David Robinson is, in many ways, an anomaly. Start with his size. At 7'1" and 250 pounds, he towers over most people. But he’s also as nimble as an acrobat, as anyone who saw him in action over 14 seasons with the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs can attest. Robinson was one of the best centers ever to play the game—an eight-time all-star, Rookie of the Year (1990), league MVP (1995), and twice a member of the world champion team (1999 and 2003). In his final season, Sports Illustrated named him its Sportsman of the Year.
But even among the elite crowd that ruled basketball in the 1990s, Robinson was an anomaly. Peruse Robinson’s career, and there is barely a whiff of controversy. In the often-hedonistic world of hoops, Robinson was never known for off-court antics, never attracted media attention with sordid misadventures. Consider: at the end of his career, with his best days as a player behind him, Robinson deliberately subjugated his offensive game to let the up-and-coming star of the Spurs, Tim Duncan, shine as a point-scorer. In a league whose best player ever, Michael Jordan, once referred to teammates as “my supporting cast,” such a spirit is, to say the least, unusual.
Robinson—called “the Admiral” because he spent his college days at the U.S. Naval Academy (SAT score: 1320; major: mathematics)—attracted more attention for exactly the opposite lifestyle. The married father of three is a committed Christian who has spoken often of the challenges faced by religious men in professional sports. He took two years from his NBA career to fulfill his service obligations in the Navy. And through the David Robinson Foundation, he has given millions of dollars to early childhood centers, Christian fellowship causes, and education. His achievements led the William E. Simon Foundation to award him their Philanthropic Leadership Prize for 2004.
In 2000, near the end of his career, Robinson made a $9 million commitment to the Carver Academy, a private, non-denominational elementary school on San Antonio’s largely poor and minority east side. The school opened in September 2001, serving kids in grades K-4; eventually, it will go through the middle grades.
Not Poor, But Proud
Like Robinson, Carver is an anomaly, because it manages to take the most challenging kids in any urban area—poor and minority students—and push them to succeed. And it works—last year, on the Stanford-9 achievement test that Carver makes its kids take every April, average scores for third graders were in the seventieth percentile for reading, the sixty-second percentile in math, and the seventy-sixth percentile in spelling.
Brenda Murphy, interim director at Carver, says that probably 98 percent of students there would be eligible for free or reduced lunch in a public school setting. But she can’t say for sure, because Carver—following a tenet that comes from the Admiral himself—doesn’t classify students that way.
“This is not a school for poor kids,” Robinson insists, and even over the phone you can hear his passion on this point, hear him leaning forward in his chair. “Sometimes I feel like there are schools that internalize that idea: ‘We’re here for poor kids.’ And what happens? Once you decide that, the school becomes second-class, the standards get lower. Not here. Our standards are high, and all of these kids have tremendous pride in their school.”
Robinson felt spurred to found Carver because of his belief that schools serving the urban poor too often offer what he calls “second-class opportunities.” What’s more, he says, poor and minority parents are too often willing to accept second-class status. At Carver, “we constantly stress that it’s not O.K. to be average. A lot of time, in minority families, kids come home with a B or a C and parents say, ‘Well, that’s good enough.’ It’s not good enough. If you can get an A, get an A. Education just isn’t a priority in many black and Hispanic homes. It is something that parents tolerate, not something they prize.”
Robinson recounts the story of a seventh-grader in San Antonio he mentored; the two would communicate by e-mail. “I’d say to him, ‘You can’t even write me a letter that isn’t misspelled. How are you going to get a job, have a good life, if you can’t spell?’ He didn’t think it was important, because he was going to be a ball player or a rapper. That’s the attitude. We need to change the culture of minority families when it comes to education.”
Murphy, a 30-year veteran of San Antonio public schools, agrees that cultural change starts with changing the expectations kids and parents have for schools in the inner city. So Carver deliberately builds its facilities to exacting specifications and maintains its buildings beautifully. She calls the atmosphere “restful. There are no fights, no discipline problems. For many of these kids, it’s the least chaotic atmosphere they’ve ever been in.” Carver’s well-maintained grounds also serve as a kind of community center for the east side, and the presence of the school has sparked something of a renaissance in the surrounding neighborhood, says Murphy, who’s watched several new businesses go up around the school in the past two years.
Carver is Robinson’s attempt to change the educational attitudes and expectations of low-income and minority students, one child at a time. Carver kids take a rigorous mix of reading, writing, math, science, history, and foreign language class. The school stresses faith in God, good citizenship, and above all, high achievement. “We tell parents, we’re going to push your kids as far as they can possibly go,” says Robinson. “We want to produce kids who have passion, who are on fire with the idea that they can accomplish anything.”
The Carver Academy may be unusual in urban education, but it is not completely alone. Carver is one of a handful of private schools across the nation that are having tremendous success in educating poor and minority students who might otherwise get lost in urban public school districts. Some of these schools are religious, some aren’t, but all of them have chosen to forego the funding they could command as charter schools. For each school, independence—and the benefits that flow from it—is not just treasured, but integral to the school’s success.
Live Free or Die
For each of these schools—religious or not—the reasons for staying private can be summed up in three words: freedom, freedom, freedom.
For David Robinson, to imagine a Carver Academy that isn’t religious is to imagine a school that simply isn’t Carver. “Proverbs says that fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” he says. “That’s where we start as well. I just can’t imagine a school where I couldn’t pray with the kids.” And pray they do: Every day starts with chapel, where the Bible is discussed and questions of ethics are given moral and religious answers. Carver even parted ways with its founding head of school after the board decided she was not sufficiently stressing the school’s religious character. Other networks of groundbreaking private schools—including Cristo Rey schools across the nation and Cornerstone schools in Detroit—also put their religious identity up front. For these institutions, faith isn’t simply an add-on, a raisin plunked down on the porridge of a good education. It’s central to these schools’ approach—the porridge itself, if you will.
But apart from religious concerns, there are purely practical reasons for staying private that are just as compelling. The Link Community School in Newark, New Jersey, which is not religious, has considered converting to a charter school, says director William Kurtz. New Jersey’s cumbersome charter laws are one reason the school passed on charter status, despite the $8,600 per student it would receive from the state. But staying private allows Link the freedom to do things the “the best way, the right way, which is how we like to do things,” Kurtz says. “We want to make decisions that are best for our kids.”
Primary among the freedoms Link and the other schools enjoy is liberation from laws requiring teachers to have state certification, something Kurtz holds in contempt. “Certification simply does not mean that teachers are any good . . . . My best teachers aren’t certified, even though they could be. Certification is a broken process.”
Staying private also allows these schools to make demands on students and parents that public schools simply can’t. Cristo Rey’s singular work-study component simply wouldn’t work in most publicly funded school settings. Cornerstone schools stay in session 11 months out of the year, and all of these private schools have a longer instructional day than the average public school. Carver and Cornerstone also demand a great deal from parents, from written agreements to participate in their child’s education to modest payments that nonetheless can be a serious burden on lower-income families. The sacrifice, though, keeps students and families motivated. “At Cornerstone, if a parent isn’t interested, the student isn’t here,” says Dana Locniskar, a senior vice president at Merrill Lynch who has supported Cornerstone for several years. “It’s tough, but central to having an impact.”
Advice for Donors
So, what should a donor be looking for in a private school serving low-income children? Donors with experience offer some advice.
Leadership is key. Nothing can take the place of committed and energetic leadership, says Ross Danis of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, which supports the Link Community School. “A small private school really depends on committed leadership to set the tone for the entire place.” Danis says the Dodge Foundation found that kind of leadership in Kurtz. For his part, Kurtz says real leadership is an ability to learn constantly, and so every teacher and administrator at Link submits, every year, to a 360-degree review from peers, bosses, and subordinates—including himself. “It’s constantly amazing to me that the people in the education business are the most resistant to learning. If you break down the problems of urban education into their constituent parts, that’s the theme that runs through each of them,” he says. “A school leader has to be the chief learner.”
Carver, of course, is especially fortunate in having Robinson involved with the school, acting as a kind of animating spirit. “The respect he commands in the city and among the kids is just tremendous,” says director Brenda Murphy. She notes that Carver’s buildings are the only ones in the neighborhood that haven’t been “tagged” with graffiti by gang members—even they show respect for Robinson’s stature and achievements.
A solid business plan is worth its weight in gold. The best intentions and the most rigorous curriculum mean nothing if a school can’t keep the lights on or pay its teachers. Donors insist that a solid business plan is the thing most private schools need help with. The Cassin Educational Initiative Foundation helps groups interested in starting Cristo Rey schools to conduct extensive feasibility studies that delve into the nitty-gritty of a potential school’s operating plan. When a feasibility study concludes that a school shouldn’t be started, the reason is always an insufficient business plan. Cassin executive director Jeff Thielman sees each such turn-down as a victory, not a failure. “It’s O.K. to say it won’t work. That’s a lot better than finding out it won’t work after you’ve opened the doors.”
