Pioneering educators raise the bar at East High
New program aims for brighter
future at school
By Ruma Banerji Kumar
January 11, 2006
When Paul Adams thwarted the closing in 1978 of a Catholic high school
in Chicago, he didn't know he'd become an icon.
Over the next 25 years, he would show Chicago -- and then a nation --
that a school serving black children from mostly impoverished homes in
a blighted neighborhood could succeed.
He set expectations for advanced math and science classes, expectations
for college, expectations for futures in medicine, business and
At Providence-St. Mel, those expectations have meant that every senior
graduates. Every one of them goes on to college. And more than half go
to Ivy League and Tier 1 universities.
Tuesday, Adams walked the halls of East High in Memphis, offering
advice on how some of Providence-St. Mel's magic might rub off on the
embattled city school. East has had a tumultuous decade with a
revolving door of principals, concerns about safety and persistently
low scores, particularly in math.
But a new program that offers intensive tutoring and remediation work
to help pull up students in the bottom 20 percent at East is hoping to
change the school's future.
The program, founded by businessman and East alum Charles McVean,
started in December 2004 with a goal to raise $3 million and provide
peer tutors to help 100 seventh-graders and 50 eighth-graders.
On Tuesday, Adams and Providence-St. Mel's principal, Jeanette DiBella,
observed classes with seventh-graders who started this fall nearly two
years behind. They walked from the screeching chaos of hallways, to the
quiet of classrooms where talk centered around fractions and prime
"The difference between what I see in the hallways, and in these
classrooms, is like night and day," Adams said. "There's something
clicking in these kids' heads."
Adams and DiBella watched students like seventh-grader Tequila White
shuffle up to a chalkboard to solve a problem that would have stumped
her just two weeks ago.
"There's huge potential with this program," DiBella said. "But the key
is to set high expectations for these students."
At Providence-St. Mel, DiBella says her mantra is: "The psychology of
the school has to be more enticing than the psychology of the streets."
The work at Providence-St. Mel is gaining more attention as momentum
builds around the nation for high school reform.
President Bush has proposed nearly $1.5 billion for a new initiative to
ensure high school students graduate with the skills they need to
succeed in college or the workforce.
And a $1.2 billion commitment by software giant Bill Gates to high
school reform has also propelled the movement. Gates has led an effort
for smaller, more rigorous high schools to erase an achievement gap
where "wealthy white kids are taught Algebra II while low-income
minority kids are taught to balance a checkbook."
East High, with help from Adams and DiBella, is trying to capitalize on
that energy and renewed focus on high schools.
East High principal Fred Curry puts it this way: "We're planting the
seeds in these students now. We may not see the fruit for years. But
it'll happen. The important thing is that we're doing something."