Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Report of Joanne Jacobs' kickoff meeting for her new book

I was able to attend Joanne Jacobs' kickoff meeting for her new book Our School: The Inspiring Story of Two Teachers, One Big Idea, and the School that Beat the Odds. It was held tonight at 1460 The Alameda in San Jose, at the charter school she wrote about, Downtown College Prep, often called DCP. The meeting started a little after 7:00 PM. The crowd continued to grow and grow. By 8:00 PM there were around 200 people.

Jennifer Andaluz, one of the two founders of DCP, started off the meeting by introducing herself, and then introducing Joanne. Jennifer told of one of the young girls that Joanne had tutored. When the young girl had started at DCP she hadn't been able to do multiplication; now she was going off to medical school to be a nurse. Jennifer thanked Joanne for her presence at DCP. Jennifer then turned the time over to Joanne.

Joanne first put in a plug asking the audience to help DCP improve their library. When DCP first got started that it didn't have much of a library, and Joanne used to donate books. She asked the audience to buy books from Books Inc., which had a table there, and donate the books to library. This was classy. I overheard at the end of the meeting something about how all the books had been bought!

Joanne mentioned one of the patterns she had noticed at DCP. The students were given time to read, and in the early fall the 9th graders would act like they didn't know what to do. They would sit in weird contortions, but by spring they would be much more comfortable with sitting and reading.

She then sat and read chapter twelve from her book. The title of chapter twelve is “the shortest basketball team in america.” Two of the teachers beg every girl in the school with a C average to join the basketball team. They felt DCP needed to field a team, real schools had teams. It was a very moving story of the girls struggling with game after game of losing with scores like 36 to 6. When they played another small charter school they lost by only 23 to 21. The girls were excited, they recognized they were improving. DCP came back the next week and beat the other team by 27 to 23. In the second semester with grades improving more students could be on teams, and DCP was able to field a girls softball team and a boys baseball team. Later one of the students was out in middle field quoting Macbeth: “Fair is foul and foul is fair.” The teachers realized that something magical was happening, “Our kids are quoting Shakespeare. That means we won.” In the book Joanne Jacobs makes the point that:

“DCP students enter the school as academic losers. They don't know how to play the game. By the standards of middle-class high schools, DCP students aren't really in the game. But if they keep working, they get better. If they stick with it, they'll win a college education.”

The students were learning this lesson. It was a moving chapter.

After finishing chapter 12 Joanne went on to say that it was important to be honest with students. The students at DCP needed to learn that they are lousy, but that they could get better. It would have been wrong to lie to them and say they were doing well. And it would have been just as bad to tell them they are lousy, and wouldn't get better. DCP told them, you are not doing OK now, but you can get better. Most of the students learned that lesson.

About here Jennifer Andaluz asked all the DCP teachers in the audience to raise their hands. The crowd gave them a round of applause.

Joanne thanked the teachers, and said she had great respect for the job they did, that it was a hard job. (There were about fifteen teachers in the audience.) She said that as a tutor she often found it hard to help one student learn, and recognized that teaching a class of twenty or more students was a challenging job.

She said that she liked the cheerful spirit at DCP.

Next she opened up the meeting to some Q and A.

1) The first question was about how she had learned about DCP. Before working on her book Joanne had been working at the San Jose Mercury as editorial writer and columnist specializing in education. She first met Jennifer when she came to talk to the editorial board about how she and Greg Lippman were mobilizing support for the charter school. Initially Joanne's plan had been to focus on another charter school up in East Palo Alto. It was in the early stages of seeking a charter. As they started hiring teachers she found she wasn't going to get the access she wanted. The new teachers said they would be stressed by her presence in their classes. She then tried another charter school, but got a similar message. She had been tutoring at DCP, with the thought of trying to get exposure to a number of different charter schools. In desperation she asked Greg Lippman and Jennifer Andaluz if she could do her book on their school. They said fine. She was surprised that they so quickly agreed. They said DCP was not a consensus school. They were in charge, so it didn't matter what the new teachers felt. And more importantly DCP was about openness, they wanted an atmosphere of openness. So Joanne got to become an integrated part of the school; she attended everything, and got to know the students.

Joanne was very entertaining. For example she mentioned that she found she was a good tutor in math. She relearned algebra as she helped the students with their problems. But that with English and History she tended to just blurt out the answer. She was horrible with biology, which surprised her since she had gotten an A in high school biology. She wondered if they had rewritten biology since then.

2) The next question as something about how hard had it been to get a publisher. She admitted it had been a great struggle. For her it had been hard to get an agent. Many agents had sent very polite rejection message. “We like your book idea. It is a great idea. Good luck.” From the start she hadn't planned to write this book to make money, but she hadn't realized just how poor writing this book would make her. She originally thought she would take about a year to write it. It ended up taking five years. She left a good paying job to write the book. But it didn't sound like there were any real regrets.

3) The third question was about what had she hopped to achieve with this book. She explained that about five years ago she made a list of things she wanted to do. One of them was write a book. She was interested in charter schools, charter schools were taking off and it seemed like good timing. She said it is good to understand what goes on in education, that still many children get left behind.

4) One of the members of the audience asked what was unique about charter schools. Joanne explained that charter schools were often very different from each other. But most charter schools have more buy in from the students and parents, and that the students are there by choice. Many charter schools fail because of not working hard enough to get the needed money. Charter schools often do very well because they are able to focus, they are small, and they have a mission. Many schools in America try to do everything for everybody. She did admit that there are bad charter schools, some of which are badly run, some have bad education ideas, or other issues. One of the benefits of charter schools is that they could adapt quickly. Greg & Jennifer at one point commented that they had made a ton of mistakes in the beginning, but they changed. Charter schools don't have a captive audience, if they don't attract the students, they don't get the money, so they are highly motivated.

5) Someone asked about her out look on society and young people after working with DCP, and what she felt the key was to helping students. She said she was surprised to find that she liked hyper active boys. On the whole the students at DCP were very likeable, and she had gotten to see them in different modes. DCP is a tough love school. For many students, especially students who had had some troubles, they needed the structure that DCP provided. She said the students got it. She said there is a lot of humor in the book, because there is a lot of humor at the school.

6) I asked what she felt were the bright areas in American education. She said she felt the NCLB which focused on the children who had been ignored was a good first step, but there is still a lot to do. She feels there has been some progress in the elementary schools, but it is harder to improve the middle and high schools. She feels that there are some great advantages to smaller schools. There are many people focused on the right issues. The next generation needs to be educated. She very much feels we need to be honest with the students. She is in favor of high school exit exams. The students need to know what they know or don't know.

7) Someone said it would be good after we read Joanne's book to give it to politicians. Joanne said no it would be better to buy two books, keep one, and give the second to a politician.

8) Someone asked if there would be a movie. Joanne admitted that she was surprised for there was some small chance. After a review in the Wall Street Journal she had been contacted by three different outfits expressing an interest in making a movie based on her book.

She spent most of the second hour signing books. She didn't get out of there until about 9:00 PM.

It was a very pleasant evening. Joanne Jacobs is a very personable lady. She was entertaining. If you have a chance to attend one of her book events, consider going, I think you would enjoy it.


Ed Driscoll said...

I attended as well, and just wanted to say thanks for writing a great summary of the events.

Henry Cate said...

Thanks for the kind words.

You are right, as you mention in your blog, it was a diverse group of people. I heard Joanne Jacobs mention to someone at the end about just how surprised she was that there were so many people. They kept having to bring in more and more chairs.