A critical part of the business plan is a strategy for achieving self-sufficiency. The Simon Foundation, says Mulcahy, is extremely wary of becoming the sole supporter of any private school. Similarly, Cassin slowly reduces its start-up grants to Cristo Rey schools over three years, forcing the school to develop new donors. Matching grants are imperative, as is a careful investigation into whether schools are becoming “hooked” on government money or a few large donors.
Look for schools that focus relentlessly on success—and can prove it . Whining about the stultifying effects of standardized testing is a luxury that only advantaged suburban schools can afford. For these private schools that serve primarily poor and minority students, standardized testing is regular and welcomed. Carver and Cornerstone both administer the Stanford-9 test to all students. Students at Link take the CTB Terranova test twice a year. In each one of these schools, standardized testing is used to gauge student achievement and to guide classroom instruction and curriculum development.
Curricula should be rigorous and exciting . The astonishing achievements of students at each of these schools, as measured by various standardized tests, are the result of rigorous curricula that rival any offered by your average suburban public school and even by many affluent private schools. Besides a serious grounding in the basics—reading, writing, math (including, in the high schools, trigonometry and calculus), science, and history—schools offer classes that would be considered extravagant even in much wealthier settings. At Link, every student takes piano and music theory in a music lab stocked with 17 keyboards. Carver offers German and Japanese (complete with an authentic Japanese garden planned and planted by students), while elementary students at Cornerstone are learning Spanish.
Invest as much time as treasure. For all of these donors, the investment is not just financial. Donors also give of their time and expertise to help schools grow. David Robinson is at Carver most school days—he had just come from morning chapel the day Philanthropy interviewed him—motivating kids with his presence and example. Jeff Thielman and B.J. Cassin, founder of the Cassin Educational Initiative Foundation, serve on the boards of a number of schools. “It really does give you a ground-level view of what’s going on and allows you to help shape the school’s direction,” says Thielman. Cassin also serves as a kind of clearinghouse for best practices, providing a forum for school leaders to exchange views on what works and what doesn’t.
At the Cornerstone schools, the innovative “Cornerstone Partners” program that Dana Locniskar participates in brings donors into close contact with the kids they sponsor. Partners meet four times a year with individual students, helping them with activities and showing them that there are outsiders who care about their success. The program also helps to break down the class and dependency barriers that can bedevil donor-grantee relationships. “Once you’re in there,” says Locniskar, “it’s not a matter of, ‘You have money and I don’t.’ It really makes you understand what kind of impact the school is having. And you learn a lot yourself—about where these kids are coming from and their struggles.”
To be private is to be free, which for all these schools means no compromises. The challenges of getting Carver off the ground, working to build an endowment, hiring staff and administrators, and recruiting students caused bumps in the first two years, Robinson admits, and the school plans to expand its student base in the coming years beyond the inner city. But the school will never back off the high expectations it sets for kids, both academically and personally.
“This school isn’t for everyone, we know that,” says Robinson. “But even if it helped us get more kids into the school, we’re not going to compromise what we think is right.” Once again you can hear Robinson lean forward in his chair; his voice rises just a bit. “We’re not going to let any kid who can do better settle for less, no matter where they come from.” That’s straight from the Admiral, and it sounds like an order.
Justin Torres is research director of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.
Link Community School
Newark, New Jersey
128 Students, grades 7-8
Founded in 1969 after the ‘67 riots devastated much of downtown Newark, Link Community School tries to live up to the “community” in its name with an unusual admissions policy that draws in students from all over the educational map. The nonsectarian school admits one-third of its students from the top-scoring students on a standardized admissions test, one-third from the middle range, and one-third from the bottom range. In reality, though, says director William Kurtz, most students tend to be at least a bit below grade level when they enter, because the school draws from a Newark public school system that is among the most dysfunctional in the country. “It’s amazing to think,” he adds, “that a student can enter Link in the seventh grade, be behind grade level, and leave several grades ahead.”
Link has a crackerjack high school placement operation that tries to find the best fit for each student. For top scorers, that can mean some of the best private boarding schools on the East Coast, including the famed Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. Other students are directed to area parochial schools or the better public magnet and charter schools in the Newark area.
Students at Link take the CTB Terranova standardized test twice a year. In their two years at the school, the class of 2003 jumped an average of 3.1 grade levels in reading, 3.5 grade levels in language, 3.6 grade levels in math, and 2.5 grade levels in social studies.
