Mentors: Making A Difference in Our Public Schools

Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Thomas Evans, Esq.
Title: “Mentors: Making a Difference in Our Public Schools”
VTR: 11/13/92

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guest today is an old friend who knows very well where and indeed how to get to the heart of one of the most important maters to face America today: making a difference in our nation’s public schools.

That’s where our children are for the most part, after all. And if we American are even to begin to measure up to the enormous demands of the next century almost upon us … that’s where we must turn, and that’s where we must make a difference … in our nation’s public schools. Starting right now.

A distinguished attorney at the famous Mudge Rose Wall Street law firm, and Chairman of the Board of Teachers College at Columbia University, Thomas W. Evans joined me here 20 years ago to discuss his provocative volume The School in the Home. Now he has written Mentors: Making A Difference In Our Public Schools” … and I want to begin by asking Tom Evans first to mentor us a bit … to start us on the path to making that difference. Tom, you know, reading the forward that the most eminent education editor in the country, Fred Hechinger, has written for your book, he puts it so well, as you do. He says, “The institutions of a democracy can only be as good as the people are ready to make them.” And I want to ask you about “mentoring,” are we ready to do this?

EVANS: I think we are. There’s a spirit of reform in the air. We hear about “America 2000”, we hear about the Business Roundtables Programs, and other initiatives which are going on today. The problem with many of those is that they are from the top down, and as Debbie Meier, the very successful teacher at Central Park East Schools says, “real reform will only come from the bottom up.” So we’ve got to use this spirit which we have now, to engender citizen involvement at the grass roots. Fred Hechinger calls them the “quiet shock troops in the revolution for our schools.” And a revolution is necessary. Albert Shanker and Bill Bennett, two men now known for frequent agreement, both say we need a revolution in our public schools. About 25% of our adult population are parents. They’re interested in the schools … many of them. But we need the other 75% if we’re going to bring about the revolution that will change the schools and produce educated human beings who will be able to either go on to college, or hold responsible jobs, or otherwise participate in the responsibilities and the enjoyment of society.

HEFFNER: Tom, wait a minute, you talk about 25% of the parental population being interested in, in the schools, and you need 75% more … you need 100% of them. But how realistic is it to assume that given what we see about our nation … given the attitudes toward our children, indeed, not just toward the schools in which our children spend a number of hours a day … how can you be so optimistic as to assume that this can be done? I don’t … I don’t … I don’t mean to, to, to be overly cynical, just realistic.

EVANS: Well, there are a number of motivations and as you know, from reading my book, I define the word “Mentors” very broadly. I’m talking not just of a one-to-one relationship, although I do give some examples of that. I’m talking about people who have become concerned, and have gotten involved and have made a difference in our public schools. Now, in some cases, take Kay Whitmore up in Rochester, he’s the Head of Eastman Kodak Corporation. The City of Rochester went into something called the “Rochester Experiment” … they passed laws, they raised taxes, they raised teachers’ salaries, they increased teachers’ duties, they changed the school system. They had a compact of universities, citizens, business people, educators, the teachers in the schools … the Teachers’ Union, by the way, was an active part of that coalition. Now, what was their motivation? In addition to a general desire o improve things, the companies in Rochester, which are technically oriented, many of them in the optical field, found that they could not find employees. They either had to move out of Rochester, where many of them had been for decades and decades, or improve the pool of workers that were coming to them. They could not afford to do it on the job, they were trying to do it on the job … they had to improve the school population. So in Rochester the motivation was an economic motivation enhanced by the desire for improvement in citizenship, but basically, an economic motivation. If you look at the state of South Carolina … there are two Education Governors involved in the process. One was Richard Riley, a Democrat, the other was Carroll Campbell, a Republican. They discovered that good education was good politics. There again, they improved the state of education in the state of South Carolina. They were able to show to businesses that might want to locate some place in the South the tremendous improvements they had made over a fairly short period in South Carolina, so it made good economic sense there to show an improvement in the schools. So you have two mentors there, Riley and Campbell who did a remarkable job.

