Pioneers of progress in the Big Apple
Brooklyn Latin School
In the hazy, muggy morning light, neon signs glow dimly in shops, the pharmacy has heavy security on it and the basketball courts with chain-link fences are deserted. Brooklyn has far less bustle than Manhattan, the main activity being traffic heading for work and kids getting to school. There are many schools on Bushwick Avenue, so it takes me a while to find the Brooklyn Latin School.
I walk through the surprisingly security-free entrance and find myself in a school that looks, sounds and smells like the one in Britain I have been teaching at for the past few years. I have come to New York City to report from the inside of two schools, one public (the American equivalent of a British state school) and one private. The Brooklyn Latin School is the number one ranked public school in New York State.
Inside the building, there is a welcome committee of students and teachers greeting the visitors: parents, representatives from universities, ex-students and interested people from the area. As is customary at such events, students take responsibility for showing the visitors to the right locations. Once the students hear I am on a reporting assignment from London, I immediately gain more chaperones than is probably necessary and I get the slightly grander tour than most do. On the way to the library, the girls march me in to several lessons, mid-session, and announce, "She's a reporter! From London!" - with a slightly disruptive effect.
In the school's library, students are taking full advantage of a special breakfast buffet in honour of Founders' Day. Two things immediately strike me: the fact that the kids are all wearing a uniform, which is uncommon in US schools, and how happy they all seem.
Granted, it is getting towards the end of term for them - read it and weep, you Europeans, they finish by the end of June! - and it is a special day, but many of them approach unsolicited to introduce themselves, or ask if I want to be a guest judge in a speaking competition. Having taught in inner-London state schools, I know how surprising kids can be, but I am nevertheless taken aback by their confidence. If you are used to dealing with teenagers you fully expect them to exhibit a combination of wariness and surliness, especially when faced with strangers, so these adolescents' friendliness bodes well for the school.
Brooklyn Latin's Head Master, Jason Griffiths, tells me that the students here very much hail from deprived areas - about 70 per cent are on the free school meal programme. The school is academically selective, which is clearly part of the reason for its success. However, it would be wrong to call Brooklyn Latin just an academically successful school. Its philosophy is underpinned by a peculiar and glorious experiment: all the students are schooled in Latin. I learn just how entrenched the school's passion is for the ancient language a bit later at the awards ceremony.
"Salve!" booms Griffiths to begin proceedings. The students yell "Salve!" back. Some of the other teachers who speak do so entirely in Latin, which seems to lose nobody but me. One gives a brilliant speech - in English, which is how I know it is brilliant - about the power of learning something ancient and immutable in a world in which so much is ephemeral: "10 years ago, Twitter was just a sound, and friend was a noun not a verb." He then riffs on text-speak: "You're all thinking, 'WTH', and 'LOL'. And it's true, YOLO - but Horace beat you all to that thousands of years ago." The students answer with a massive cry of "Carpe diem!"
A magic carpet to the academy
Prior to the ceremony, I'd had the opportunity to visit some classrooms (not in session), where several students spoke passionately about their school, one calling it a "transformative experience" and another saying it had changed their life. These students didn't seem to be exaggerating for the benefit of their visitor.
At the annual "Declamation Day" performance - another part of the Founders' Day festivities - five students recite long Latin passages they have memorised, including extracts from Lucian's Dialogues of the Gods, Robespierre's On the Death Penalty, Sierra DeMulder's anti-rape poem Paper Dolls and Taylor Mali's What Teachers Make - the last is received especially wildly by the students.
The students who perform are clearly high-flyers, but they are not alone. They are joined on stage in the latter part of the ceremony by students receiving academic and personal awards, a handful earning bursaries from prestigious universities. It is not difficult to see why this school has a 100 per cent college pass rate (meaning all students get offered college places) - and why a number of parents I speak to see Brooklyn Latin as the academic equivalent of a magic carpet, transporting their children to bigger and better places.
For a school that has existed for only seven years, the Brooklyn Latin School has achieved remarkable things. Founded by Griffiths seven years ago, it is based on the model of the Boston Latin School - the US' oldest public school, founded in 1635 - and is devoted to two ideals. One, that background should have no bearing on future. Two, that the Classics are the bedrock of the educated mind. Many students start with little and end up with a lot. A tall boy with a big Afro hairstyle and a bigger smile tells me he will be the first in his family to attend university and that he wants to be a journalist. "Maybe I can do a report on London schools?" he suggests. "I'll see you in three years," I say, absolutely certain that he will achieve exactly what he sets his mind to.
Riverdale Country School The following day, I leave smoggy Manhattan for the Bronx to visit Riverdale Country School, which entirely fails to reflect the Bronx image of British popular imagination. For more than $40,000 a year in tuition fees, one might expect a school to look pretty swish, and Riverdale does. Its beautiful stone and clapboard buildings nestle in lovely greenery. It looks exactly the kind of place you would imagine America's liberal political and entertainment elite go to school, and indeed it is. Alumni include Senator Ted Kennedy (President John F. Kennedy and Senator Robert F. Kennedy attended Riverdale's lower school), actor Chevy Chase, singer Carly Simon and screenwriter and director Joss Whedon. Via Whedon, at least, Riverdale has made a contribution - as a likely inspiration for the setting of Buffy the Vampire Slayer - to the seductive mythology of affluent US high schools.
