Brilliant Teachers + Good Administration + Concern Parents = The Best School You Can Get

Published August 1, 1999

The State of North Carolina almost shut down Durham’s predominantly African-American Healthy Start Academy last year because its demographics violated the state’s requirements for racial balance.

One reason the charter school was not shut down was its outstanding academic performance after only one year of operation. Although critics dismissed the record achievement as a “one-year wonder,” Healthy Start recently reported outstanding performance for its second year, demonstrating that the school is an operation that can deliver a quality educational product consistently over time.

What’s surprising about this is that the group of parents who formed the charter school had no experience in running a school. What they did have was a vision. To achieve that vision, they turned to retired educator Thomas E. Williams.

Williams knew a great deal about corrective education and children’s attitudes towards learning, having established and operated a tutorial center called the Evergreen Education Center in Raleigh, tutoring children who were in trouble in school.

Before retiring and moving to North Carolina in 1991, Williams had worked in public schools for about 30 years–as a teacher, an assistant principal, a principal in both elementary and secondary schools, and finally as assistant superintendent in a large district in New York state. Impressed by what Healthy Start’s founders were trying to do, he agreed to come on board as headmaster for the new school and has been there ever since. He recently spoke with School Reform News Managing Editor George Clowes.

Clowes: What was the vision of Healthy Start’s founders?

Williams: Their vision was to take children who are poor–really poverty-stricken–and failing in school, and prove to the public school system that this is not necessarily the way these children have to live: that given the right environment, the right kind of faculty, and proper leadership, these children could be absolutely normal, wonderful children who could learn anything they wanted to learn. That was what they charged me with when I took the job. It was a very exciting thing to try and do.

We wound up with about 180 students, most of whom were living in projects, 80 percent on free lunch, 75 percent living in single-parent families, children who were doing terribly in school. We also had some excellent young people who were doing well and who came from solid, middle-class, double-parent families.

Clowes: But you didn’t take the cream?

Williams: Certainly not. In fact, we really got Durham’s poorest. I selected very carefully a faculty of people who I thought had the empathy and the knowledge to deal with these children, people who were committed to improving lives through education and through socialization.

One of our major problems with our youngsters when we got them to school was that they had no idea of what appropriate school behavior was. So, for most of the first week of school, we concentrated on nothing but appropriate school behavior, which simply means moving from room to room in a normal fashion, no yelling, no screaming, no hitting the guy next to you, and no pushing somebody down the stairs. That was the first lesson they had to learn.

The second important thing we taught them was that school was a different place. We understood that they came from very tough neighborhoods where they needed to be certain kinds of people, but when they came to school, it was a whole different environment, and we expected a different kind of behavior. They learned that readily. They were very happy to be able to come to school and be safe and not have to worry about fighting.

Clowes: Is this the “strict discipline” that people have mentioned?

Williams: Yes. People call that strict discipline. We just call it civilized behavior. Our belief is that first comes order and then comes learning. Our youngsters were simply asked to be orderly.

Even so, this is not some kind of a dour place where you walk around and no one can talk. Our guys can scream as loudly as anybody. On the playground they’re allowed to go crazy, which little children like to do, but when they come back to class, it’s time to cool down and get back to studying.

Clowes: Which grades do you have in the school?

Williams: We started with kindergarten through second grade. We did that deliberately, because we believe that the younger we get the children, the more easily adjustable they are. Last year we added grade three, next year we’ll add grade four, and we’ll keep doing that until we get through grade eight. Then we’ll have a decision to make about whether or not we want to go into the high school business.

We ended this school year with approximately 300 children, only three of whom were white. All the rest were African-American children, so we’re 99 percent African-American. We have tried to reach out the Hispanic community. We’ve even printed our brochures in Spanish, but they have not yet bought into this kind of school. We’re still trying to become as diverse as we can be, but we’re not getting the results we were hoping for.

Clowes: I understand that this is a concern to state officials.

Williams: Yes. In fact, it was such a concern that, led by the National Education Association–which doesn’t like us a bit–they were talking about possibly closing us because we violated their attitude on desegregation. We sued them. We took them to court and pointed out that there are six schools in Durham that are just as segregated as we are. They weren’t bothering those six public schools, so why would they want to bother us? The judge got a letter from the State Board of Education promising, “We will never close Healthy Start because it has a racial imbalance.”

Most of our children do exceptionally well academically in school. The first year we were amazed that our little kindergartners scored in the 99th percentile of America on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. We thought we were good; we didn’t realize we were better than everybody. But our critics said, “It’s only one year. It’s going to fade away.”

