Letter to a Young No Excuses Student

This fall, Boston’s largest public elementary school, with an all-minority student body, will reopen as a no-excuses charter.

Dear [insert name here]:
Another school year is about to start and I’ve got some exciting changes to share with you. Your old school, John J. Marshall, with its low expectations and old teachers is no more. Instead, you will be attending UP Academy, an exciting new school with fresh new teachers, fresh new administrators and none of the excuses that were the rule at your old school. So what can you expect? Let’s take a look…

8 hours 4 school
The first thing you’ll notice is that you don’t get to go home for a really long time. You see, here’s the problem. By the time McKenzie and Emma arrive at their elementary schools in the suburbs, they already know big words like “dressage” and “catamaran.” Lots of important grownups have decided that there isn’t anything we can do about the fact that McKenzie and Emma’s families have lots of money while yours doesn’t have any. 🙁 That’s why your school day has to be EXTRA long.

No excuses
Remember that time when you dropped your pencil last year (accidentally on purpose)? Nothing happened, right? At your new school, dropping a pencil gets you something called a demerit. Better pick it up quick or you’ll get another one, and too many demerits will earn you something called a suspension. Say it with me: suss-pen-shun. You see, you are college bound now, which means that you have to learn to “self regulate,” and it is a well known fact that Emma and McKenzie do not drop their pencils. Since you are only in first grade, sustained self-regulation may prove to be a bit of a challenge at first as first graders tend to be wriggly and disruptive by nature.

New kids on the block
Going to a new school can be scary. But you won’t be the only one at UP Academy Dorchester who has a lot to learn. None of the administrators who will be in charge of your new school, including your principal, has any experience running an elementary school 🙁 If they mess up, you can give them a demerit. Just kidding! Only students can earn demerits, silly.

Tests r fun
Do you like to take tests? Good! Because you will be taking a lot of them 🙂 You see, now that you are college bound, it is very important that your new teachers (and by new, I mean *new*) see how you are doing on your path to college. They do this by analyzing your data. Say it with me: day-tah. Your new principal used to work at a place called the Achievement Network, which helps kids take tests by giving them lots of extra test to take. Emma and McKenzie don’t have to take lots of extra tests because they never drop their pencils…

New teachers r better
Many of the teachers at your old school had been teaching for a long time, which is how we know that they were bad. Your new school has lots of fresh new teachers. Also, your old teachers had very low expectations because they were only teaching for themselves. That’s bad 🙁 Many of your fresh new teachers are Teaching for America. In fact 16 of the fresh new teachers or leaders at your new school are either TFA corps members or alumni. Say it with me: Tee Eff Eh. That spells great!

The white man with a brief case is a money manager
Your new school is WAY better than your bad old school, which is why there are so many important people who serve on your school’s board of directors. Let’s see: there’s someone from Bain Capital, someone from the mayor’s office, a state representative and lots of other people with words like “equities,” “venture,” and “strategic” in their titles. This is great news because it means that they are investing in your future! What’s that? I don’t know why they didn’t want to invest in your future before. And no, I’m afraid your mom can’t be on the board of directors. Better leave an important issue like investing in your future to the experts.

Where’d u go?
When school starts, you’ll see lots of the same kids who went to your bad old school. But better catch up quick! You see, not all kids like the combination of data, discipline and drilling that leads to college. Which is why so many of the kids at UP’s other school in Boston dropped out and went to other schools. UP even gave one little girl a ride to her new public school while she was still wearing her UP uniform. I bet they rode fast! There will be new kids coming too. You see as chairs open up, UP likes to invite kids who are good at taking tests to come and sit in them—like this little girl.

Good news
The best thing about your new school is that all of the news about it will be good. Do you like to read the paper? Don’t worry—nobody else does either. Besides, there’s no reason to read it when we already know what it will say. The kids at your new school are exactly the same as the ones at your old school, only better. And their test scores just keep going up and up and up. In fact, they are going up so much that soon they will be the same as Emma and McKenzie’s test scores.There will be some grownups who ask questions but they will be ignored or called haters. Say it with me: hay-ters. Finally, when there are too many questions to ignore, the newspaper will run a story that isn’t so good, like this one. But by then, lots and lots of students will be gone, maybe even you. Besides, who reads newspapers anyway?

