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Introduction

MY WIFE REMINDED me r ecently that , when we first met back in


Philly, I’d promised her an ex citing life. I was just talking big . I
was twenty-four years old, broke, and so skinny that my shoulder
bones made it look like I’ d le ft my shir ts on the hanger f or too
long. All I had was a promise.
An exciting life? Come on. I was just trying to sound cool. I had
no idea what an exciting life would look like seventeen years ago.
I do now.
Push Has Come t o Shove is a st ory about what happens when
you fall in love. There’s no scienc e or lo gic t o falling in love. I f
there were, either love would be mor e predictable or its impact
would be less powerful.
I’m often referred to as a “ tough love” principal. Yeah, that’s
true. I’m in love. And I can confirm that all love is tough.
When I was y ounger, I never dr eamed of being a pr incipal,
never interviewed for the job—but then this principal’s life called
me. It was a blind date. I was a social worker, a community college
adjunct professor, and the director of a pre-collegiate program. I
was pleased, doing good work —but not in love. I still f elt unful-
filled. I kne w there was something else out ther e for me. I kne w
that there was a life in education—but I didn’t know what it was.
When she called in 2002, I was ready.

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PUSH HAS COME TO SHOVE

The day I declared that I wanted to start a school was the d ay


that the fighting began. This book is so deeply personal because
helping you to educate your kids desperately matters to me.
Solutions g reet y ou thr oughout the book . This is the r esult
of my being a member of a dedicat ed, g roundbreaking t eam of
educators. We’ve learned a lot fr om our suc cess, which makes it
possible to share answers to issues that you may have believed to
be intractable. The solutions we uncovered from our battles with
parents, politicians, pontificators, and bur eaucrats will help y ou
be a better parent. They could also improve your kids’ school.
My team and I have both lost and found ourselves while build-
ing the Capital Pr eparatory Ma gnet School in H artford, Con-
necticut. Today we’re a family of educators where once we used to
be coworkers. The journey from colleagues to family has brought
great insig ht. E ach section of this book intr oduces y ou t o the
challenges we encountered and how we beat them to become one
of America’s most successful schools.
I want education t o make sense t o you, even the things that
are desig ned to be c omplicated. I want t o g ive parents like y ou
the information that m y single mom c ould’ve used. I’ve spelled
out those “frequently asked questions” that I get from caring par-
ents, but more important, I’ve tried to oĀ er practical, real-world
solutions. (And though this book is mostly for you parents, I also
hope plenty of t eachers and my fellow principals will read it, be-
cause I’ve tucked in some helpful pointers for them, too.)
I hope that shar ing the love I’ve f ound in helping childr en
will—at the least —help you to help your own children. Perhaps
it will even inspir e you to get fur ther involved in the str uggle—
and yes, it’s a daily struggle—to help other children.

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Introduction

Push has de finitely c ome t o shove. I’ve taken all that I can
take. America’s children deserve better and we can give it to them.
For me, answer ing that call t o star t a school and c ommit to
the tough love of mar riage delivered the grown-up version of an
exciting life and gave birth to my life’s purpose.

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PART ONE

Inspiration

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The Promise

THERE WERE TWO boys who’d grown up together—both poor, both


living in public housing , both B lack and both with big , really
big dreams. B oth were athletes—football was their game. They
weren’t r elated, thoug h the y spent some par t of ever y d ay t o-
gether. They r ode bikes , pla yed door-knob-ditch t ogether, c on-
vinced the g irls t o hide-and-go-get t ogether, cheat ed on t ests
together, st ole fr om c onvenience st ores t ogether, and g rew—
together. They weren’t related, but these two boys were brothers.
High school brought change for each of them. One took to the
streets, selling dr ugs—the other didn’t. I t wasn’t that the boy
who didn’t sell drugs loved school; he just didn’t see any future in
the sale of dr ugs. These two y oung men still spent almost ever y
single d ay t ogether until the y g raduated hig h school. The y still
played sports together, still convinced the girls together, but they
weren’t st ealing t ogether. Knocking on doors st opped making
sense before high school came to a close.
The dr ug dealer sta yed behind and c ontinued selling . The
other kid went t o college. At each br eak, they got t ogether, two
friends—brothers—living very diĀerent lives, still dreaming big,
together, separately.
When they’d connect, they’d break into a familiar dialogue:
“Yo, c ollege boy , y ou need some mone y? ” the dr ug dealer

