Private Schools Challenge Students to Achieve

One of the easiest ways to ignite a fire storm among a group of inner-city educators is to ask them how best to challenge students. Educators from the slums of Baltimore to the barrios of Los Angeles have cried out that their children cannot achieve unless we reform “the system.” There have been calls for busing, smaller classes, local control, magnet schools and countless other reforms. However, despite these well-meaning pleas, I am afraid that we have overlooked the simple solutions in favor of the more complex.

As an African-American educator who has spent 13 years in teaching, I have come to the conclusion that we need reshuffle our priorities in schools. I believe that, in order to challenge our students, we need to insist upon four necessities of education: (a) stressing high expectations, (b) demanding that students to work hard, (c) encouraging good character and (d) getting back to the established basics of educational methodology.

When I was the headmaster of the Bethel Bible Christian School (BBCS), a predominantly black, Christian school of over 300 students in Prince George’s County,1 I would sometimes chuckle when public school teachers came to enroll their own children at our school. Without a doubt, each of them was concerned for one or more of the four necessities listed above. It went without saying that they did not feel they could find them at their own public schools. (In PG County, 13 percent of all pupils are in private schools.)2

However, let me at the outset lay aside a few misconceptions about BBCS. Now closed, it was not a “white flight” school. In fact, 97 percent of the students were African-American. (Indeed, let us now put to rest once and for all the notion that private schools are for whites only. In school year 1990-1991, as figure 1 shows, 21.7 percent of all private-school students were non-white minorities. Among Catholic schools, this figure rose to 25.2 percent. For their part, Seventh-Day Adventist schools were 40.7 percent non-white, even higher than the public schools’ ratio of 31.2 percent.)3 BBCS’s students came from every economic class. The school established a financial-aid program to provide grants to over 40 low-income students. This cut their tuition from $2,500 a year to $1,500 a year. By contrast, per-pupil spending for public schools in PG County in 1995 was $6,018.4 BBCS covered kindergarten through the 8th grade. Students graduating from our kindergarten entered our first grade able to read, count to 100 and write in cursive. The students in each grade were on average a year to a year-and-a-half ahead of their public-school peers.

Back to Basics

How was this accomplished? It was because the school put an emphasis on high expectations, hard work, character training and basic, old-fashioned classroom methods. High expectations are not new to African-American parents. In “Newcomers: Blacks in Private Schools,” Diana Slaughter and Barbara Schneider posed the question, why do black parents send their children to private elementary schools? Their answer was simple. It was this: “Nearly all parents have high educational aspirations for their children; they value preschool education; they want schools to provide a strong background in the fundamentals of reading, writing and mathematical computation…. They stress that today the available quality of public education in their neighborhoods and communities is inferior.”5

In addition, Jane Stallings of the renowned Peabody Center for Effective Teaching, conducted research in which students were asked about what stood out the most in their academic experience. Stallings found that 92 percent said high expectations topped their list, along with warmth and personal interest.6

Another component that will help children achieve is to teach them that their instructors expect them to work hard and make the grade. Children and parents need to understand that grades are a reflection of the work a student performs – not the arbitrary choice of a teacher or administrator. At BBCS, parents and students were told that they should not be ashamed of Cs, because most students are your average, everyday students. However, if they worked hard, they could make As and Bs. The school also informed parents that their children should expect anywhere from one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half hours of homework four nights a week. Parents came to understand that, if they made school work a priority at home and encouraged their children to work hard both in and out of class, the kids would earn the higher grades. This would not be because of any special treatment, but because the children worked hard and learned the material. The important message was this: There would be no As handed out free.

This contrasts sharply with the experience many children have at public schools, where “social promotions” have become common. Unable to bear the pressure from angry parents or statistics-conscious administrators, teachers often award high grades to barely literate students – just for the sake of a quiet life. Indeed, until very recently, grade-to-grade promotional levels were a component of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP), the annually administered battery of student tests used to rate each public school. In other words, schools had a built-in reason to promote – because it improved their MSPAP rankings.7

Marva Collins, an educator of inner-city children on the west side of Chicago, has this to say to students complaining of hard work: quotIf you do not learn, if you do not get an education, all you have to look forward to are poverty and welfare. See, child, the system has people canned. Welfare is just another word for slavery. For instance, have you ever seen a child on welfare go to Hawaii? Do you know any welfare children who go to nice restaurants? Live in decent houses? That’s the first thing I hope you learn. There are no free rides. So, if you want a decent life, you are going to have to work for it.”8

