At Lee Academy, students 'major' in 'responsibility'

As Radha Hernandez sprayed bleach on the daytime nap mats her students had used earlier that day, Glenna Malkemes washed the fake wood on a wobbly knee-high table.

Nearby, Malkemes's six-year-old daughter, Megan, and another boy sat reading peacefully in the corner underneath a rainbow of watercolor words that read, "We must be safe. We must take care of each other."

Such is the basic mantra at the Lee Academy Pilot School on Talbot Street in Dorchester, where the sense of community last Friday was as palpable as the smell of Hernandez's acrid bleach in an area too often portrayed as violent and neglected.

"You have to reach the child," Hernandez said on a break from washing mats as she displayed her students' chaotically colored sketch books. The books allow her students to generate their own ideas and relay them to the class, she said, whereupon she incorporates new words to describe the sketches into classroom decorations; words like "appear," "enormous," and even "bewilder" cover the walls.

"We're more explicit about vocabulary and oral language development at a young age," Hernandez said.

Early language development defines this school, and the 192 mostly black, low-income students who attend also benefit from small class sizes and expertise: The pre-K classes have the highest teacher-to-student ratio in the school district at 2-to-12, and every class's head teacher has a master's degree in education.

Principal Kyle Dodson has had held his post since the school opened in September 2004 after four colleagues at the Harvard Graduate School of Education founded the academy because "too many children in low income areas don't have access to resources, and the results appear in elementary school."

"We're trying to take advantage of pure brain science," Dodson said of his school's effort to cultivate language early. "We also make sure we're working with the home."

"Heavily centralized schools in urban areas have not fostered parent-school relationships," Dodson said, adding that the autonomy and lack of bureaucracy unique to pilot schools allow Dodson to manage the Lee Academy much more effectively than a principal at a normal district school who can't spend pre-destined money as he sees fit.

Right now the school spans from pre-K to second grade, but a new grade will be added every year until fifth grade. "My son will be a part of the first fifth grade class," Dodson said, referring to his second-grade son who attends the school along with his brothers in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten.

Asked if the school focused too much on the humanities and not enough on science and math, Dodson said it's about integration.

"For the kids, it's seamless," he said. "Life is integrated, so the more we prevent school from being discreet, the more we're engaging the kids."

A hallway mural of Massachusetts, posters of important dates from revolutionary history, and illustrations of the water cycle all attest to the fact that "[students] express their mathematical thinking through drawing, writing, and talking," according to a school profile Dodson provided.

"It's a curriculum that responds to kids and allows them to take ownership," Dodson said, "But we don't shy away from standards or have a political stance."

Dodson said the Lee Academy honors the curiosity and playfulness of children, but that understanding the tension between autonomy and structure is like driving a manual car: You have to know when you've pressed the gas enough to know when to release the clutch that lets the engine (the child) take over.

"In order to have freedom, you have to teach responsibility," Dodson said.

To instill a sense of responsibility in children, the school hosts town hall-style meetings every other Friday. During the gatherings, students receive "shout-out awards" for self-control, caring, generosity, and kindness, which is the one Jzantay Howard, 6, received last Friday.

"I got a shout-out!" she exclaimed in the cafeteria. "Hey! Hey! I got a shout-out today!" she continued, beaming with the pride that comes from the recognition of her hard work and good manners.

Dodson learned responsibility growing up in West Orange, NJ, attending public schools until he went to Harvard to study History and then Columbia for his M.B.A. in finance.

"School worked for me because I worked for school," Dodson said before there was a knock on his door.

A shy student named Anthony sucking on a green lollypop waddled in wearing a puffy black jacket that made him look like a stick in a marshmallow. Even sitting down, the 6'4" Mr. Dodson towered over young Anthony like a Redwood, holding the child's waist and speaking to him calmly like a father would.

This air of community also manifests itself in the family engagement liaison, whom Dodson pays using extra money from his personal budgeting powers. Most public schools don't have a liaison like this since they can't spend their funding as they see fit. Dodson's discretionary spending privileges also allow him to hire "highly skilled people who know where that clutch is," he said.

These hand picked teachers can then offer a more creative curriculum.

"The staff has a lot more input," said teacher David Ramsey as he herded children toward the idling buses outside waiting to drive them home. "There's also a lot more communications among administration, staff, and parents."

A more stable classroom situation results from a more stable home environment, according to Dodson, and the school's weekly "parent coffee hour" also fosters this.

"The staff love being here, and Kyle, the principal, is always available," Mrs. Malkemes said as her daughter pranced around Ms. Hernandez's classroom in the resident safari hat that kept slipping over her forehead.

Also in Ms. Hernadez's classroom last Friday was city Councillor Sam Yoon and his wife Tina. After some chit-chat, they were ready to go, but there little boy wasn't, an all-too-convenient example of the precocious children at the Lee Academy.

"Nathan, it's time to go," Tina said as she turned around to see her son sitting next to Malkemes's daughter, reaching for yet another book. "No!" she screamed playfully, "Don't start another book!"


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