Clowes: What were the results at the end of the second year?

Williams: The second year, the kindergartners scored once again in the 99th percentile of America, and the first grade scored in the 95th percentile. The second grade scored in the 99th percentile, and the third grade scored in the 81st percentile.

You’ve got to understand that these youngsters bring all kinds of baggage to school. These are not children whose families are earning $100,000 a year, who have books all over the house. Our children are up against it. These are poor children.

Clowes: So they have to fight the television and other distractions?

Williams: Yes, and we’re right in the fight with them. We have a contract with parents where they commit to doing homework with their child every night. They don’t do the homework for them, but they do see to it that it gets done. So the home is working with the school and the children are flourishing.

Now our children are beginning to believe they can do it. I have a note from a little girl who was saying goodbye to me for the summer. She said: “Who knows? By the end of fourth grade I might be so smart, I’ll explode right in front of you!” She knows that she’s got what it takes to just rip through the rest of her school career.

Clowes: What is the curriculum that you use at the school?

Williams: We use the standard course of study, which is North Carolina’s curriculum, as the outline for our work, but we improve dramatically on that. The teachers are told that we expect the children to be at least six months ahead of everybody else when they finish school. When I say to you that a child scores in the 99th percentile, that means he’s pretty good. But if I give you a grade equivalent, my kindergartner averages first year, seven months on that test–which means they’re already in the seventh month of the first grade in their understanding and their abilities.

Clowes: How do you respond to critics who say your performance is just a result of a smaller school and smaller class sizes?

Williams: We’re going to have 450 children here next year. That’s not such a small school. We have class sizes that range anywhere from 17 to 26. I’m here to tell you it could be 30. It doesn’t matter because we have brilliant teachers. We believe that an outstanding teacher gets outstanding results from children no matter how many are in her classroom.

We have high expectations, and we have a satisfied, happy group of kids, and that’s the answer to good education. You don’t buy quality. Quality comes with brilliant teachers, and it comes with good administration and concerned parents, and once you put those three together, you’ve got the best school you can get. All the other stuff is nonsense.

There’s a pile of literature that says that low class size is good; there’s a pile of literature that says it doesn’t matter. The President of the United States wants to reduce class size to 18. What’s the difference between 18 and 22? Answer: none.

Clowes: What does it cost you to operate the school?

Williams: We do everything on $5,000 a child. We started in a church basement and now we’re in a two-story building that’s owned by another church. We had no help to renovate this building. We don’t get capital aid. We don’t get transportation aid. We have none of the money that the public schools have coming out of their ears. We have just $5,000 a child to operate, and whatever we spend it on, we have to spend it on.

One thing we spend our money on is our teachers. I pay my teachers about 25 percent more than public school teachers earn. We believe firmly that if you want outstanding teachers, you’d better be prepared to respect them and pay them. I start a new teacher coming out of college at $31,000 a year. You could work in Durham Public Schools for ten years and still not make $31,000.

We can do that because we have no central office expense. We have no superintendent, no assistant superintendent, no curriculum coordinators, no guidance counselors, no psychologists, no nothing. I am the administration. It’s me, the teachers, and the students. If I need a psychological test done on a child, I contract with an independent psychologist to do it for $200. All of my students get an eye examination, courtesy of WalMart. They send in their ophthalmologist.

Clowes: So you contract out wherever possible?

Williams: That’s right. We get the best possible price because people are competing for our business. We get a high-quality product and we get it at a low cost. I contract my transportation. I have buses running all over Durham and I get a wonderful price on it. We have an excellent lunch program that’s catered by an outside person at a price half of what Durham was going to charge me.

It’s all a matter of: Are you willing to go out and do the work to get the best price for your school? When you’re a tax-collector, as the schools are, you don’t have to do that because it’s not your money. We have to make every penny count.

The public schools spend so much money in the central office, they have no money left over for the children. We have audiovisual equipment, we have computers, we have televisions, we have overhead projectors–we have everything because we don’t spend all that money in the central office. I have money to spend on children. And we do!

Clowes: Based on your experience here, what advice do you have for policy makers?

Williams: Here’s the advice I have learned from my own school board. They are the policy makers, but they stay out of the operation of the building. They restrict themselves to setting policy, overseeing my activity, and evaluating what I do through student performance and teacher satisfaction. They never micromanage. No board member ever comes to me and says, “I have an Aunt Sarah who needs a job,” or “I want special treatment for this child.” They stay out of the operation of the school.

Leave the professional to do her job. If she doesn’t do her job, get rid of her and get another one. It’s as simple as that.