- The Washington Times - Monday, March 27, 2000

DURHAM, N.C. A weary Tom Williams had retired after 27 years as schoolteacher, principal and superintendent.
Frustrated by the teachers union's stranglehold on public education and a dwindling lack of respect for his profession, he left upstate New York for California in 1990.
He hoped the change in climate would help him recover from a lingering bout of hepatitis. Out west, his illness subsided, but his love of the schoolhouse did not.
Now at 65, the tough-talking, reform-minded grandfather of seven lives closer to his family in North Carolina. He also happens to lead the state's most successful public charter school, Healthy Start Academy.
At Healthy Start, 80 percent of the children are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, but defy the stereotype that because they are poor, they cannot achieve.
"We're proving something that the education community refuses to accept," Mr. Williams says with a touch of pride. "In their little uniforms, in their little beat-up school, my kids are kicking the hell out of those tests."
Last spring, students of the elementary school, near crack houses in the "ghetto of Durham," blew the doors off a national standardized test: They scored in the 88th percentile in reading and in the 91st percentile in math on the Iowa Test for Basic Skills.
The results brought statewide recognition and national attention to Healthy Start and its predominantly black student body of 430 enrolled in kindergarten through fourth grade.
"They know how to challenge [children] and they know how to love them," says state Rep. Russell Capps, a Republican from northwest Raleigh who is a proponent of charter schools. Mr. Williams and his teachers, Mr. Capps adds, "set an example for the entire nation."
This series examines Healthy Start and two other public schools one a combined junior-senior high in Harlem, N.Y., the other a small Arkansas elementary in the heart of the Mississippi Delta where students excel even though they come from low-income families.
The Heritage Foundation identified these three schools as among the best in the nation. Each uses a different method to get the most out of children. The conservative think tank feted Mr. Williams and 24 other principals from high-poverty, high-performing schools during a November conference in Washington.
"Learning from their successes should be the highest priority for education in a nation where 58 percent of low-income fourth-graders cannot read," writes Samuel Casey Carter, a Bradley fellow at the Heritage Foundation who organized the think tank's "No Excuses" campaign pushing higher standards forpublic schools.
"Their record of achievement shows that all children can learn, no matter what the income levels of their families are, and that there's no excuse for the failure of schools to teach poor children."

'Always dignity'

Mr. Williams, a former reading and social studies teacher, is a tall and direct man who is fond of smoking cigars and citing Barry Goldwater.
In an interview in his comfortably shabby office on a chilly February morning, the principal says the secret of his success at Healthy Start Academy is focusing on the basics, particularly reading and math.
"There are no miracles here," Mr. Williams says bluntly. "We usually start our days with hard work, meaning an hour of math, an hour of reading and an afternoon left open for the teachers to decide what works best."
He recognizes that students achieve at different levels. And he refuses to label those who may be struggling or have "special needs."
"No Excuses, Just Achievements," reads a bulletin board, setting the tone for all who enter the building. The school's motto hangs above the front office: "Always dignity."
Healthy Start Academy opened its doors in 1997 with 135 students, the first of 20 charter schools created under a new state law. Three years later, 100 charter schools are up and running statewide, the maximum allowed.
Initially the publicly funded, privately run charter schools were not a popular notion, Mr. Williams says. Many parents and lawmakers feared charters would lead to white flight and opposed the initiative. Exactly the opposite happened, the principal argues.
"It was the black people who bailed out of public schools," he says of the growth of charters. "Now we're starting to show results academically while many of the other schools fail."

Something to prove

In fact, many of North Carolina's charter schools are struggling. But interest in Healthy Start is high as word of its success trickles out into the city, home to Duke University. In 2 and 1/2 years, enrollment has nearly tripled.
Mr. Williams opened another Healthy Start Academy in nearby Raleigh and wants to create several similar schools in the Research Triangle area.
Many of Mr. Williams' students in Durham live in the neighborhood and walk to classes; others are bused in from several miles away. "They go past five or six public schools to get here," he says.
One is a brand new elementary school about two miles away that, despite a pristine facade and state-of-the-art facilities, posts the worst test scores in the state.
Mr. Williams' kids wear mandatory uniforms of navy and white. They spend extra time on tasks and stay after school for tutoring with committed teachers. They attend classes 11 months a year inside a ragtag, 75-year-old building that once was condemned by the school district.
Healthy Start is a diagnostic and prescriptive school, meaning each pupil is tested upon entry and then gets a detailed, personalized education plan.
Discipline is paramount, methods are traditional. During a visit by a reporter, one teacher orders an unruly boy to a corner, nose to the brick wall.
Another teacher shakes hands with pupils as they enter class and has them raise their hands in a "V for victory" sign when they want to answer a question.
The children are expected to display good character and manners. They move quietly through the halls and up the stairs, something the once-rambunctious youngsters had to practice, Mr. Williams says.

