It was the first day of a school for fourth graders in a rural Georgia district, and I was there to watch their excitement — slowly shrivel and die. For 50 minutes, the teacher recited her class rules in a voice so listless and flat that she could have been reading from the telephone book.
I was literally praying for a fire drill so I could escape, and it still saddens me that those 27 children returned to that lifeless classroom day after day.
“That’s a molasses class,” says Ron Clark, the desk-jumping, algebra-rapping, superstar teacher whose astounding success with struggling East Harlem students was celebrated in a movie and by Oprah Winfrey. In 2007, Clark used his fame to create his dream middle school in one of southeast Atlanta’s poorest neighborhoods, intent on practicing the craft he still considers his first mission and also on training other teachers.
Today, the private Ron Clark Academy vibrates with the energy and passion that earned its founder a national teacher-of-the-year title and helped him pen a bestseller, “The Essential 55.” Now, he has a new book that speaks to parents and teachers, “The End of Molasses Classes: Getting Our Kids Unstuck. 101 Extraordinary Solutions for Parents and Teachers.”
In a conversation and throughout his book, one theme dominates: All children can learn to high standards and Clark will Double Dutch, bungee jump or rap U.S. history to motivate students to reach those standards.
Contrast the first day of classes at Ron Clark Academy to what most schools will do this month. Clark and his staff choreograph the first few hours to convince their students that this is going to be the best year of their lives. The students arrive to a boisterous band and the entire school staff lined up to hug and high-five them. Some children are swept up and carried into the schools amid hoots and hollers. Once inside, staff members barrel down a two-story twisting blue slide in the school’s atrium to introduce themselves.
Borrowing from Harry Potter, Ron Clark Academy established four houses, and students are assigned by a 6-foot-wide spinning wheel. Children run up the coin steps —coins from every nation are embedded in the steps — and take their first ride down the slide as their houses are announced. It’s pandemonium
And then it’s silence —for three days.
An unexpected side to Clark’s Willy Wonka persona is his insistence on Sunday-best attire for staff and students, impeccable manners, firm handshakes, strong eye contact, hard work and earned rewards. As he says, “Not every child deserves a cookie.” (Somewhere in his hometown of Chocowinity, N.C., there must be a proud Sunday school teacher.) After those wild, first few hours, Ron Clark students are not allowed to talk for three full days unless asked a question or at lunch.
For while the 39-year-old Clark describes his school as the most magical in the world — his classroom is entered through a secret passageway behind a moving bookcase, and a noted graffiti artist painted the hallways — he also calls it the strictest. “I was brought up in a strict Southern household, no back talk,” he says. “You have to set the right tone from the start.”
His students accept the rigid discipline, he says, because they see the deep commitment behind it. While the school charges $18,000 annual tuition, only 10 percent of students pay the full freight. Most pay according to their means, on average $45 a month. The school accepts only 30 of 400 applicants, and Clark visits each of their homes before classes begin, believing he has to understand “what that child experiences every night.”
If students are falling behind, Clark shows up at their home to work with them. He demonstrates math in parent/student classes so families can work together. Every parent’s phone number is programmed into every staff member’s phone. In their four years at Ron Clark, the students travel to six continents with their teachers and to several U.S. cities. On a New York trip, Clark cajoled Panasonic to thrill his students by flashing their school photos from a giant screen in Times Square.
Clark asks a lot of his teachers, who earn salaries comparable to their public school counterparts. In return, he works to uplift them, rounding up donations to present each with a $1,000 gift card to buy school attire and honoring them at public events. (And throughout his new book.)
Proceeds from his book go into the school, which also earns income from the 3,000 educators who come each year to watch and slide. Clark knows that not every teacher can jump up on a desk or perform a rap but he believes his school and its use of music offers a model with wider application. “We are a big store. You are shopping for something that works for you,” he says.
I know that many people will dismiss the Ron Clark Academy’s accomplishments by citing the considerable corporate aid that the school receives. (Delta flies students for free.) But I don’t think it is the kid-friendly facility, the two-story slide or the trips abroad that distinguish the school.
It’s the teaching.
I asked Clark whether we can expect any teachers to demonstrate the level of dedication he shows toward his students, a dedication that claims his every waking moment and probably invades his sleep as well. I suggested that his dedication could be called unhealthy since it left no room for anything else.
“Sometimes, it is unhealthy,” said Clark, acknowledging that he could not put in these hours if he had his own family. He feels that he is a parent to his students, saying, “I have too many children.”
But Clark does think all teachers can adopt some of his principles — the book contains 101 — to enliven their classrooms, such as incorporating music and song, a hallmark of his academy. (He is a big fan of adding a djembe drum in his classroom.)
One simple idea I wish every middle school in Georgia would adopt is Clark’s Amazing Shake in which students introduce themselves to a variety of community volunteers in a series of stations set up in the gym or cafeteria.
Each volunteer station presents a unique challenge – one person might have a bandaged hand, another may be on a cell phone, another just dropped a stack of boxes – and kids are graded on how they maneuver this social obstacle course. Do the students first help the lady pick up the boxes and then introduce themselves? Or, do they introduce themselves first?
The students receive feedback on how they could have better handled each situation. The feedback stresses three things every child should know: The power of eye contact, a firm handshake and a big smile. The students with the highest scores win a prize. (Clark is big on public celebrations for work well done.)
The guiding philosophy of the Ron Clark Academy is that one of the students will be president some day. Since they have no idea which student it will be, Clark says the school must prepare all of them to be the leader of the free world. That includes providing them with a global perspective, academic excellence and a firm handshake.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog