MAXWELL:  THE LIBERTY SCHOOL

5/25/1997 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

 

Taurean Gissendanner, 7, and Devon Love, 6, could not control themselves when they saw the tall white man wearing a casual sports shirt and charcoal gray slacks enter the cafetorium. They left their breakfast trays on the table and ran to him. Taurean shouted, “Hey, Mr. Jeb Bush!” He leaped into Bush’s arms and displayed a fish he had drawn. Bush praised the child.

Not to be outdone, Devon said, “Look, Mr. Bush, I’ve got potato chips.”

Sitting at one of the tot-sized dining tables, Bush said, “Devon, you aren’t eating potato chips for breakfast, are you?” By this time, several other children had left their breakfasts of orange juice, milk, cold cereal and fruit turnover, surrounded Bush and crawled onto his lap. He hugged them all, complimenting their dress.

For the next several minutes, about a dozen children told Bush what they had done or had watched on television the night before. A girl in first grade had seen a show about Egypt. “We’re studying Tutankhamen in class,” she said.

Jarrell Brewster, 6, showed Bush a bright yellow sun he had drawn. “You’re an excellent artist, Jarrell,” Bush said and rubbed the boy’s head. A little girl pretended to scare Bush with a paper alligator she had made.

Outside, 30 children were getting off a school bus. As they entered the cafetorium and saw Bush and the other children, the noise _ all happy one-upmanship and laughter _ became almost deafening. Suddenly, the lights went out. A handsome, soft-spoken young black man stood in the middle of the floor and gave the peace symbol. “We’re too noisy,” he said. “We’re not speaking in 5-inch voices.”

The room fell silent.

The man, Keith Anderson, instructed the students to clean their tables and put the waste in the bin. This task was carried out quietly and in an orderly way. Then Anderson told the students to line up by grades _ kindergarten, first and second _ and go to their classrooms. Again, everything was quiet and orderly. In their classrooms, the students recited the pledge and sang the national anthem, all without their teachers being present.

While the teachers met with the principal, Anderson jockeyed between classrooms. The students effectively monitored themselves, however.

This is the routine each morning at Liberty City Charter School in Miami, where 57 pupils in combinations of red, white and blue uniforms, three teachers, a principal, a paraprofessional and parent volunteers are attempting one of Florida’s boldest experiments in education since court-ordered desegregation.

Liberty City, which opened last August 26 with 60 African-American students drawn by lottery, is the state’s first charter school. It was founded by T. Willard Fair, president of the Urban League of Greater Miami, and Jeb Bush, former Florida gubernatorial candidate and just-resigned chairman of the non-profit Foundation for Florida’s Future.

Charter schools are independent public schools established under a “charter,” or contract, made between the school districts and organizers, such as teachers, parents, colleges and various local organizations. Although the school receives autonomy from most state and district regulations, it must obey those related to matters such as civil rights, health and safety and fiscal accountability. And like other public schools, a charter school receives tax dollars.

Coming from different socioeconomic classes, Fair, 58, a former Democrat turned independent who has run the Urban League for 34 years spreading a gospel of self-development in Miami’s ghettos, and Bush, a conservative millionaire and son of a former U.S. president, share a philosophy of education that undergirds the operation of the school.

Both refer to the children of the sprawling Liberty City area as “under-utilized assets.” “What we’ve told the Dade County school system,” Fair said, “is that in order for us to bring Liberty City children to levels of expectation and achievement of other children, we have to understand that the process of teaching them is different.

“And the process is different, not because the children are different, but because their experiences are different. It has nothing to do with poverty and dysfunctional families, nothing to do with ethnicity. It has everything to do with the attitudes of the adults who are around children and the value the adults place on education.”

Fair said also that he had worked directly inside the Dade system since 1985 to no avail: “We decided to become part of the charter school process, not because we are anti-public education, but because we want to use our charter school to illustrate that the children in Liberty City can achieve if the expectations are high, if the environment is right and if the teachers, principal and parents operate with understanding, flexibility and accountability. Ours is not an adversarial position to make the school system look bad. We’re here to try to make the system look better in the whole process.”

Bush and Fair knew that because of its well-documented socioeconomic problems and its history of racial turmoil, Liberty City, internationally known as Miami’s black ghetto, was the right place for Florida’s first charter school. Eventually, it will have 200 students in kindergarten through fifth grade and will conduct Saturday math and reading labs.

Here, 91 percent of the population is African-American, and 66 percent live in households headed by single women. The mean annual income is $17,836, less than half Dade’s average of $37,903. Between 1980 and 1990, 49 percent of residents lived below the poverty line, compared to 18 percent elsewhere in Dade. About 58 percent of Liberty City residents drop out of high school, compared to the rest of the county’s 34 percent. Only 4 percent of residents here complete four or more years of college.

If, as Fair and Bush believe, Liberty City Charter School can began to break this cycle of despair, then all of the criticism from liberals and others is moot. Fair also wants critics to know that the students are not hand-picked but were chosen by lottery. Some students, in fact, come from upper-income families, while others live with unwed grandmothers on welfare.

Parents believe that the school has the right philosophy, an excellent staff and curriculum, and a positive impact on their children. Fair said that they want the things that other parents want _ safety for their young ones, quality of education, values, extracurricular activities and sports, in that order.

Cassandra Culliver, a 23-year-old attendance clerk for North Dade Middle School and single mother, said that her 5-year-old daughter, Jannea, is thriving, in part, because her kindergarten class has only 18 children.