HEFFNER: You know, I thought when I began the book that I was going to read more about individuals, rather than systems. And you’re making the point that the individuals count …

EVANS: The individuals can move the system, but …


EVANS: … let me, let me go back to a very individual story. The largest program where you have private citizens involved in the public schools is probably the Book It Program. The Book It Program is run by Pizza Hut. It turns around on free pizza … if a child reaches a certain goal, goal in reading, that child is given a certificate for a pizza. If everybody in the class reaches it, then the class has a pizza party. All right. First of all, how effective is the program? How big is it? And how did it start, which is really getting back to the individual mentor involved. The program was designed in Kansas, and evaluated by the University of Rhode Island. It’s now got 17 million elementary school students in it, over half the elementary school students in the United States of America are in the Book It Program. How has it worked? 300% have increased their enjoyment of reading. 79% have increased their reading achievement. 70% have increased their grades in various courses, over half have increased their grades in all courses. It’s a tremendously successful program. People when they review it, and a woman named Eunice Ellis runs it now … she’s a former school teacher who happened to be working for Pizza Hut at the time they went into this program … nobody thought it was going to be this big … the program is viewed as an ideal program because it’s getting people into the stores, if you will, into the shops … it’s helping Pizza Hut to make its name known and to engender good will in the community. It’s making a huge difference in the outcome with students. And all of those things are cited as elements of an ideal program. How did it get started? It got started because the head of Pizza Hut was playing pool one night with his son … he found that his son was having trouble locating the balls on the pool table. He found that his son had a serious vision problem. And in the course of that he realized that the son had a literacy and a reading problem. Now, Arthur Gunther was wealthy enough to be able to work on those very difficult physiological problems individually in the case of his son, but he realized that there is some 27 million adult Americans out there who were functionally illiterate. He became engaged by the problem. And he individually moved this great program along to become what it is today. He likes to point out that when you’re talking about rewards … teenagers like pizza first, hamburgers second and steak third. So, the idea of this kind of reward … this incentive, which might never have occurred to the typical educator, if you will, although educators designed this program after he got the idea, turned out to be a major award. Also, the manager of the Pizza Hut … when the youngster comes in with the certificate, says “We have a winner here” … pull out the chair, make a big fuss, and it’s a tremendous incentive program, which started because one man was concerned about his son.

HEFFNER: Great believer, aren’t you, in incentives?


HEFFNER: And that seems to be what mentor is about.

EVANS: It is. Again and again you find people who can have a personal incentive, an economic incentive, a goal that they want to accomplish. Virtually everyone who becomes involved has tremendous satisfaction. If it’s a one-to-one mentoring program, and we’ve just recently brought the senior lawyers at the Association of the Bar of the City of New York in as one-to-one mentors at a school that has been created here in New York City, called the Law and Justice Institute … it’s a school where kids elect to go there because they’re interested in the law. It’s at Martin Luther King, Jr. High School. The senior lawyers are now working one to one with the kids, and one of the lawyers who set it up, came to me afterwards and he said “you know, I don’t think this is working very well.” He said, “First of all, you know, they don’t teach Latin in that school.” I said, “Well, things have changed a little bit since we went to school.” He said, “But I, I meet with a youngster.” He said, “I enjoy it, but I really don’t think he’s getting much out of it.” So I talked to the teacher … she said, “That youngster can hardly wait until Victor gets to the school. It’s a major event just talking with, having somebody to listen, having somebody who’s interested in him.” We had another situation involving a, a 30 year old woman … a lawyer with a six month old daughter … she found that her student, who was 15 years old also had a six month daughter. And her reaction to the student was “here is a youngster with such resiliency, such, such guts in the face of challenge, that she is a star, she will turn it around. She’s going to be able to do it.” Interestingly, that student has transferred out of that school … the mentor went with her, she’s going to stick with her for the four years that she goes through high school, and probably beyond. That makes a difference. There’s a tremendous feeling of satisfaction.

HEFFNER: Tom, when Chris Whittle has been here at this table and talked about his plan for schools of the future, he’s not talking about public schools. Do you see any conflict between what you are doing and what Whittle is planning?