Character Counts

Character training is also a critical component in challenging any student to achieve. A school can have the best curriculum, the greatest teachers and endless resources, but if the students’ characters are not properly developed then little will be achieved. The keys to character training are parents and teachers. William McGuffey, author of the McGuffey Readers series, says, “The formation of character is committed to parents and teachers. The intellectual habits of our pupils will be very much as we form them. Their modes of thought, the principles of taste, their habits of feelings, all will take on their complexion, if not their character, from our methods of training the mind.”9

In many of my interviews with parents, it became apparent that the one thing they were searching for was a school that valued what they valued. Many, if not most, wanted a Christian education for their children, which was what BBCS was offering. Others favored the school’s high emphasis on academics and its safe environment. However, we at BBCS found that all three were linked. There is a relationship between character training, moral instruction, physical environment and a student’s desire to achieve. A school that puts emphasis on character and values will inevitably have a safer environment than one that does not. In a clean and pleasant school, students will be more disposed to learning – because they know they have a moral responsibility to behave and to achieve.

The final factor in getting students to live up to their full potential is getting back to the established basics of classroom instruction – methods that have been time-tested and proven. These include structured routines and the dreaded H-word, “homework.” Routinized classroom methodology is critical for an academically oriented program. Alice Bain, a former teacher and black leader at Manierre Elementary School, New Jersey, knows the secret of success with inner-city children: “Schools must realize the black, inner-city child’s need for security. Many can’t expect stability and security at home, so it must come from the school. It is important for children to be able to anticipate what happens next in school and we follow routines religiously.”10

Teachers who use basic routines for classroom management and instruction help to maximize the time students spend engaged in academic activities. This allows more time to learn. This in turn results in superior performance in achievement tests.11 Research has shown that, in an academically structured system, the most effective instructional strategies include the development of memory, understanding, reasoning and problem solving.12 Jane Stallings, in her work on effective elementary-level classroom practices, summarizes as follows. Teachers must, she says:
Structure the learning experience.
Use small steps but at a rapid pace.
Give more rudimentary instructions and explanations.
Have a high frequency of questions and overt, active practice.
Provide feedback and corrections (practical only in the initial stages of learning new materials).
Have a success rate of 80 percent or higher in the initial stages of learning.
Divide seat-work assignments into smaller segments or devise ways to provide frequent monitoring.
Provide for continued practice so that students have a success rate of 90 percent to 100 percent.13

These practices should not be difficult to implement – if we have the will to do it. We must have the will to do it.

In conclusion, helping students to achieve is – or at least should be – the ever-pressing goal of any school. Parents and teachers must work together to stress high expectations and encourage hard work, to promote character training and to insist that the proven basics of instructions techniques are used throughout the school.

Mr. Gadson is a doctoral student in education and a former teacher and headmaster at the Bethel Bible Christian School in Prince George’s County, Maryland.

End Notes

[Top] 1. Bethel Bible Christian School closed on June 13, 1996.

[Top] 2. Valerie Strauss, “The Pull of Private School,” Washington Post, November 13, 1995, p. A1.

[Top] 3. U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, National Center for Education Statistics, NCES 95-330, Private Schools in the United States: A Statistical Profile, 1990-91 (Washington, D.C. Government Printing Office, January 1995), p. 41, table 2.5.

[Top] 4. State of Maryland, Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE), Division of Planning, Results and Information Management, Maryland School Performance Report, 1995: State and School Systems (Baltimore, Md.: MSDE, December 1995), p. 43.

[Top] 5. Diana T. Slaughter and Barbara L. Schneider, “Newcomers: Blacks in Private Schools,” executive summary to a report prepared for the National Institute of Education, Washington, D.C., 1986.

[Top] 6. Jane Stallings, “Effective Elements of Classroom Practice,” in National Institute of Education (NIE), Reading for Excellence and Effective School Sourcebook (Washington, D.C.: NIE, 1985), p. 19.

[Top] 7. Mike Bowler, “The ‘Easily Manipulated’ Promotion Rates Fail Test,” (Baltimore) Sun, September 11, 1996, p. 2B.

[Top] 8. Marva Collins, Relighting the Candles of Excellence Across America (Chicago, Ill.: Charitable and Educational Foundation, 1988), p. 1.

[Top] 9. As quoted in John H. Westoff III, McGuffey and his Readers (Milford, Mich.: Mott Media, 1982), p. 78.

[Top] 10. As quoted in Carl Sommer, Schools in Crisis: Training for Success or Failure (Houston, Tex.: Cahill Publishers, 1984), p. 137.

[Top] 11. Stallings, “Effective Elements of Classroom Practice,” p. 23

[Top] 12. Stallings, “Effective Elements of Classroom Practice,” p. 25.

[Top] 13. Stallings, “Effective Elements of Classroom Practice,” p. 25.

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