Ashlyn is one of the first people I meet at Meeting Street Academy. As soon as I step into her classroom, this petite, sweet-faced kindergartner takes a break from the lesson that one of her teachers, Ms. Lambert, is giving to walk over and welcome me to her classroom. “Hello, welcome to Meeting Street Academy. My name is Ashlyn,” she says, looking me in the eye and smiling as she speaks.

“It’s nice to meet you Ashlyn,” I reply, trying to conceal both how surprised I am and how much I want to reach down and give her a big ol’ hug. “My name is Elizabeth.”

“Nice to meet you,” she says. Then she walks back to her desk, and I settle into my spot on the reading bench, moving a few fuzzy, brightly colored pillows to make room for my adult-sized body, which is feeling extra big in this room full of child-sized furniture. This will be my seat for the next 30 minutes or so. I’m here to see what these teachers are doing to produce students — almost all of whom are low-income, many coming in to the school academically behind — who are achieving on the same level as students from some of Charleston’s best private schools, like Porter-Gaud and Ashley Hall. If Ashlyn’s greeting is anything to go by, it has to do with more than just academics. Meeting Street, like many of the country’s highest-performing charter and independent schools, has incorporated character education into every aspect of the school experience. The system they use is called REAL, which stands for Relationships, Excellence, Accountability, and Leadership. These values govern everything from how students are expected to treat each other to how they approach their school work. The idea has been around for decades, but it’s slowly become more and more of an afterthought in nearly all but prestigious (and expensive) private schools. In recent years, however, schools aimed at serving under-resourced or low-income children have adopted character ed as an indispensable element of the education process. It’s making a comeback.

The class is just finishing up independent reading time, and Ms. Lambert is up at the front of the room. “Friends, let’s take out your independent checklists,” she says. Each student digs around in his or her desk and pulls out a white, laminated sheet of paper. The items on their checklist say things like “Use a whisper voice,” “Keep your eyes on your book,” and “Think about what you are reading.” Each item has a “Yes” and a “No” box underneath. The students take their time going through each item by themselves, placing a finger on the Yes or No box, depending on how they think they performed.

“How did you do today?” Ms. Lambert continues. “Are you doing your best work? And if you didn’t do your best on something yesterday, did you do better today?” Aside from Lambert’s gentle voice, silence reigns in the classroom. I would never presume to get inside a five-year-old’s head, but from the way each child is focusing on the list, it seems that they take this self-reflection — which could be filed under “A” for Accountability — seriously.

After giving the students a minute or so, Ms. Lambert heads to a teacher’s station at the side of the room. She and her co-teacher Ms. Snow, who is also state-certified, share teaching duties, which allows for more one-on-one time with the students and less time lost to classroom management. Every classroom at Meeting Street is run this way.

Now, Ms. Snow takes her place at the whiteboard and somehow, her quiet voice effortlessly gets the class’s attention. She pulls out an iPad and starts talking about the great readers that she and Ms. Lambert want to show the class. Then she turns on a video of one of the students, which gets projected onto a state-of-the-art Smart Board (they connect to computers and can act as touchscreens, too).

On the screen, a boy is lying propped up against a pillow, with one leg crossed over the other. He’s absorbed in his book. “Friends, who is this?” Ms. Snow asks.

“Omari!” the class shouts.

“Yes, that’s Omari, and what is Omari doing to be a good reader?”

“He’s using his finger!” one student calls out, referring to the way that Omari is using his finger to follow the words on the page. “He’s keeping his eyes on his book!” another student says. Both kids get warm affirmations from Ms. Snow. When they’ve identified a few other ways that Omari is displaying good reading skills, Ms. Snow asks Omari what he would like for tomorrow’s independent reading time. He can choose from a reading buddy, or stuffed animal, a pillow, and a couple of other things with odd names that I can’t figure out. He picks a reading buddy.

Ms. Snow shows us a few more short videos of the class’s good readers, and then she moves on to other matters — counting, naming the days of the week, etc. Together, the class counts to 100 by 10s and to 20 by twos, and recites the date and how many days they’ve been in school (42, even though it’s only the end of September; Meeting Street is on a year-round schedule). Everyone, students and teachers, appears eager, cheerful, and engaged.

Failure is not an option

There’s a lot to notice when you walk into Meeting Street’s brand-new, $4.5 million building. For one thing, there’s the architecture. The reception area is spacious and filled with natural light from the huge windows that line the walls. The floors are spotless. The hallways are wide and open with tall ceilings, especially on the first floor. Classrooms have computers, in addition to their iPads and Smart Boards. It looks like a private school for rich kids, but it isn’t.