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  1. Love that they’ve got a guy called a “behavior interventionist.” A school with its own bouncer.

  2. Hmmm.
    According to the UP website, only one teacher and one administrator seem to actually be licensed to teach or supervise:

    “Ms. Faherty is a graduate of the UMass Boston Teach Next Year Master’s Program. She is licensed to teach in Early Childhood Education, Elementary Education, Special Education (Mild to Moderate Disabilities), and English as a Second Language. ” and “Last May, Ms. Salvia earned her Masters of Science in Education from Simmons College where she completed the Educational Leadership program earning her administrator license.”

    No other bios contain this information – of course it might have just been overlooked, right? Holding a degree, being a TFA corps member, teaching in a private school or desiring to “ignite academic and social empowerment in young people through science, technology, engineering and math” doesn’t mean Massachusetts has licensed you to teach.

  3. Is it true they get demerits for dropping pencils or was the scenario for dramatic effect?

    1. Demerits for pencil dropping is common in no excuses land (this elementary school hasn’t opened yet so I can’t say for sure, but pencil dropping is demerit-worthy at UP’s middle school in Boston). The thinking is that disruptive behavior is what keeps these kids from being college bound. In order to overcome their inherent disruptiveness, they’ve got to learn to self regulate by understanding that every action is pegged to either a reward or a punishment. Think of no excuses as the pedagogical equivalent of broken windows policing. Let the dropped pencil go unpunished and before long more and more disruption occurs, culminating finally in a conflagration of college-boundness.

      1. Never heard of a kid getting demerit at a No Excuses charter before and I’ve worked at two different ones for over 9 years.

        1. Greetings Math Teacher–I’m glad to hear that there are exceptions to the demerit rule and would love to hear more about your experiences. It will be very interesting to see how UP adapts it’s own middle school practices to the elementary school population. Perhaps the presence of several teachers from other local charters will have an impact.

        2. Oh Dear Math Teacher, I sincerely hope you read my reply. I have seen students get booted out of charter schools for far less then dropping a pencil. I have seen principals and/or administrators ask students to leave because they ask too many questions or were standing in the wrong place at the wrong time. I have seen principals/administrators scream at students to “get the F*** out of my building” for no reason besides not liking said students. Demerits in these cases would have been the moral and ethical thing to do, but the charter schools I worked in for quite a while was neither. Oh and Dear Math Teacher, I saw the principal/administrator treat staff the exact same way. Regards and hopes for a great school year, Detroit Rose.

  4. When I went to the news story you link to at the end, it says that despite critics saying the South Boston UP school pushed kids out, its attrition rate was actually slightly less than the district-wide average for middle schools. How does this square with the argument that they try to get rid of “non-performing” kids?

    1. Greetings–this is a great question. I linked to that story because it is literally the only story to appear since UP Academy opened that even acknowledges that there are questions about UP pushing out higher needs students. The real story, though, begins before UP took over the Gavin. As you can see here (on p. 5) of UP’s application to the state, UP “unloaded” many of the hardest to serve kids, including those in the sheltered Vietnamese immersion program along with students with multiple handicaps that had attended the Gavin. This latter group was moved to a satellite location and hence no longer included in UP’s test-taking population.

      Last summer I was contacted by a former UP staff member who told me that UP was significantly exaggerating the number of former Gavin students who’d re-enrolled at UP, a claim the staff member was able to back up with a student roster. With my help, she contacted the Globe repeatedly but got nowhere… By the time you subtract the kids who were moved out of the school prior to UP’s opening AND the Gavin students who didn’t to enroll AND the kids who’ve left since, the “same exact students” line starts to wear a little thin. Also, a key question within the attrition data is ‘who is leaving’? Even the Globe article acknowledges that the departing students tend to have special education needs and/or discipline issues. Documents I was able to access via a FOIA request show that BPS officials were concerned about UP’s rate of attrition, particularly its relatively high occurrences of so-called “programmatic transfers.” Ultimately though, the political pressures to convert the Marshall into a charter were too strong. I hope a real reporter will dig into these issues and I’m more than happy to share any information that I have.

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