Can Mt. Airy's Isaac Ewell turn a $4 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation into a successful network of success-driven charter schools in low-income urban black communities?
In the former home of the Mt. Airy Church of God in Christ, the pulpit has come alive. The converted house of worship now holds the New Media Technology Charter School, a two-year-old project-based-learning high school with a focus on digital design.
With syncopated crunk-styled instrumentals booming from speakers set on either side of a raised wooden and red velvet platform, the school's 170 students are throwing a pep rally for the basketball team.
"If y'all ain't dancing, they gonna cut it off," urges Tyler Ward, a student serving as the de facto MC, dressed in an unbuttoned white dress shirt with a long white T-shirt underneath. "No standing around."
Students and several instructors huddle close together to watch an impromptu dance contest, while one teen records the happenings on a handheld digital camcorder. This massive space is normally used as the main work area for all four of the 10th-grade advisories-new media-speak for core class groups. Today half of the room's long narrow tables and computer equipment have been pushed to the side to make way for a dance floor.
"Who wants to go against my young'un right here?" asks Ward, holding his hand out toward a student stepping to the stage. "Best Wu-Tanger in the school right here."
The Goal: 15 Project-Based Charter Schools by 2008
|Head of the classes: Isaac Ewell brought his brand of innovative, project-based education to West Oak Lane.|
Isaac Ewell, a member of the Black Alliance for Educational Options' (BAEO) national staff, holds a large paper coffee cup and speaks to lead instructional specialist for technology and school co-founder Nmuta Jones. A sign on the wall reads: "PROCRASTINATION IS THE THIEF OF DREAMS."
The two men are talking about The World Is Flat, the best-selling book by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.
"It's crazy," says Ewell, a 35-year-old Trenton, N.J., native and director for BAEO's Small Schools Project. "He's saying because of globalization, the world is being flattened. It's why when you call about your credit card, there's a call center in Bangalore in India where jokers are answering."
Jones, who in addition to teaching also has his own computer programming firm, leans over a computer and nods in agreement.
Ewell has functioned as the project's director since last March. His task is to take a $4 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and oversee the opening of 15 theme-driven, project-based charter schools by 2008 in low-income, urban black communities.
West Oak Lane's New Media Technology Charter School, opened in conjunction with Lotus Academy, a successful Afrocentric Germantown elementary school, is the second of three currently operational BAEO small schools under his supervision. (The others are the Bayard Rustin Living Learning Center in Oklahoma City and the faith-based Clara Mohammed School in Milwaukee.)
"When we start thinking about how we go about doing these schools, we really want to flatten what we do," says Ewell. "The kids in this building are going to be competing with folks in China, Japan and India for jobs. We need to think about how we go about doing everything."
The Critics: You're Screwing the Public School System
Late last year the National Center for Education Statistics-known as the nation's report card-announced what many in the education business already knew: Despite the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act five years ago, students at city schools are still performing below the national average on standardized tests, and the achievement gap between black and Latino youth and their white counterparts is widening.
Pundits point to a variety of possible causes, often citing misplaced personal responsibility, failing institutional support, or some combination of both. But one thing is certain: The history and current predicament of our nation's school system has been shaped by the reality of race. How to address the inequities of the system has puzzled educators for decades.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014
Election Day 2014: Tues., Nov. 4