“Even in day care, my child didn’t get this kind of individual attention,” Culliver said. “I’ve seen her reading skills, social studies skills and interest in learning increase. She doesn’t want to miss any days in school. She knows things about the rain forest, different countries and things I really don’t know. She’s doing subtraction and multiplication, and she’s just 5. You can’t beat that.”

Alva Scott, whose sons are 6 and 7 years old, likes the school because the boys have ample homework each night, including weekends.

As a single father, Costello Guyton, a lieutenant with the Dade County Department of Corrections, feels fortunate that his son, 6, and daughter, 8, attend the school because he has an opportunity to choose. He always had wanted his children to attend a school that “teaches moral education and discipline,” he said, and does not limit his children.

“The teachers here don’t limit the children’s learning to that nine-week parameter,” he said. “They allow the students to go above and beyond. In the regular public school, they’re not allowed to do that. My son is in kindergarten and is reading at the first-grade level. My daughter is in second grade and is reading at the fourth-grade level.

“This proves that black kids from Liberty City and Overtown can achieve just like other kids in the county. They’re born with the same minds and hearts. It has to be commitment. We have a principal who really cares, and that caring is passed down to the teachers and the students.”

And how does the school handle a 5-year-old with an IQ of 130? McKenzie Adams is one such student and is being challenged like never before, said her mother, Gloria Adams. The principal devised a program that lets McKenzie spend two days in the gifted program at Miami Shores Elementary and three days at Liberty City Charter. Adams, a pharmacist, said that she is pleased with the school’s flexibility and with her daughter’s progress.

Even though experts argue that parental involvement is one key to the academic success of children, few public schools require parents to work or show up on campus. But at Liberty City Charter, all parents must sign a contract to volunteer 30 hours a year and attend workshops. More than 60 percent of the parents already have satisfied the terms of their contracts.

Adams, for example, sweeps and mops, cleans tables and makes charts for the classrooms. Glenn Williams-Cook, who has a 7-year-old son in second grade, files for the secretary, takes down posters and displays and answers the telephone. Some fathers are skilled craftsmen, such as plumbers, electricians, carpenters and painters, who volunteer their time and materials. A father and son painted the entire school in one weekend. A mother, an amateur horticulturist, donated and planted annuals on the school grounds.

Everyone agrees that such efforts give the school its sense of family and make it unlike other public schools in Dade. In fact, the family _ parents and guardians being involved both on and off campus _ is central to everything here.

“Because we put our students first,” said 33-year-old kindergarten teacher Maritza Alon, “we have certain expectations that parents have to meet. We expect parents to be part of the teaching, part of the education of their children. In that sense, I call them up and remind them of their contracts with the school. I tell them that I need to see you at the school. Your child needs to see you at the school.

“You may just come over and say “hi’ to me or sit down for lunch. Just get here. A big part of our job is empowering the family. And when you empower families, you empower children. When the family supports the child _ I don’t care which member of the family it is _ you get results. I see it in my classroom every day.”

Alon even requires students to own public library cards. Parents and guardians, therefore, must drive the children to the library and stay with them. Alon checks the cards. The result? The children bring books to class and ask Alon to read to them. Already, most of them have favorite authors and illustrators.

Katrina Wilson-Davis, the school’s charismatic principal, approves of Alon’s take-no-prisoners methods and believes that gifted, committed teachers like her are essential to a quality education. For this reason, she, Bush, Fair and the rest of the board of governors made sure that their first three teachers have all the right stuff, including an all-important sensitivity for the backgrounds of Liberty City children.

First-grade teacher Tashimba L. Andrews, 25, is herself from Miami’s economically depressed Overtown and Brownsville area. A graduate of historically black Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Andrews said: “I relate to these kids and the environment that they come from, and I can identify with the parents and tell them that there are no boundaries for their children, that there are no limitations.”

Staci Gruher, 25, the second-grade teacher, said that Liberty City will succeed because its staff members are true professionals who collaborate. “We’ve had a great year because we work as a team,” she said. “We share ideas. When something isn’t working well in our classrooms, we go to one another and ask for help. We try new things together. We don’t feel intimidated or embarrassed to ask for help. You would have a hard time doing that in the regular public system.”

The school’s essential strength is its tough curriculum of basic math, language arts, science and social studies and E. D. Hirsch’s core knowledge program, which holds that students should know certain information at certain ages and grade levels, and its emphasis on character building and citizenship. Each week, the faculty publicly rewards one student in each class for exemplary behavior.

“Our kids came to us pushing, shoving, fighting, cussing and kicking, no respect for property and cleanliness,” Wilson-Davis said. “But because we are a character-based school, we talk about ethics, hard work, discipline, integrity and respect for adults and their peers. If you walk around this building, you don’t see crayon marks on the walls, desks written on and general destruction.

“That is an indicator of how much our children have progressed. We’ve also made them very conscious of their language. Initially, a lot of them used slang. I’m not saying that they don’t use slang now, but they don’t use it as much. As part of their character-building, they’re becoming more formal. We’ve changed some attitudes and behavior, which is directly tied to performance.”

But, like many other experiments involving social engineering, the Liberty City Charter School must prove its long-term viability. As part of its charter, the school agreed to raise the performance of all students one grade level during the first year. If the school fails dramatically, the district can shut it down.

A larger question, of course, is whether a school that ultimately serves only 200 students in kindergarten through fifth grade makes a real difference in larger society.

Wilson-Davis says she knows it will. “I want to produce people who want to make a difference, who would rather work than steal, who would rather work things out than walk away, who would rather go out in their own communities and clean up their neighborhood and do things that they need to do. We’re talking about long-term investment in our own community. This will be our legacy _ building solid citizens who will make positive changes.”