However, once the students start arriving, the inevitable Gossip Girl and Dead Poets Society comparisons are immediately dispelled. There are no girls tottering on Louboutins carrying thousand-dollar handbags or boys wearing cufflinks engraved with the family crest. In fact the students are surprisingly casually dressed: ripped shorts, jeans and casual shirts. I am later to learn that this is pretty emblematic of the seemingly highly effective experimental and liberal ethos of the school.
Trash-talking and debate
In contrast to the showcase experience of the previous day at Brooklyn Latin, at Riverdale Country I go to everyday classes. The first is Moral Controversy, an elective class for seniors (17- and 18-year-olds). This is taught by Jed Silverstein, a youthful, bookish-looking man who, for the next hour, fully justifies the adoration he seems to elicit in his students.
The class begins with a bit of jokey trash-talking during which Silverstein gently mocks his students' debating skills. And then it gets down to business. The topic of the day is affirmative action, which all the students seem to be for. A small, brown-haired girl in a "Riverdale Class of 2013" T-shirt cites a study that showed that job applicants with "black sounding" names receive fewer callbacks. A blond boy in board shorts informs us that "positive discrimination is not the same as discrimination", and a dark-haired boy - the strongest speaker of the class - tells us that "positive discrimination needs to happen to level out social and academic injustice".
Some of the students' arguments are solid, others less so. Silverstein points out the holes in their arguments and technique: their failure to distinguish between race and class, or to mention ethnic groups other than black and white, and their avoidance of the obvious issue - all the students speaking are white. His technique is not to showcase his oratorical superiority, it is to challenge them, to encourage them to be better speakers, thinkers and debaters. The students love it.
Later I attend a team-taught (two teachers teaching at the same time) calculus and physics class, which goes way over my head - apparently it's mostly for "science majors" (seniors who will study science as their primary subject at college); I gave up science at 16 - but I find the approach of using two teachers interesting. I later learn that this is a common approach at Riverdale, and the Head of School explains to me that he thinks it is "challenging and interesting for students to watch two experts bounce ideas off each other".
Afterwards it is a class for juniors (16- and 17-year-olds) called Constructing America, which combines English literature and history - also team-taught. The subject is feminism and the texts being studied touch upon the topics of drug-taking, marital sex and infidelity. The students seem typically bashful about approaching these subjects, but are encouraged by their teachers, Melissa Minness and John Wellington. I am interested that the boys in the class seem far more vocal than the girls, but I am told afterwards that this isn't the norm. This class feels closer to a lesson I more readily recognise: a mixture of keen and recalcitrant students, some engaged and others less so.
I am left with many questions: about the practice of using two teachers per class, about the deviation from traditional subjects to variations constructed by the school, about the scholastic and personal freedom offered to the students. All are answered by the Head of School, Dominic A.A. Randolph. Randolph looks less like a private school principal and perhaps more like he was in a successful rock band in the 1970s. He is also refreshingly open, exhibiting none of the characteristic reserve increasingly associated with British headteachers, keen to guard the secrets of their schools. "Riverdale Country", says Randolph, "is not hamstrung by national benchmarks, so its measure of success hangs on college pass rates and placements and a degree of self-measurement." This assessment is jarring and thrilling to a British ear still ringing with a governmental cry of "RESULTS, RESULTS, MEASURABLE RESULTS."
"We want", he continues, "interesting students thinking critically for themselves and also having fun, and engaged parents."
We also discuss Riverdale's commitment to liberal arts. Randolph says this creates "empathic and cognitive" students.
However, as alternative as this all sounds, there is a wider national context it fits into, and one that surprises me. The British university system requires specialism, whereas US (particularly the Ivy League) universities require all-round-ism. If you want to go to Yale, while it helps if you are a brilliant physicist, you had better be good at poetry and sports as well.
Talking later to the students in the canteen - which has a buffet far superior to that from any school where I have worked - there is no denying their air of privilege (75 per cent of the students are fee-paying and there is a much higher proportion of white students than I found at Brooklyn Latin). But the school is clearly steering them away from American private school conventions. One female student tells me she finds the notions of cheerleaders and sororities "really embarrassing" and another says "there isn't really a place for those kinds of things at Riverdale". Just as, I suppose, students at British private schools prefer to sidestep sniggerings about posh twits and jolly hockey sticks, some American students seem to view pompoms, footballs and initiation rituals in the same way.
Riverdale Country and Brooklyn Latin are both great schools: pioneering, aspirational, high achieving. Of course, to get a true measure of the US school system, it would be necessary to see some less successful schools in operation. But visiting Riverdale Country and Brooklyn Latin highlighted, for me, what fearful places many British schools have become. The desire to top performance league tables and placate schools inspectorate Ofsted has stymied the joyful aspects of education, and diminished the capacity to try weird and wonderful things. The Every Child Matters policy (an initiative that requires schools in England and Wales to work with other children's services to protect students' well-being) is a noble thing and is rightfully at the heart of every school. But the question I ponder on the plane home is whether the heart is being taken out of our schools and being replaced with the pacemaker of policy. Does this stuff really matter more to us than a child who can joke in Latin? Or to put it another way: a falsis principiis proficisci.