a nonprofit workforce development program for urban young adults, in 2000. Starting with 22 students from Boston’s tough inner-city neighborhoods, the thriving program has spread to eight additional cities.
Chertavian describes with sincerity and detail the journey toward implementing this one-year program that combines marketable computer skills with professional skills, followed by an internship with a top company. He also profiles numerous students and staff who have overcome such hardships as homelessness, poverty, neighborhoods infested with drugs and violence, limited education and the responsibilities of single parenting. Some of his key decisions, like placing Year Up centers in downtown financial districts to get students out of their dangerous neighborhoods and into the setting of the corporate world, reveal the secrets of his success. Most importantly, Chertavian demonstrates that an investment in America’s young people is an investment in America’s future.
NO PLACE LIKE HOME
Frustrated by her daughter Alice’s constant finagling out of doing her math homework and not, as they say, “reaching her full potential,” Quinn Cummings decided to give homeschooling a try for one year. Assuming that the homeschool movement began in the U.S. during colonial times (it did start in the U.S., but not until 1982), she gives herself homework, exploring the nearly 2 million homeschooled children and myriad homeschooling philosophies. The result is the frank and irreverent The Year of Learning Dangerously: Adventures in Homeschooling in which the former child actor from The Goodbye Girl and the 1970s television drama “Family” searches for the ideal way to homeschool her daughter (and validate her decision).
Cummings doesn’t limit her information gathering to Google searches. She observes children without limits at a Radical Unschooling conference in Boston, chaperones a Christian homeschool prom in Indiana, sneaks into the Sacramento convention of a secretive, ultra-authoritarian Christian sect and engages in other laugh-out-loud encounters, all in the name of research. Hearing over and over again about the doomed fate of homeschoolers—no socialization—she interjects French lessons, team sports and the playground into Alice’s repertoire, all with mixed results. Realizing that some of Alice’s best learning—and bonding—occurred on their routine hikes, Cummings also discovers that there’s no typical homeschool family, just as giving children their best start isn’t limited to one curriculum.