A charter school success story, made possible by chance
Last of four stories on how families could be affected by charter school expansion. For other entries in the series, click here.
Janeé Jones gave birth to her first child nearly 12 years ago, a son named Angelo, at 7 p.m. He weighed 7 pounds and 7 ounces, and on the week of his birth, family and friends played “0777” in the Massachusetts State Lottery and won more than $500.
Last year, as Angelo “Seven” Jones entered the sixth grade, he and his family won a different lottery, which allowed him to transfer this fall from a traditional public school to Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy charter school in Dorchester.
With that stroke of luck, Angelo was plucked from a waiting list of more than 100 children and he, according to his mother and other relatives, drastically improved his educational experience. They praise the Davis Leadership Academy’s no-tolerance approach to discipline and its particular attention to African-American history and culture.
“My son is definitely progressing,” Jones said. “He’s more attentive to his homework, to his appearance because of the dress code, and he has a different sense of responsibility.”
The family said Angelo needed a change. He had attended fourth and fifth grades at McKinley South End Academy, a district school that focuses on therapeutic and supportive education for students with unique social and emotional needs.
Altercations among the students there were commonplace, Angelo said, and he admitted to being involved in his share. He said he was reprimanded for throwing chairs, verbally berating other students and teachers, fighting, and even sprinting out of school.
Davis Academy, Angelo’s new school, which serves 6th through 8th grades, boasts a strict disciplinary structure where obedience is required, not rewarded. On a recent afternoon, neatly dressed, uniform-clad students walked silently from class to class, in tight single-file lines uncommon for preteens.
At his old school, “I was behind. I felt that I was not doing as much as I should be,” the 11-year-old said recently at the family’s home in The Charlesview Residences in Brighton. “Davis taught me about how to be respectful in class. How to sit down and do my work.”
The organizational structures of public education are lost on Angelo, a gregarious, playful, and sometimes rebellious child who knows more of scratch tickets than of enrollment lotteries — or of the fiercely contested state ballot question on charter schools, for that matter.
But the change in school environments is not lost on Jones — a 32-year-old single mother of two — who says without hyperbole that moving her son to another school was a matter of life and death.
If Angelo did not change schools, “he would’ve been gun-toting in two years,” Jones said. “We already grew up in Boston, in the hood, and he’s seen enough. ... I needed to keep him focused on his life and his choices.”
In Davis Academy, Jones selected an educational environment that drastically differs from nearly all schools in the state — whether charter, parochial, or traditional. It offers a curriculum that stresses self-confidence of students, a vast majority of whom are black.
Davis also boasts a nonwhite principal, a diverse staff of teachers and administrators, and an executive board composed of members of the Dorchester community.
Ghanaian artwork graces the walls of the administration’s office, and the faces of black heroes from past and present line the hallways. Educational cohorts are named after historically black colleges and universities. Every year, students take a trip to a foreign country, often in Africa.
This year, on the first day of school, Angelo and his classmates were greeted with dancers demonstrating Capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art that combines acrobatics and music.
“It’s been two months of school, and it’s been a drastic difference,” Jones said.
Of course, other factors could have contributed to Angelo’s change in behavior. During his time at McKinley, the Jones family was going through a traumatic and transient period, according to his mother, which included Angelo staying with family members while Janeé and Angelo’s father were breaking up.
There is also Angelo’s ADHD diagnosis, which occurred when he was attending the William Monroe Trotter elementary school in Dorchester and led to his placement at McKinley, his mother said.
Students are referred to McKinley if they have not made progress using school-based interventions, said Dan O’Brien, spokesman for Boston Public Schools.
“The McKinley School is highly regarded for effectively educating students with a primary diagnosis of emotional impairment but who often have other disability diagnoses,’’ O’Brien said in a statement. “The McKinley’s successes are credited to its use of positive behavior intervention and supports; a strong staff with clinical backgrounds and therapeutic supports for students and families; and the only K-12 empowerment program for boys of color in BPS.”
Jones did not provide data to quantify her child’s improvement at Davis Academy, since the first marking period has not been completed. Neither BPS nor Davis could provide specific educational information about Angelo’s academic achievement, due to privacy restrictions.
However, after her first parent-teacher conference at the Davis in late October, Jones said, she felt confident her son was improving at the Fields Corner school.
“He used to wild out so badly. Things that I’ve never seen him do. I wondered where that was coming from?” Jones said. “I don’t think that all kids should go to charter schools, but I do think charter schools are onto something.’’
Proponents of increasing the state’s cap on charter schools say voting yes on Question 2 on Nov. 8 will make Angelo Jones’s story a common one, where more children come off charter school waiting lists and into their desired classrooms. Opponents focus on a broader picture, including the financial impact more charter schools could have on Boston’s school district, which educates the majority of city children.
For Jones, who is between jobs but previously worked as a cook, the matter is concrete, not abstract. Before enrolling her son, Jones said, she “didn’t have an opinion” about charter schools, since she had attended traditional Boston public schools throughout her life. Now, the mother is transforming into a Davis Academy evangelist.
“It works,” Jones said of the charter school system.
She found Davis Academy through members of the Collaborative Parent Leadership Action Network, a statewide group of charter and district parents who provide advice and support for underserved families. Jones said she was immediately drawn by Davis’s holistic model of education.
“It’s important for every child here to leave with a strong sense of self,” said Karmala Sherwood, executive director of the Davis. “Students need to have an understanding of who they are and where they come from, so they can know where they are going.”
O’Brien said Boston Public Schools also has a bevy of programs for students of color, including 43 schools with extracurricular options designed to empower nonwhite students. Angelo did not take part in these programs when he attended BPS schools, his mother said.
However, at Davis Academy, Angelo has no choice. The school says everything it does is informed by its model of Afro-centrism, reminiscent of the Freedom Schools from the Jim Crow American South or the Oakland Community School founded by the Black Panther Party.
During a recent tour of the school, Sherwood equated the school’s philosophy with an age-old saying in black communities: “be twice as good.”
“The work is a little harder than the other school,” Angelo said of Davis Academy. “But I like that. It’ll make you smarter.”
When asked what he enjoys most about the new school, Angelo chose the artwork of black history makers, such as Jamaican American chessmaster Maurice Ashley and civil rights stalwart Fannie Lou Hamer. The 11-year-old also says he prefers the structured atmosphere, because it will help him get a job.
Jones said she enjoys that Angelo takes pride in his daily appearance and disposition.
As if to prove his devotion, Angelo then recited Davis’s student mission, which students must repeat every morning.
I pledge “to inspire others and to catalyze educational, economic, and political advancement within their communities and the broader nation,” Angelo said as he sat at the family’s kitchen table.
As he spoke, his mother wiped away prideful tears, hopeful for the man her son could become.
“How’d I get so lucky?” she wondered aloud to her sister.
They could thank the lottery, again.