David Harper, a third-grade student at Dove Academy, was sent to the office for being “caught” in a show of good character.
It's a busy morning at Dove Academy in Detroit when
third-grader David Harper walks into the central office, half-sheet of paper in
Assistant Principal Stacey Doctor stops him.
"I want you to tell this person what you've done," she says.
A visiting reporter winces, anticipating a confession of
poor behavior and the likely consequences.
But young Mr. Harper has not been sent to the office for a
violation of student conduct. He's been sent because he's been caught in a show
of good character.
Fifth-grader Mario Buthia works on a report on koalas. Dove students memorize not only their high school graduation year, but their college graduation year as well.
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It appears that he was discovered not talking in class when nobody was supposed to be talking, but
most were. For that good behavior, he was written up and sent to the office to
collect a small prize.
Being caught by a Dove "CIA" agent — CIA stands for Character
in Action — is the kind of thing that bodes well for Harper's college days. Yes, this third-grader and his classmates are
already thinking ahead to college.
Dove is the first school in Michigan to join the California-based
"No Excuses University Network," a group of schools that emphasizes
college-readiness at very early ages. Now active at 70 schools in 13 states, "No
Excuses" has two core principles: that every child has the right to be prepared
to attend college, and that adults who operate schools have a responsibility to
In practice, that means that "No Excuses" schools are
expected to create a school culture in which going to college is the norm, and
in which students are academically ready to do so.
"We introduce college to the students at an early age,"
Doctor said as she walked through the charter public school's hallway, where
the greens, golds, maroons and blues of Eastern Michigan, Notre Dame, Kentucky
State, Alabama, Saginaw Valley, Michigan State and other universities hang above
On Fridays, students
are allowed to dress in their adopted college colors, Doctor said. The
youngsters memorize the year they will graduate from college and recite the
"college-bound pledge" during morning announcements.
But hanging colorful banners isn't enough to get kids into
college, agreed No Excuses founder Damen Lopez in an interview with Michigan
"It can't be just a flag," he said.
Known in public education circles for his work as a teacher
and principal in San Diego, Lopez founded the No Excuses University Network in
2004 to promote college-readiness as part of the elementary school culture. In
2006 he co-founded TurnAround Schools, which works with districts to improve
student performance through six key academic strategies.
Those are: a belief that children can learn, collaboration
among teachers, standards alignment, assessment, data analysis, and strategic academic
Dove was already in a strong academic position when it
joined the No Excuses network, Lopez said, but went from "good to great" by
adding the college-readiness focus. High school graduation can't be the end
goal for students anymore, he continued.
"A college degree is the ticket into the game. Dove is in
the heart of one of the most challenging areas of our country. You realize the
only hope these kids have is education."
Dove has been named a
"Beating the Odds" school by the Michigan Department of Education, a recognition given to schools that
demonstrate high academic achievement among students from lower socioeconomic
backgrounds. The academy is chartered by
Oakland University and is one of three Michigan charters schools managed by
Schoolhouse Services and Staffing.
Proficiency rates on Michigan Educational Assessment Program
tests went up in seven of 10 categories at Dove from 2008 to 2009, a result
that Principal Frank Nardelli attributes to the No Excuses approach.
The school has seen the same upward trends on other
assessment tests and on student report cards, Nardelli said in a telephone
interview with Michigan Education Report.
Asked for an example of how joining No Excuses has changed
Dove's daily operations, Nardelli described the way the school works with students
who need academic help.
Previously, he said, certain students were pulled out of
their classrooms during the day for targeted assistance, a common practice in
schools, but one that causes the students to miss out on the instruction taking
place back in the classroom.
"They were never able to really recover," Nardelli said.
Now, the entire student body receives targeted instruction
for the same 40 minutes each day. Students meet in groups according to their
academic strengths and weaknesses, which means that lower-performing students
get the help they need while higher-performing students can work on advanced
academics, Nardelli said. Students can shift from group to group as they master
"We utilize all of our staff," he said. "We flood each grade
level with support staff during this time."
Working with outside experts or mentors is not a new idea in
public education, but has gained fresh attention in Michigan recently. In
Detroit Public Schools, emergency fiscal manager Robert Bobb hired four
educational firms to work with 17 low-performing high schools in the district.
Meanwhile, Michigan's new Race to the Top legislation created
a system in which low-performing schools could be turned over to an educational
The well-known KIPP school network also emphasizes
college-readiness, and the University Preparatory charter system in southeast
Michigan operates under a "90/90" promise — 90 percent of students will
graduate from high school and 90 percent will be accepted into college.
"There are lots of things going on in public education that
we can learn from," Lopez said. "I think we (No Excuses and TurnAround Schools)
have a very strong way to support public education in a very cost-effective
Schools are not charged dues or fees for being members of
the No Excuses network, he said, and don't have to purchase training or
follow-up materials. Schools join the network by sending staff teams to
introductory institutes where they learn the No Excuses strategies.
Enrolling at Dove can be an eye-opener for students, Doctor
said, since "I can't" or "I don't want to" aren't acceptable reasons for not
doing one's work.
It's also not acceptable for the teachers and administrators
to believe that children can't achieve, she added.
"All these kids cannot be 'poor' or 'unskilled,'" she said.
"We have to change our perspective of how we view the kids. ... If we say in
November, 'I can't do anything with them,' then we've got a problem, because
we're here until June."
Lorie Shane is the managing editor of the Michigan Education Report, the Mackinac Center’s education policy journal. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that Michigan Education Report is properly cited.