EVANS: No. I, I’ve looked at the Whittle figures, and they’re very interesting. I think we need all of the innovation we can get. But, we must keep our public school system. The public school system is the glory of America. It is now in descent. It can come back, once again, to be our glory. I’ll tell you why I say that. Because, as you read in this book, there are success after success after success with schools in this country. The parochial school system, which is an independent school system, of course, is a very successful system. The Whittle Independent Schools, and he projects 1,000 of them may themselves be very successful. But we’ve got to maintain our public school system, and we can look, first of all, here in New York City at District Four. District Four is what everyone points to when they talk about “choice,” it’s choice within the public schools. And an enlightened Superintendent named Anthony Alvarado working with an Alternative Schools director named Sy Fliegel set up a choice system. They did what I’d like to see everybody do. They started small. They didn’t need a master plan, they didn’t have to have something for the whole city, or even the whole district. They started with three school rooms that weren’t being used and started their first school. Some of the kids wanted a special school. I think the first one was based on maritime … these are kids in East Harlem who had an interest in a maritime school … they set it up. Then they had a sports school. They had a school on performing arts. Eventually they went to choice throughout the whole district. All right, what happened? District Four year after year after year had been number 32 out of 32 school districts in the City of New York in terms of reading and computation, or math proficiency. After just a few years of this choice system, it was at number 15 or 16 in reading and math respectively. Now, that’s a wonderful change, that’s a miracle within District Four. Some of the schools were right at the top, some of the students were right at the top. Debbie Meier’s school, Central Park East School, which uses the method now designed by Debbie Meiers and others, but designed principally and reported on principally by Ted Sizer and his Coalition of Essential Schools, there’s some 200 schools like this throughout the country. The kids come to school, they address their teachers by their first names, they do not have 50 minute classes, they work collaboratively, they do not have standardized tests, they have portfolios they produce … they have an exhibit for their major graduation accomplishment, and they are learning a great deal. Now, ironically, they do better on standardized tests than their peers. They’d rather do without them, but they do vindicate and prove the worth of the system that way and in many, many other ways. Now, on the other hand, if you go to Marva Collins Westside Prep in Chicago, you will find 50 minute periods, you will find the kids dressed up in coats and ties, and special uniforms. You will find that they are studying Shakespeare, and the great classics and, and Greek mythology, and if they are five minutes late in the morning, Marva Collins does not let them into school. So they are never late. They all go to college, just as the kids who are in Debbie Meiers’ school, go to college. And yet those are almost diametric opposites in the way to run schools. And the answer is, there’s no one formula for a good school.

HEFFNER: Now look, Tom, the first thing you said, you first went to Rochester, you took us to Rochester, New York … and the first thing you said was “taxes.” The first thing you talked about was raising more money. Now, is this country ready to do that, do you think?

EVANS: Well …

HEFFNER: I’m not talking about “need” …

EVANS: Let’s go into the question of money. First of all, let me take a couple of the examples I’ve just given you. Very little additional money was needed for District Four. I think Debbie Meiers said that the additional amount in each school was something like $12,500 … it was really not a great deal of money needed to transform those schools into truly exceptional schools. There are areas, and if you read Jonathan Kozol’s book about savage inequalities, you do see areas where the disproportion is so great that it, it is hard to overcome the lack of funds. There, by the way, and one of the mentors I mention in the book is a man named Jack Moreland, Jack Moreland in the state of Kentucky brought an, an action on behalf of the people in the state and was able to get money to go into the poor districts, which had been previously been spent only in the richer districts. So, money is a question, but …

HEFFNER: Where did the money come from, Tom? From the richer districts?

EVANS: In that case, you had a sales tax … and there was something of a re-distribution, but you had a sales tax in the, in the system in South Carolina you also had a sales tax. In Bill Clinton’s system in Arkansas back in 1983, you had a sales tax. Now, money is not the only answer, however. A lot of schools are, are doing exceptionally well and people like Jonathan Chubb like to point out that Sweden gets more money per capita than any system in the country, any school system, and they’re lagging behind in many areas. We spend a great deal of money on our schools per student, and yet we are lacking, or lagging behind. Unquestionably money is needed in a number of areas, but there are also other things, we’ve just mentioned some of them that can re-define education and make a difference. And let me give you an example, which I give in the book. Joe Grannis is a professor at Teachers College. Back in 1985 he was asked to undertake a four year study of how the drop-out program was working among high risk students in New York. They took 150,000 students and they tracked how some $30 million a year was working to address the drop-out program. Now the program, which spent $120 million over that four year period, was addressed to, to truancy, really. It was addressed to ideas of tracking down the students and calling them up, and bringing them back in, and that sort of thing. What was the result? Zero. There was zero improvements in the schools as a result of the expenditure of $120 million. Now, Grannis came up with a number of recommendations. Chancellor Joe Fernandez studied those, he initiated Project Achieve … the new drop-out prevention program tries to make the schools more attractive, more interesting. Matter of fact, the whole City of New York is now going toward the choice models that were developed in District Four and in similar programs. So, money can help, unquestionably. Money is not the only answer, there have to be certain commitments on behalf of the citizens, the students, the parents and the schools.