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would ask . His thinly veiled r ibbing aside, the dr ug dealer was
genuinely c oncerned about his c ollege fr iend. H e didn’t know
how much c ollege c ost, but he kne w that just months be fore,
both w ere poor. The c ollege boy ’s father was in pr ison, and his
mom was still living in the pr ojects. The dr ug dealer lived with
both of his parents.
The college boy’s response was always the same: “Even if I did,
I wouldn’t take it fr om you. . . .” Then he ’d dutifully r eturn the
volley. “You still selling that mess?” he ’d jab, his words sounding
more concerned than judgmental.
The drug dealer’s response was equally pr edictable. “ You just
stay in c ollege and bec ome a lawyer,” he said, laug hing. “I mig ht
need one someday.”
“Stop selling that mess,” the college boy would warn, “and you
won’t need one.”
This—this t easing—is how y oung men talk . I t’s how the y
show aĀ ection, check in on a fr iend who is living a diĀ erent life,
making his own way, dreaming his own dream.

YEARS PASSED, AND this performance was repeated every Thank s-


giving, C hristmas, E aster, and summer br eak. The dr ug dealer
was making his way in his world, and the c ollege kid was making
his. Both were successful, standouts, racing together to validate
their separate paths, hoping to meet again, at the top.
Then, four years and too many breaks to count later, the pov-
erty, stress, and r ising cost of education finally caught up to the
college kid. He was a senior , and, with one semest er left, he was
out of money and time. His single mother and his father, recently

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The Promise

paroled fr om pr ison, couldn’t help. His suc cess on campus had


put him on the dean’s list but didn’t earn him out of his cir cum-
stances. So, in anticipation of the fat e promised in all the lett ers
that he ’d int ercepted fr om the bursar ’s office, the c ollege boy
packed for his final Christmas break.
With his car filled t o the windows , he pulled up t o his old
neighborhood, wher e his fr iend was work ing. The dr ug dealer
made his wa y over t o the c ollege boy, r eady t o launch int o his
part, “Yo, college boy. . . .”
“Not today” popped back. When men, even young men, see a
friend, another young man, a brother in trouble, they know bet-
ter than to ask a bunch of questions , delve into how he ’s feeling,
make him talk . The exchanges are as unc omfortable for the lis -
tener as the y are for the one being questioned. Men, even men
in training, fall back , say little, and tr y to get t o the end of the
conversation as soon as possible with as little outwar d emotion
as possible. W hen they’re hurt, the last thing the y want to do is
talk. The dr ug dealer kne w this r ule of enga gement. Just look -
ing at the overstuĀed Hyundai and his brother’s somber face told
him something was up.
Had poverty finally conquered him? Unprompted: “How much
do you need?”
Unable to let his pr ide cut oĀ the discussion, the c ollege boy
looked down at the c old December ground and said nothing . In
the silence, the winds of reality blew, carrying a respect for space,
circumstance, and dig nity. After what f elt like a season, the c ol-
lege boy hea ved what he thoug ht would be an uncat chable ball:
“Thir ty-five hundred bucks!”
His friend thought about it for a moment. “Yo, can I ge t it to

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you on Sund ay?” The oĀer, thoug h unex pected and g reatly ap-
preciated, provoked nothing more than silence. Men, even young
men, even when they are hurting, don’t have much to say.
“I’m good, ” the c ollege boy said, unc onvincingly. The drug
dealer shot his fr iend a questioning g lance; the c ollege boy an-
swered with a nod and an awkward exit. “It’s cold as hell out here.
I’m heading in.”
The c ollege boy ’s mom didn’t know that he couldn’t r eturn
to college after the C hristmas break. The young man planned t o
wait until after the holidays, hoping to either avoid telling her or,
better still, to find a last-ditch solution.
This visit was the weekend be fore ex ams. Mond ay mor ning,
he returned to school and be gan his final pack ing. A ll that was
left in his bedroom were posters of SUCCESS and great Black lead-
ers such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. As the college
boy peeled the gooe y Malcolm X post er oĀ the wall, he st opped
and said, “ To hell with this. ” He pivoted and st ormed out of his
room, through campus, headed t o the c ollege president’s office.
When he got there, he was greeted by a polite and persistent sec-
retary. Within seconds, his anger and hurt had elevated the situ-
ation to a threat of security being called.
Hearing the c ommotion, and r ecognizing the student , the
president stepped out and int ervened. Seeing his visit or, a cam-
pus leader, now in a full fr oth, complete with reddened eyes and
balled fists, the pr esident asked the student t o c ome int o his
office.
“I’m broke,” the student wast ed no time in sa ying. “I’ve been
broke since I was born and it’s just gotten worse since I came here.

