The Founders: Building Schools With No Excuses

Scholars Charting a New Course in Education

Part I: The Founders: Building Schools with No Excuses

piece is the first in a series. See also
2: The Transition: John King’s Journey from Charter to Public Schools”

By Christopher Sopher (VA ’10)

Dacia Toll (MD ’93), Co-CEO and President, Achievement First
Seth Andrew (RI ’99), Founder and Superintendent, Democracy Prep Schools
Ravi Gupta (NY, ’04), Fellow, Building Excellent Schools

Over the last few years, charter schools have generated an
exceptional amount of interest and activity across the country, spurred by the
Department of Education’s Race to the Top initiative and by encouraging results
from the most successful charters. Nationwide there are some 1.5 million
students attending more than 4,000 charter schools. It is a moment of great
potential for leading education reformers who have spent years and sometimes
decades developing, opening and running charter schools in some of the
country’s lowest-income, lowest-performing districts.

A remarkable number of these leaders are Truman Scholars. I
interviewed three Truman Scholars (among many, many more) who are involved in
founding and running charter schools. This is their surprisingly connected

“A heck of an opportunity”

Dacia Toll had just returned from Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship,
and was starting law school at Yale, when the state of Connecticut passed its
first charter school legislation in 1996. “It basically says to community
leaders and entrepreneurs and others who are concerned about kids, ‘If you
think there’s a better way to do it and put together a robust plan and team,
we’ll actually let you run a public school,’” says Toll (MD ’93). “And that’s a
heck of an opportunity.”

Toll and a group of her fellow Yale Law School students took the
offer, and over the intervening 13 years she and her colleagues have
transformed that opportunity—first into a charter middle school in New Haven,
and then into one of the most respected charter school networks in America.

Toll had not planned a career in education. In college she was
involved in journalism and poverty issues, and later spent several summers
working for former President Jimmy Carter’s Atlanta Project, an antipoverty

“We worked with 18- to 30-year-olds, and we were preparing them
for jobs that we would not want for our own kids. Without adequate educational
background, it was not possible to access economic opportunity beyond a certain
level. I had that experience over and over again … It seemed like all the
issues we were focused on in terms of job opportunities and issues of social equality
and civil rights were really just downstream of unequal investments we were
making in kids.”

That inequality found names and faces when Toll started a teacher
prep program in New Haven Public Schools, while still in law school. “Something
that was theoretical, something that I understood on a policy level became very
real in my classroom of eight graders at Fair Haven Middle School.”

These experiences led Toll and her peers to found Amistad
, a charter middle school that opened in 1999 in one of New Haven’s
toughest neighborhoods.

“There were officially I think 32 founders of Amistad. It ranged
from the CEO of the local bank to a juvenile court judge to a child
psychologist to a teacher, a parent. It was a wonderful mix. In New Haven
there’s always sensitivity to Yale projects. As a result we worked especially
hard to broaden the founding team,” says Toll. “And it worked out really well.”

The founding team visited high-performing schools around the
country, including some of the very first charter schools. They designed a
“no-excuses” model, relentlessly focused on student achievement and quality
teaching. Toll quickly found herself running Amistad.

“To make a long story short, the principal didn’t work out, and by
November of the first year, I was already starting to function as a principal,
and I officially became the principal in the second year of the school. The
story is, I loved the job. So I ended up doing that for six years.”

After only a few years in operation, Amistad began showing
impressive results: performance gains with some of the most difficult students
in the city, higher state test scores, high teacher satisfaction. The school
was profiled in a PBS documentary and won a state award in 2006 for having the
best middle school performance gains in Connecticut.

In Amistad’s fifth year, Toll’s partner and co-director (and
fellow UNC alumnus) Doug McCurry left to found a second school in New Haven and
start Achievement First, a charter network that now operates 17 schools serving
predominantly low-income students in Connecticut and New York. Toll is co-CEO
and president. Amistad’s early success has continued for Achievement First’s
other schools.

“When Connecticut went to evaluate the performance gains [for
schools across the state] without us in there, they said, we need to include
the Achievement First schools. They needed to change the scales on the graph
because the scores we so different between our kids and the rest.”

Success follows success…

In 2004, the same year Amistad was featured in a PBS documentary,
Seth Andrew (RI ’99) arrived there for a one-year residency as a fellow with
Building Excellent Schools, an organization that trains charter school founders
and leaders.

After graduating from Brown University in 2000, Andrew followed
his future wife to Korea, where he taught in a public school, an experience he
says still informs his charter schools’ approach. Upon his return he taught and
became an administrator in traditional public schools.

“I got very excited about teaching and about my practice, but
really did not like the environment of the traditional school, which seemed
stifling and bureaucratic, and my colleagues didn’t have the same mission as I
did,” says Andrew.

He left and became a fellow at Building Excellent Schools, which in
2005 helped him launch Democracy Prep charter school in central Harlem, one of
New York City’s most historically troubled neighborhoods.