'It's different'

Freedom for administrators, at the heart of the charter movement, helped Healthy Start tailor its curriculum to the needs of children with differing learning styles and abilities, parent and board member Gisele Bell says.
But those with learning disabilities attend the same classes as everyone else. They receive extra instruction from teacher aides in their most difficult subjects.
And unlike at other schools in North Carolina, Mr. Williams refuses to separate these children's test scores from the rest in tabulating schoolwide results.
Kewone Harris, 10, is one of the children who say they appreciate the discipline.
"At the other school I used to go to, it was like crazy down there," says Kewone, a math fan who has attended Healthy Start for three years. "Everybody was going to the office every day. At Healthy Start, it's different."
Children listen to classical music in the morning. They pray over lunch, which is prepared by the local Chicken Hut restaurant because there is no kitchen on site.
To an outsider, the place is run-down: cracked paint, worn carpet, scarred desks. There is no fancy gymnasium or spacious playground, no organized sports teams. But tiny cheerleaders jump, jive and yell for any local youth team that will let them.
Most of the 25 faculty members are black; three are white. Nearly all of the children are black, and that fact draws criticism from state officials who want charters to be more racially diverse.
The principal frequently is mobbed for hugs by his young charges, who call him the "crazy white guy" a moniker he clearly relishes.
The father of two grown sons and a daughter, Mr. Williams recognizes that many children come from homes where Mom is the only parent. So he tries to hire male teachers to provide a masculine role model, particularly for boys. Eight of the 25 teachers are men; so are three teacher's aides and the dean of students.
"Most of our kids don't have daddies," Mr. Williams says. "When a male teacher says to them, 'That's not the way to behave,' they hear it and believe."

Digging in his heels

Mr. Williams doesn't hesitate to take shots at sacrosanct federal initiatives such as the Individuals With Disabilities Act (IDEA) and the Head Start program, which is designed to prepare young children for school.
"Head Start?" he snarls. "It's a way of buying off outspoken minority people by giving them jobs."
On IDEA, he opines: "It's the worst idea ever visited upon schools. It does no good for children and costs a fortune."
The federal Title 1 program offering government help to low-income schools and up for renewal this year by Congress he labels a multibillion-dollar failure.
Ask about Gov. James B. Hunt Jr., a Democrat lauded by U.S. Education Secretary Richard W. Riley and others for statewide reform efforts, and the principal lets it rip.
"The only reason he's called 'the reform governor' is because he started a statewide standardized test," Mr. Williams says.
When this decidedly frank, politically incorrect principal first started at the neighborhood school, the reception from locals was anything but warm.
After three nights of intense meetings with parents, he had not mended the racial divide. But with characteristic aplomb, he held his ground.
"I just dug my heels in and said, 'I'm here and I'm staying, and if you don't like it, do something,' " he remembers.
"I said, 'I teach kids. Your kids don't know what color I am and I don't know what color they are.' "
Even today, not everyone has come around.
"I don't think it will ever be totally gone," Mr. Williams says with measured acceptance of the sort of covert disdain that some still direct at him as the white principal of a black school. "But the overt stuff is over."

'We need a new system'

Like many other charter schools around the nation, Healthy Start uses the Core Knowledge curriculum. Developed about a decade ago through research by E.D. Hirsch Jr. at the University of Virginia, it defines guidelines for what each grade should learn and builds upon that body of knowledge as the student advances.
Kindergartners, for example, learn about continents and oceans and where they live in relation to those places. First-graders begin to learn about civilizations that settled the continents, starting with Egypt and Mesopotamia. Second-graders move on to Asia.
"Always in Core Knowledge, you come back to the United States," Mr. Williams says.
However, the curriculum has gotten the principal into hot water with state education officials, who criticize his methods because they don't emphasize what the state says is important. Most fourth-graders in North Carolina study state history; at Healthy Start, they study world history.
Still, his strategies have paid off, and Mr. Williams is unapologetic.
"I really believe the greatest system in the world is gone and it can't be resuscitated," he says. "American public education once had no peers, but that's gone. We need a new system.
"Charter schools," the principal adds, "have created badly needed choice and competition."
The autonomy under charters allows Mr. Williams to spend as he sees fit. He pays new teachers $31,000 a year a heap more than the Durham school district, which starts novice educators at $22,000. Veteran teachers with master's degrees make $35,000 to $38,000.
Teachers don't belong to a union, and they don't have tenure. If pupils fail to perform, their teacher gets the boot.
"Time on task is critical, but nobody wants to talk about it," Mr. Williams says. "For a public school to want a longer workday, they have to deal with the teacher's union."
While the Durham district spends about $7,900 per year to educate a child, Mr. Williams spends about $5,500 per child.
Last year, he accepted only $48,000 in federal money for disadvantaged youngsters. He refused to apply for federal grants because of the strings attached. But each year he posts a surplus.
"He's the best example of a school administrator that I've ever seen," says Mr. Capps, the state lawmaker.