Meeting Street is a private school for kids from chronically under-resourced neighborhoods. Eighty percent of Meeting Street’s student body, which currently spans pre-kindergarten to third grade, qualifies for free or reduced-price school lunch. (For the 2012-13 school year, a family of four has to earn $42,632 or less per year to qualify for reduced price lunch; for free lunch, that number is $29,965.) Ninety-two percent of their students are minorities, with the majority of that group being African American. Parents pay $2-$3 a day in tuition (depending on whether they enroll their child in the extended day program) and a $50 uniform fee, but everything else, from books to a massive roster of extracurricular activities, is covered by the school.

Most of Meeting Street’s students are here because the public schools that they would otherwise have to attend are failing — meaning that their students continually score poorly on standardized tests. Not surprisingly, these schools are often in poor inner city or rural districts, with a large population of low-income students. In 2006, a small group of local education advocates led by Ben Navarro of Sherman Financial Group decided that it was time to give these students a better option. “Children who would be assigned to a failing public school should have an alternative,” says Meeting Street’s chief operating officer Susan Miller, who came to Meeting Street in 2011 after serving as the director of a similar school in Cincinnati. “The whole mission and vision of the school is that a child’s educational opportunities should not be determined by their zip code.”

But for so many children, that’s what happens. If you’re a parent whose child is zoned for a failing public school, then unless there’s a great charter school nearby, you’re pretty much out of luck. Private school in Charleston can cost from $8,000-$20,000 per year, so it’s not an option for everybody. And though there are plenty of failing public schools that have been successfully turned around, that process takes time — time that is ultimately stolen from the students. They’re the ones who are still sitting in class each day while the administration is busy identifying problems and hammering out solutions. A full turnaround can rarely be accomplished over the summer months alone. This, according to Meeting Street’s founders, was unacceptable. “Our founders said we’re going to do something about this. We’re going to provide an education that would be equivalent to what you would get at a Charleston Day, or Porter-Gaud, or Ashley Hall,” Miller continues. “[Meeting Street] is all about results. It’s a college preparatory curriculum.”

In addition to being college prep and values-focused, Meeting Street’s curriculum is also family-based. Trish Scarry was the founding director of Meeting Street in Charleston. She has since moved to Spartanburg, S.C. to open a second Meeting Street Academy. Before that, Scarry was the director of the Child and Family Development Center in North Charleston, which employed what’s called a family literacy model. “We knew that in order for our kids, who were coming from under-resourced families and neighborhoods, to be successful, we had to implement an intensive and rigorous approach to education,” Scarry says. “[The Center] provided preschool classes beginning at age 3, GED classes for parents, parenting workshops, field trips, home visits, and employed a full-time parent educator.” So rather than focusing solely on a child’s educational development, which educators can only directly impact during the hours they spend with that child, they work with the child’s parents or caregivers. By doing so, teachers ensure that the child’s learning continues at home, and they’re able to positively impact the parents’ lives too.

Scarry had found this model to be highly successful with her clients and knew that if Meeting Street was going to make real changes in the lives of students, it would have to take a similarly ambitious approach. “My past experience … showed me that you must work with the whole family in order to make change. A school never takes just a child. That parent or caregiver needs as much support, if not more, to get that child prepared for college.” And according to Scarry and the rest of the co-founders, every Meeting Street student was going to college.

This family-based approach is just one of the qualities that Meeting Street shares with what many education reform advocates consider to be gold-standard programs. One of these is the KIPP Foundation, which runs a national network of public charter schools for low-income children. Another is the Harlem Children’s Zone, which provides Harlem families with a wide range of services like parenting classes, physical fitness programs, and a charter school, all aimed at getting every child to and through college. Both organizations have been instrumental in proving that kids that come from challenging backgrounds can excel at the same rate as their more affluent peers. They just need adults and schools who are willing to go the extra mile — or ten. Some of the characteristics these programs share with Meeting Street are an extended day and year, a focus on early education, year-round recruiting to find fanatically dedicated teachers, an unwavering commitment to seeing every student to and through college, and incorporating character values both in and outside the classroom.

Be the tortoise

Dave Smith’s third-graders are reading when I arrive. Literacy is huge at Meeting Street Academy. There are kids all over Mr. Smith’s room, reading chapter books of various length and difficulty. Some are camped out under desks, others tuck themselves between bookshelves. Mr. Smith is giving a small group of students a talk about how to be a good reader. When he’s finished, the group disperses, and he starts making the rounds of the room for one-on-one time with students who struggle a bit more with their reading comprehension.

One little boy, seated quietly at a desk, is deep into James and the Giant Peach. He’s at the part when the peach is bobbing around in the ocean, and sharks have started attacking it. Mr. Smith asks him to read a page aloud, and he does. When he gets to the word “frantic,” Mr. Smith stops him. “Do you know what that word means?” he asks.