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The Promise

I did everything y’all asked and I’m still broke and now I gotta go
home. Not the fools who drink from Monday to Monday. Me.”
The pr esident list ened as the y oung man f ought back r age,
hurt, and tears. Then he asked, “How much do you need?”
Without a breath: “Thir ty-five hundred.”
Convinced that this old W hite guy was pla ying him, the stu-
dent grew truly agitated when the pr esident said, “I can help —
under one condition.”
“Look,” the young man said, “I’ve just left all this money in my
drug dealer friend’s pocket. What could you possibly ask me to do
that I will say no to?”
As I said, “I can give you the money under one condition . . .”
“Anything.”
“That you use it to give kids like you a chance.”

THE COLLEGE BOY g raduated, went on t o an Iv y L eague g raduate


school, managed a homeless shelter, ran for state representative,
started the Capital Pr eparatory Ma gnet School, and wr ote five
books, including the one you hold in your hands. . . .
I made a promise to President Robert Carothers and I’ve spent
my life making good on that promise. Education and an educator
saved m y lif e; now I must do the same. I star ted Capital Pr ep,
tour the c ountry g iving speeches, and ha ve wr itten this book
because I know that Amer ica has failed t o develop a suc cessful
public school system that can be replicated across racial and class
lines. This book—and the life that I’m living—explain why we’ve
failed and how we can be successful.

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The Push

I DIDN’T START this fight, but I’m damn sure gonna finish it. Back
in 2001, I got dr agged into the battle by an innocent-sounding
question. When Ms. Saunders asked me, “ Why do only r ich kids
get good schools?” I didn’t have a good answer.
Ms. Saunders was one of the par ents in a pre-collegiate pro-
gram for low-income students that I’d started and had been run-
ning since 1998. Her question called me out and pushed me int o
a fight from which I couldn’t turn back. I didn’t get in it thinking
that I could win. But she made me feel I had to.
Urban schools are America’s canary. The shafts are dangerous.
Traveling them will cost more than money. The ’hood’s academic
discord and dysfunction don’t end at the city limits nor do the y
dissipate with a lig htening of the students ’ hue. Like dr ugs, di-
vorce, and out-of-wedlock bir ths, the issues sur rounding Amer-
ica’s need t o oĀ er quality education ar e easiest t o see in urban
communities. There the issues ar e so pr onounced that the y’re
impossible to avoid.
Yet the buc olic bends and tree-lined str eets of our affluent
suburbs hide a ver y ugly tr uth. All Amer ica’s children are being
oĀered an un-American education.
Ms. Saunders had dreams, but dreams don’t pay the bills. She
was haunted by the pursuit of a good education for her child. She

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was f ed up because tr aditional neig hborhood schools —urban


or suburban —aren’t w orking f or an ybody. W as she ex cessive,
hypersensitive, a c onspiracy theor ist? Y up—all thr ee. S he was
pugnacious on a good d ay, r ude on a bad one. H owever, even a
stopped clock is right twice a day. It happened to be her time.
Ms. Saunders had gone t o great lengths to send her t eenage
daughter, Kayla, to nearby Windsor High School in a middle-class
suburb. B ut ther ein la y the pr oblem. K ayla’s suburban school
was not desig ned to send all of its students t o college. Windsor
High is an ex ample of what is happening all over the c ountry in
suburban schools. I t pr esents a pr etty façade, oĀ er ing parents
false confidence. The root of that false sense of confidence can be
found in one word: proficient.
Each school is like a car dealership. The dealership knows the
rules better than y ou. No matter how much r esearch you do be-
fore you go int o the showr oom, if the salesman is a shady indi-
vidual, you are going t o walk out with an ex pensive, unsolvable
problem. Seminar , advanc ed plac ement (A P), honors , c ollege
prep, and basic —the most c ommon academic tr acks—ensure
that most of the k ids in the school will not be r eady for college.
How would you know this? You wouldn’t. It’s damn near impos-
sible to figure out, even when you’re an educator yourself.
To convince the community that the schools are in fact work-
ing, stat es and distr icts oft en f ocus on students ’ per formance
being “proficient.” The problem is that to be categorized as “profi-
cient” is to be performing below grade level.
Each state’s standardized tests are typically scored on a scale
from 1 to 5: 1 is “below basic”; 2 is “basic”; 3 is “proficient”; 4 is “at
goal”; 5 is “at or above goal.” Lauding proficiency is nothing short