A guiding hand

Mr. Williams created a no-frills environment that delivers "cutting-edge education," science teacher LaKesha Spruill says.
"Here, I feel that your hard work is appreciated, it's noticed," says Miss Spruill, 25.
Her colleagues are supportive. And because the school is small, teachers know when a child is falling through the cracks. When that happens, she says, everyone steps in whether the child is one of their students or not.
Chazle Lassiter, 9, likes Spanish and computers. And she likes that her teachers care about her.
"They treat you like you are one of their own," says the fourth-grader, who has attended Healthy Start for two years.
Mr. Williams appears deeply devoted to his staff. He pops into each classroom "every day" and meets with a team of teachers from each grade level every morning at 7:30. He personally trains his new hires, veterans and first-timers alike.
The principal teaches two classes himself: one for struggling readers, another for readers who excel.
The latter, dubbed "Mr. Tom's Book Club," was inspired by television talk show host Oprah Winfrey's club for her viewers. Fourth-graders read Hemingway, Steinbeck and others and discuss their books around a table in Mr. Williams' office.
"You won't find any [other] principals in North Carolina teaching classes," he boasts. "Most of them sit on their behinds and drink coffee."

Becoming accountable

To an outsider, there is no visible glamour in this schoolhouse.
On this February morning, the day before a snowstorm would dump 18 inches on the area, many youngsters wear sweaters and jackets because the decrepit building is so cold.
The cafeteria also houses the library a few ratty bookshelves and a meager supply of books. The floor is unvarnished plywood. And there's no hot water in the building.
Pride provides the bright spots: Student art work and projects hang on the walls. A grant from the Challenge Foundation, a Florida group that awards money to high-performing charter schools, brought Healthy Start the state's first and only school-housed planetarium. The foundation also donated 16 electric pianos for music class.
Miss Spruill, who runs the planetarium, arrived two years ago after a year teaching in the state's traditional public schools. She isn't looking back.
"If you are going to teach children accountability, then teachers are especially going to have to be accountable," she says.
Miss Spruill has brought students to her own house for visits when she believes they aren't getting enough attention and support at home. Occasionally, she washes or mends their clothes.

"Expecting us to learn'

First-year teacher Vonda Stafford, 22, could have taken a job almost anywhere in this robust job market. She chose a charter school because of the creative freedom. And the enormous challenge.
Many friends, Miss Stafford confides, would not even set foot in this neighborhood, much less work here. She is not afraid.
"[For] a lot of our children, education is the only thing that is going to save them," she says.
Miss Stafford, who is black, is a graduate of North Carolina Central University in Durham. She knows moms who are prostitutes and absent from their children's lives. To get to know parents, she has visited church, work and home.
If her pupils don't get homework done, she stays on them, having them work during her lunch period, at recess or after school. Like many colleagues, she tutors two days a week.
"Even though their home life may be fractured, we don't accept excuses," Miss Stafford says. "Every child is pushed to his or her level of mastery, and scores of 85 or below are not good enough."
Imani Ahmad, 10, says she likes it that Miss Stafford makes her work hard.
"She's expecting us to learn and to take pride in using good manners," Imani says.
"She makes sure you are doing it right and if you don't get it, she'll tell you to stay after school and she'll tutor you. That means that she loves us and she wants us to have a great life."
Miss Stafford tells of one girl in her class who was deemed disruptive at another school and confined to special education courses.
"They had her convinced she was slow and could never learn," Miss Stafford recalls.
Today, this "brilliant" girl is spelling bee champion and studies pre-algebra, two levels above grade. Her brazen attitude has simmered down.
"All she needed was someone to recognize her individual talents," Miss Stafford says, then push her to excel despite the difficulties of her young life.
And that, the teacher explains, is why Healthy Start shines.PART II

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