The boy shakes his head.

“Let’s figure it out,” Mr. Smith tells him. After talking about what it would feel like to be stuck on top of a peach in the ocean while sharks swim around you, the student decides that it must mean something close to worried, mixed with scared. Mission accomplished.

As we move on to the next student, I notice a large index card taped to one of the walls. “College-Bound Word Wall,” it says. Below that, the words “quay,” “perfidy,” “synthesize,” and “algorithm” are listed. Not too bad for third grade.

Just like in the kindergarten room, Mr. Smith’s third-graders are responsible for assessing their own reading. “Self-assessment is very important to student achievement,” he says. “My students keep track of their reading fluency in their reading logs, choosing 1-5, representing how fluently they were able to read their book. When we conference with them, we discuss what they thought about their own reading and combine it with our perspectives to decide when to choose more challenging books.”

Accountability is built into Meeting Street’s curriculum as part of the REAL values — Relationships, Excellence, Accountability, and Leadership. These values are inextricable from the school’s academic program, and provide the foundation for its holistic approach to education. “We incorporate these values into our lesson plans daily, in every subject area,” says Smith. “We might discuss building relationships with our math partners, working toward excellence in our writing, accountability when dealing with problems with classmates, and leadership in setting the example with our behavior in school and out in our communities.”

Perseverance makes frequent appearances as well. “In my classes we talk daily about perseverance — about being the tortoise, not the hare, which means to do your best work and to work toward your goals until they are completed. I think that developing a strong drive and determination in children is just as important as academic knowledge. It’s what will get them over life’s hurdles without giving up.”

This deliberate focus on character places Meeting Street in good company, as researchers have lately been re-discovering the importance of “non-cognitive skills” — things like curiosity, optimism, perseverance, and grit. These skills are the subject of journalist Paul Tough’s recent book How Children Succeed: Grit, Tenacity, and the Hidden Power of Character. Tough is best-known for his extensive reporting on education and poverty, including a book on the Harlem Children’s Zone, Whatever It Takes. While writing that book, he says, “I became interested in this question of what qualities were the best indicators of kids’ success.” Trying to answer that question led him to research indicating that character, and especially the ability to deal with adversity, matters more than most of us realize. “I think individually, teachers, coaches, mentors, parents — they’ve always been good at teaching those things,” Tough continues. “It’s just been somewhat haphazard. As we come to understand how important these things are, we need to figure out how to make sure every child gets these lessons.” This is especially true for kids who grow up in poverty, like many of Meeting Street’s students.

No one has a definitive answer yet as to how you teach those qualities and make sure they stick, especially since it’s difficult to reliably measure perseverance or optimism. But many schools are trying to figure out how — KIPP schools in New York, for example, are experimenting with a character report card, which Tough discusses in How Children Succeed. The report card defines certain character traits, like grit, and gives students a number grade for each. Teachers later go through the report card with each student one-on-one. It’s a controversial method, but school leaders hope that it will help students approach their own character development with more intention.

However, Meeting Street’s teachers will tell you that even in the absence of something as tangible as a character report card, evidence of whether the REAL values curriculum is working is abundant. “It begins anecdotally, observing children as they work and looking for signs that they are willing to work through the hurdles that every student goes through, or should go through,” says Smith. “When we see that a student might be giving up a little too early, I try to step in as a coach, and push that student on toward their goals.”

So that handshake that I received from Ashlyn? It served a much greater purpose than making me feel all warm and fuzzy. By establishing the standard that every visitor who enters a Meeting Street classroom receives a welcome and handshake from a student, Meeting Street’s educators are bolstering students’ self-confidence, setting them up to be leaders, and — in children for whom introducing themselves to someone they don’t know is a nerve-wracking experience — encouraging persistence. Not only will this help the kids better deal with people in everyday life, it will also make sure that they’re socially ready, as well as academically ready, for the prestigious private schools that many matriculate into after graduating from Meeting Street. “We had a student who left here at the end of second grade and went to Porter-Gaud, and was offered a scholarship,” Miller says. “Meeting Street’s a perfect feeding school to those independent schools because we are providing the academic rigor … We have a responsibility to make sure that they are adequately prepared, not just academically, but the whole social piece as well.”

Prepared they certainly are. As far as the social side, these kids offer friendlier greetings than I’m used to getting from many adults. The classrooms are quiet and orderly, and the students get along with each other easily. They listen well, but are also eager to contribute to class discussions and share their thoughts.