HEFFNER: Tom, I wasn’t … I, I wasn’t suggesting that money might be the only need. But what you’re talking about, in all probability, does mean digging down into our resources and coming up with more money for the schools. Is, is that an unfair statement?

EVANS: No, I think, undoubtedly that’s going to have to be done. However, the case has to be proved. That’s why I say “start small.” If you start small, in many simultaneous initiatives, you’ll be able to see what works and what doesn’t work. The funds will not be spent blindly, or badly. I just mentioned the school drop-out program which was a waste of funds, a misappropriation of funds. Look at our school custodian situation in New York City, and you will see a system that is designed for waste, and misappropriation of funds. There has to be some common sense, and it’s often result-based where you see what the successes are. Let me give you another example. One of the things we’re going to find now, I think, as a result of the recent election, is more spending on Head-Start. It’s a wonderful program. There are other school readiness programs, however, and one of them is called “Hippy.” Hippy is a, maybe an unfortunate acronym, but an acronym, nevertheless, for Home Improvement Program for Pre-School Youngsters. It’s a national program, and the nation is Israel. It was based in Israel, started in 19069 by Dr. Avima Lombard, and the idea was to try to work with children of immigrants who came from societies that were either not literate, or where education had not been emphasized, to try to bring them up by the time they went into school, to the same state of readiness as immigrants from Eastern Europe, or the native population. Dr. Lombard’s program worked. It … they worked with parents … it’s a two year program … the hippy para-professionals go into homes, they train parents, the parents every two weeks come to a center, and do some role-playing, they learn parenting, they pick up some 18 different story books to work with the children, with, many of these parents are illiterate themselves, when they start. It has a very positive effect on parents. It costs considerably less than Head-Start, it’s a different kind of program. Head-Start is a center based, or school based program, and Hippy is a home based program. But …so, there again, it’s a qualitative thing, and interestingly, that program, which existed in Israel, was only in two cities in the United States back in 1985. One was Tulsa, where it was first introduced. The other was Miami. Hillary Clinton, who was visiting Miami read in the newspaper of the program, brought it back to Arkansas, and in Arkansas there, there are some 5,000 Hippy families now … about half of what there are in the whole country. But the, the program nationally has been brought up as well. Miriam Westheimer runs Hippy USA, and they’re able to spread that throughout the country. I’m trying to give examples of situations where tremendous improvement has been made and money has not been the prime question. The prime question has been commitment and a program that works.

HEFFNER: You know, I, I … I sound like Scrooge … maybe because I feel like Scrooge … but I guess, Tom, and come back, in the two minutes we have remaining … to the discouragement I feel, the ideas that you have set forth. You’re Chairman of the Board of … at Teachers College. I know that Teachers College has been in the vanguard of movements very like the ones you describe. That it has been progressive in the very best sense of the word, that it has done so many, tried so many innovative things. Our schools have gotten worse … our performance has gotten worse. Now, the kinds of ideas you express, the enthusiasm that you express has been expressed before. What’s the answer?

EVANS: Well, first of all Teachers College, as you know, as in many schools in New York City, advancing these new ideas in addition to teaching a population of teachers, administrators, psychologists, nutritionists to utilize these new methods, many times the school experiments are funded by private corporations. I think the answer, Dick, is that we have to have a full-court press. What I’ve written about since 1983 primarily in this book are success stories. And yet since A Nation at Risk was published in 1983, which talked about the mediocrity of our schools, the schools, if anything have gotten slightly worse. These success stories show that success can be achieved, but it can be achieved only if private citizens everywhere will enlist in this revolution. They can get the job done. Here’s the proof. It can be done. It’s been done in certain cities, certain states, and with individuals. They’ve got to enlist. They can start small, if they want to, but they’ve got to start now, and it’s really up to the private citizens of this country to bring it about.

HEFFNER: Okay, you’ve encouraged me, you’ve given me food for thought, and you have our audience, and I know that’s true of those who read Mentors. It is something that each of us has to dedicate ourselves to. And the examples you give are so, so thoroughly impressive. Tom Evans, thank you for joining me again today on The Open Mind.

EVANS: Thank you, Dick.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our program, about the innovative program that Mr. Evans talks about, write The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.

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