Our School by Joanne Jacobs

Before she was a blogger and author Joanne Jacobs was a journalist and columnist. She covered the education beat for over twenty years. In 2001 she began to volunteer at Downtown College Prep (DCP) a San Jose charter school just getting off the ground. DCP’s mission was to take failing area students, predominantly poor Mexican-American families, entering high school and help them qualify for a four year college or university. Jacobs decided that this was a story worth telling so she quit her job to write a book about this amazing place.

Our School: The Inspiring Story of Two Teachers, One Big Idea, and the School That Beat the Odds is the result. And if you have any interest in education or the charter school movement you will want to read this book. It is a unique blend of human interest story and public policy journalism that tells the story of the leaders, teachers, students, and families of one particular charter school, but also offers insights and recommendations into this critical component of education reform.

In Our School Jacobs introduces the DCP’s founders, Greg Lippman and Jennifer Andaluz, and describes what led these two young teachers to undertake such a imposing challenge. She gives you a sense of what running a charter school is like day-in-day-out and outlines the hurdles and barriers such a school faces. Interspersed within this narrative are glimpses into the lives and feelings of individual students.

Each chapter not only tells the story of DCP but also highlights the challenges of charter schools and education in general. Jacobs provides the political and personal back-story (including key data and statistics) so the reader can understand the larger context of the education system in California and the role of charter schools. In an appendix she even provides key lessons she has learned along the way for those looking to start their own charter school.

Two things struck me in reading this inspiring story: the flexibility and dedication of the staff and leaders of DCP; and the daunting nature of the task they faced.

The amazing thing about the founders, teachers, and staff of DCP is their focus on getting the job done. They had a vision: get students accepted into, and ready to succeed at, four year colleges or universities. They were able to keep this goal in front of them and make whatever changes were necessary to keeping moving forward. They were not committed to a particular educational philosophy or way of doing things. If something got in the way of their goal they changed to meet the goal. They adapted, adjusted, and overcame because they were focused on their mission. In an area that is often undermined by rigid ideology, destructive turf battles, and an inability to adapt to changing circumstances, it was inspiring to read about dedicated leaders willing to do what it takes to help their organization and students succeed. The school’s ability to admit mistakes and learn from them is impressive and is a key foundation for their success.

And the task before them was even steeper than they had originally thought. They knew that the students who were earning D’s and F’s would need a lot of work before they could graduate let alone get accepted at a four year institution. But what they didn’t know was that almost all of the students they would enroll would be massively behind in the basics of math and reading. Far too many students couldn’t read or do basic math and even those who were “passing” their classes in traditional district schools. Many students couldn’t speak English. It turns out a great deal of work was necessary just to bring these students up to a remedial level. Almost all elective coursework had to be dropped or curtailed in order to relentlessly focus on the most basic reading, writing, and math skills. There wasn’t a gap between students prepared to go to college and those who were failing, there was a chasm. And most of the educational establishment was simply not suited to helping these students. Luckily for the students, DCP was able to adapt and change their curriculum and learn from their mistakes. Amazingly DCP now outperforms the California average on the Academic Performance Index.

The state of education in this country is one of the most depressing and seemingly insolvable problems in the public policy arena. It often seems so daunting as to beggar belief. For the most part, the education establishment opposes any significant changes and uses its political and community clout to undermine reforms whenever it can. But there have been cracks in the wall. Voucher programs and charter school legislation has succeeded in bring choice and innovation to districts all across the country. Our School is a powerful argument for why these changes are making a difference.

At its most basic Our School is the story of people who simply wouldn’t give up. The founders, teachers, parents, and students of DCP refused to accept the status quo and were willing to make the necessary sacrifices to achieve their goals. They didn’t do this for wealth or fame, but because it was the right thing to do. It is stories like this one that give me hope.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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