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of accepting mediocrity. It essentially means that a tenth-grader


who is proficient in wr iting is almost writing on the tenth-grade
level. If we care about truly educating our kids, only performance
“at goal” can matter.
But since proficiency is what’s reported, Ms. Saunders and the
other suburban parents had reason to feel pretty good. In 2010,
for instance, almost 90 percent of the White students were profi-
cient in math, reading, writing, and science in Windsor. A slightly
closer look would r eveal that less than 60 per cent of these same
White students were at goal in math, scienc e, reading, and writ-
ing. That’s a stunning statistic when you consider it: according to
the 2009 Connecticut A cademic Performance Test, fully 60 per-
cent of the White students at this supposedly “high-performing”
suburban high school failed to do science at grade level.
As the f ounder and dir ector of the Connecticut Colle giate
Awareness and Pr eparation Pr ogram—or ConnC AP—I’d spent
five years working with teachers in the communities of Hartford,
Windsor, E ast H artford, and B loomfield, fighting f or the k ids
that didn’t have Ms. Saunders as a mom. I fought to make teach-
ers stay after school with our kids for extra help, respect our kids
in class, and expect more for these low-income students.
Ms. Saunders had a hunch and a fighter’s spir it. S he kne w
that something was wr ong with the wa y her daughter was being
educated, but she did not know how much she was kept in the
dark, or what r emedies she c ould take t o get her d aughter on a
track toward academic success.
What Ms. Saunders needed was a school she c ould aĀord and
that was desig ned t o send ever y sing le k id t o c ollege. B ut that
was going to be a heavyweight bout.

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Until then, I’ d been slapbo xing. A ll I was doing was moving


kids fr om one class t o another , look ing f or the best t eachers
in poorly desig ned and ine Āective schools. I wasn’t solving the
problem. I was shifting chairs on the deck of the Titanic, giving
students a better view of a sinking ship.
“Well,” Ms. Saunders asked, “ why can’t this pr ogram become
its own school?”
That wasn’t the question anymore: it was the answer.
Over those y ears at ConnC AP, I’d met some amazing educa-
tors in failing schools. We’d all talked about doing something, but
we didn’t know what.
These teachers, all with r ésumés from various public schools,
had alr eady bec ome out casts and disenchant ed. W hat none of
us ever really considered was star ting our own school. Y eah, we
would vaguely talk about it , but nobody was ea ger to leave their
job and g ive up t enure to suppor t this silly-ass idea of cr eating
our own public school from scratch.
Ms. Saunders’s question changed all that . She needed an an-
swer. W hen she hit me with that question, I went fr om being a
spectator, enjoying a good run as the director of a successful non-
profit, to a pissed-oĀ pugilist ready for an all-out brawl.
Starting a school gave all of us hope, but be clear: we had more
ambition than good sense. None of us had ever even met anyone
who’d star ted a public school. Ever y school we ’d ever seen had
always been there—usually decades before we were even born.
Ambitious? Hell, yeah. We’d made our minds up that we were
going to change education as we kne w it. Okay, some of us had.
Most everybody else was running from a burning building to one
that reeked of gas.

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The Push

Push had c ome to shove. We’d all seen t oo much t o turn an-
other cheek. We’d run out of cheeks.
This book is about what happens next. It’s the story about one
group of educators’ vision. Push Has Come to Shove is about decid-
ing whether to sit back and do nothing or do something difficult,
risky, and seeming ly impossible. I t’s about the pr ocess—again,
that daily struggle—to address Ms. Saunders’s simple question.
Push Has Come to Shove and Capital Prep serve the exact same
purpose. They each exist t o answer par ents’ endless questions
about the struggle to educate and save our nation’s children.

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