I recently was able to re-establish contact with one of the many great teachers I had in my twelve years of Catholic education --Sister Mary Jean, though when I had her she was Sister Mary Aloysius. She's still at it, well into her fifth decade as an educator. She was a great classroom presence, a skilled algebra and geometry teacher, and a dynamic force in our school.
I had many such teachers whose names recur to me almost weekly: Ron Karrenbauer, Sr. Timothy, Fred Hoover, Kathy Nosich. Almost everyone I have ever met who works in words can recollect tremendous classroom teachers from their past.
The inner city has always had its share of enormously gifted and dedicated teachers, and occasionally one of their stories will escape into the public eye, and he or she will be celebrated. But it is tough, hard work, and as the test scores will tell anyone who reads them, we have been losing a battle to educate underclass kids, a battle that America used to routinely win.
Now one of America's finest education reporter/writers --actually, he's just a terrific writer period-- Jay Mathews brings out a book that will lift the spirits of anyone who cares about the mess that is public education in many major metropolitan areas: Work Hard. Be Nice. How Two Inspired Teachers Created The Most Promising Schools In America.
But Mathews --a veteran of almost 30 years of excellent reporting on schools-- cannot but leave readers amazed and impressed by what KIPP has accomplished and the charisma of its founders and associated heroes, like the GAP stores founders who have funded a large roll-out of the basic model. Mathews knows that most education books are deadly dull, full of statistics and cliches, so he draws the readers in by writing biographies of all the leading characters, and given the kaleidoscope of types --Harriet Ball, Rafe Esquith, Frank Corcoran-- plus the career ups and downs and love lives of the Feinberg/Levin duo (and especially their pratfalls and joys along the way), the stories carry the message that reform is possible and children can learn even when they come from the toughest circumstances. The portraits of many of the children who rise to the challenge of hard, sustained study are inspiring and touching, and some of these stories --like the tragic death of Kenneth McGregor playing high school basketball-- will not be forgotten.