“I first tried to start Democracy Prep in Rhode Island almost ten
years ago. The educational and political environments weren’t supportive of
bold reforms at that time,” says Andrew. “When we couldn’t do it in Rhode
Island we moved to New York, and had a very supportive chancellor and mayor and
political environment, which meant that we were able to get Democracy Prep off
the ground and open in 2006 in public school space.”

By 2009, Democracy Prep was the top performing school in Harlem.
In September of 2010, New York City named it both the top middle school and top
charter school in the entire city.

“I ran the school day-to-day as head of school for the first two
years, and now we’re running five schools in New York and Rhode Island, and
that half of it is exciting, hard, challenging, brutal work,” says Andrew. “But
it is incredibly rewarding because you get to see your results with kids every
single day.”

Democracy Prep schools, like Dacia Toll’s Achievement First
schools, follow a “no excuses” model. Andrew says the model has five elements:
1) more school time; 2) the use of data to measure outcomes and needs; 3) rigorous
curriculum and high expectations; 4) a culture of respect and enthusiasm (what
Andrew calls “the joy factor”); and 5) high-performing teachers. “The single
most important thing of successful schools is really great teachers in every
classroom,” he says.

Andrew’s experiences and early success have given him confidence
in the model and the best practices it suggests for public education. “It’s 100
percent clear. It’s not something magic. It’s a lot of work, but if you look at
the highest performing schools around the country … they all do exactly the
same core principles.”

Despite opposition in some circles to these principles and to the
charter school movement, Andrew says parents and students in New York have
responded positively—so positively that student demand currently far exceeds
the supply of charter school spots.

“We had 1,500 families apply last year for about 100 spots.
Literally almost every kid who is eligible in District 5 for our program is
putting in an application to our school. For New York, there are 40,000
families on the waiting list trying to get into charter schools.”

“I want to do what he’s doing”

In the summer of 2009, while Democracy Prep was busy becoming
central Harlem’s best public school, Ravi Gupta (NY ’04) wandered into a panel
session at the Truman Scholars Association’s first National Conference in
Washington, DC.

“In the meeting there were Trumans who had started charter schools
and were involved in education. I saw an incredible guy named Seth Andrew …
and I was blown away by his presentation. I was so floored by his take on
charter schools, and by his passion for the cause … that I said to myself, I
want to do what he’s doing. I slipped him a note and told him I would be
e-mailing him. I sent him an e-mail the next day telling him I wanted to do
what he was doing, and he told me to apply for Building Excellent Schools.”

Gupta had just graduated from Yale Law School and was working as
an assistant to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice (DC ‘84), a
job he had maintained while in law school, after taking a year off to work for
the Obama for America presidential campaign.

“I almost immediately applied and was accepted, but had to defer
for a year because I had an obligation to work for Susan Rice. But I knew
what I wanted to do. Seth is a warrior. There are few people I’ve met in life
who are as passionate and dedicated and effective as he is. He was a big part
of it.”

Gupta is now a fellow with Building Excellent Schools, where he is
studying school leadership and preparing to launch a charter school in
Nashville, Tennessee.

“My dream in life is to start a school where I grew up in Staten
Island, but an opportunity presented itself to build a school in Tennessee
because they won Race to the Top … and I jumped at the chance. I love the
people in Tennessee, and I’m loving Nashville.

“We’re getting used to the grind of running a school. But for
me, that’s not too much of an adjustment. I went from campaign world, working
seven days a week until 1 a.m., to the UN, where every day there’s another
crisis to respond to.”

“I hear a lot of people tell me that it’s not possible in
medium-sized cities, or not possible in that region. But if you look around
this country, there are a handful of schools out there defying the odds, and
they’re doing it all over the place,” says Gupta.

What’s next

Toll, Andrew and Gupta all say they expect the movement to grow in
the years ahead.

“There really is a quiet revolution taking place,” says Toll.
“Through Race to the Top and other things, we have seen more progress in the
last 18 months than we’ve seen in the previous decade.”

Andrew, for his part, is ready to open more schools.

“We need more high-performing charter schools … I told the
chancellor [of New York City schools Joel Klein] in no uncertain terms, that we
will build as many Democracy Pep schools in Harlem as they will provide us
buildings,” he said. “We want to serve our community so that there is no
lottery and no waiting list. We want to get to the point where supply meets
demand, and we have enough spots for everybody who wants one.”

All three founders credit the Truman community with support, ideas
and inspiration, and say they hope the connections continue to the next
generation of school founders and leaders.

“The Truman community is like wind in your sails, having a whole
group who shares your values and commitment,” says Toll.

“There is no better advice than from those who have done it; to
sit down individually and talk with the great resources the Truman community
has,” says Gupta. “Seth helped me, and I’m ready to [help other] folks who want
to get involved.”

Chris Sopher (VA ’10) is a senior
in his last semester at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where
he studies public policy.

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