Detroit, Michigan (4 schools)
800+ students, PK-8
From the beginning, religious faith was central to the Cornerstone Schools, which have their roots in a 1990 speech that Catholic Archbishop Adam Maida gave to the Detroit Economic Forum challenging the city’s leaders “to make all things new again.” Ten months later, the schools—a nondenominational undertaking supported by a wide cross-section of Motor City religious, educational, and business leaders—opened their doors with 167 students.
The heart of the Cornerstone Schools experience is the Partner Program, which pairs business and community leaders with individual students. These Partners not only help to support the students by defraying the cost of their $1,875 tuition, they also meet with the kids four times a year to “show them that somebody cares and is pulling for them,” according to donor Dana Locknisar. Among the 270 corporate partners are Dow Automotive, K-Mart, Detroit Edison, and Ford.
Parents are kept involved in their children’s education; they must sign a covenant and agree to pay what they can afford in tuition. Every family pays something.
Cornerstone students—more than 98 percent of them minority, and all eligible for free or reduced lunch—are in school 11 months per year, with a camp experience for older students. All students take the Stanford Achievement Tests every year in every core subject. Compared to a nationwide average high school graduation rate of 32 percent for inner-city students, 90 percent of Cornerstone alumni graduate from high school. Now donors elsewhere are copying the Cornerstone model in Birmingham, Alabama, and Washington, D.C.
Cristo Rey Network Schools
1392 students, grades 9-12
Five schools nationwide
The “business” of Cristo Rey schools is educating the urban poor, and their chosen medium is, well, business. The Cristo Rey Network was founded in 1996 to replicate Chicago’s Cristo Rey High School. Faced with declining enrollment and financial pressure, Cristo Rey in 1996 unveiled a groundbreaking educational approach: partnering students with local businesses, nonprofits, and corporate offices in apprenticeships, with students’ salaries paid to the school to defray tuition costs. Students spend a few days a month working at organizations such as Dell, the Chicago Board of Trade, Bank One, and Deloitte & Touche, among many others. In 2001, the Cassin Education Initiative Foundation helped to found the Cristo Rey Network, to replicate the model nationwide.
According to Tom Vander Ark of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Cristo Rey made a virtue out of necessity. “One striking thing about students at Cristo Rey is their sense of confidence and efficacy. The time they spend in the adult workplace has proven to be enormously valuable,” he says. “I went in a bit skeptical, wondering if the students would feel at all taken advantage of, since they don’t receive a salary. But in all three of the schools we visited, every single student who was asked, ‘What’s your favorite part of school?’ told us ‘the work-study.’” Gates has made a $9.9 million commitment to Cristo Rey, part of which will fund this year’s expansion to 11 schools (with plans for five more by the end of 2008).
Chad Science Academy
Newark, New Jersey
135 students, grades 7-12
Chad Elementary School
Newark, New Jersey
250 students, PreK-8
Founded in 1992, the Chad Science Academy focuses on teaching the sciences and mathematics to poor and minority students. That scientific cast of mind colors everything the school does.
Evaluation, observation, and hypothesis are all key to Chad’s approach to education. Parents are required to meet with teachers to set goals for students at beginning of the year; regular follow-up meetings are held to assess where students are. Lauren Gaines, the school’s principal (a former private school teacher whose kids attended Chad before she was hired to head the school), explains that these meetings hold parents accountable for staying involved. “The school can’t educate kids if parents just drop them off to pick them up four years later,” she says.
That obsession with evaluation and goal-setting is duplicated at every level of the school. Students are responsible for completing every assignment and can’t move to the next grade if they don’t; teachers meet regularly with both Gaines and her elementary counterpart, Kate Ogieva, to assess curriculum and instruction; and both principals in turn make themselves available to parents and to the schools’ board and executive director.
This ascending ladder of accountability has achieved tremendous success in placing poor and minority colleges in some of the nation’s top-fight colleges and universities.
Since its founding in 1992 (the elementary school was founded in 1970), those schools have included Princeton, Harvard, NYU, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and Rutgers. And these students aren’t academic high-flyers or science nerds, Gaines stresses: “They’re average students, many of them,” with 80 percent free- or reduced-lunch eligible. Seventy-five percent of Chad students perform above grade level on the Stanford-9 (administered twice a year) and 30 percent actually perform above the high school level.
But this relentless focus on evaluation and results does not mean that Chad is an unfeeling place. In fact, everyone at the school refers to each as “sister” or “brother,” a verbal tic that can take some getting used to. Gaines says that the practice instills a sense of family togetherness among students and faculty. “It tells students, ‘These people here care about me, they care about whether I’m successful or not.’ And when people know that others around them care about them, they start to care about themselves.”