And academically, there’s no question the Meeting Street system is working. On all three standardized tests that Meeting Street Academy uses — the PALS for pre-K, the MRT for kindergarten, and the ERB for first- and second-graders — Meeting Street students score higher than the national average and are performing on par with students at those prestigious private schools they’re being prepared for. On the PALS test, for example, which is used nationally to test skills like name writing and alphabet recognition in three- and four-year-olds, Meeting Street’s 2011-12 class of three-year-olds averaged in the 69th percentile. The national average is the 50th percentile. For the same school year, Meeting Street kindergartners widened that gap even more, averaging in the 80th percentile in pre-reading versus the national norm of 50, and averaged in the 72nd percentile in math, versus the national norm of 50. In addition, 100 percent of Meeting Street kindergartners consistently graduate from kindergarten as readers.

This is significant news in a state where 14 percent of adults are illiterate, and only half of high schoolers graduate.

Of course, not every school can be a Meeting Street Academy. The actual cost of a Meeting Street education is around $12,500 per student per year, of which parents pay around $600 annually. (As a comparison, in 2011-12 the Charleston County School District paid $9,233 per student per year.) The rest is covered by private donations or grants from foundations. The math alone means that replicating Meeting Street in its entirety is bound to be tricky. The issue of failing schools is a complex, national one, and success can’t be declared until every single child in America is receiving a quality education. That necessarily means that the public education system must be fixed. “There’s this push to portray charter [and independent schools] as the answer to all problems, but real solutions to the education crisis will have to come through reforming public schools,” Tough emphasizes.

What is encouraging about schools like Meeting Street, though, is that it’s possible — though certainly not easy — to replicate their approach in any school, whether it’s public, private, or charter. The determining factor at Meeting Street, or a KIPP school, or at the Harlem Children’s Zone, is the adults who show up to guide, teach, and parent these kids every day. The faculty, staff, and parents all have to make a commitment to do literally whatever it takes to ensure their children get on and stay on the path to success. “The commitment to doing this is huge. When I think about the people who came that first year — the parents, the kids, the teachers — it’s a huge adventure. It’s a risk for everyone to be a part of, so you have to have the right people. People who truly live, eat, and breathe this school,” Miller says. “It’s building leadership, finding your teachers. Your teachers are the most important thing because they’re the ones who are standing in front of those kids day in and day out, and if you have high-quality teachers, you can have high-quality outputs in the children.” Meaning that the kids will achieve academically and grow into well-rounded, productive citizens.

The reason that these “whatever it takes” sorts of approaches seem to be concentrated more in private and charter schools has much to do with the bureaucracy of the public school system. Something that comes up frequently in conversations about what makes charter or private schools successful is their ability to adapt and change quickly in order to best serve their students. If a teacher continually under-performs, the principal can let that teacher go. If a specific lesson doesn’t seem to be reaching the kids, teachers have the freedom to get creative, and try something radically different. Edna Crews, who is currently a regional vice president with one of Meeting Street’s funders, the Coastal Community Foundation, spent many years in public education in both South and North Carolina, and has seen what teachers in public schools are capable of. “I was in a school that did an amazing turnaround,” she says. “It was predominantly African American, low-income, rural — we had very few resources, but we had the most committed staff of people who said there is nothing wrong with our children. Just because they live here, it does not make them any less bright or competent or capable of learning than kids who live in a more affluent area. And what we found is that from the time we had them in the morning to the time we had them in the afternoon, we could make a difference in their lives. It took a couple of years, but we saw a huge turnaround.”

That’s the sort of story that those in public education need to keep in mind. “I think what we have to do in public education is change our minds about what we are capable of accomplishing,” Crews says. “We will always need a public education system in a country that’s based on democratic principles. We will always need that. What I would like to see is that it be equally strong, successful, and effective as any other option.”

Real values

Back in the third-grade classroom, Mr. Smith is sitting with a few students at a small table making word chains. These are basically vocabulary flashcards with holes punched in one side, so they can be hooked onto a metal ring and kept together. Each child has just received a sort of starter kit, with a ring and 10 or so blank cards. “When you learn a new vocabulary word, you’ll write it on the card,” Mr. Smith tells them. “As you learn more words, you’ll add them to the ring, and you’ll be able to actually see how your vocabulary is growing.”

The students are eager to get started, so Mr. Smith gives everyone a word to write. This is the very beginning of a word chain that, during their time with Mr. Smith, will grow and grow until there’s no room left on their metal rings. There will be frustrations along the way — words that continually trip them up while reading, words that look like they should mean one thing but actually mean another, tricky sounds made by Xs and e-a-u combinations. As Mr. Smith knows, these struggles are just as important as the triumphs; maybe even more so. But what’s even more important than that is that these kids will know how to get through those rough patches, that they can bounce back when they’ve been knocked down. Apparently, that can be taught in a classroom.

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