As a Christian leader of a public school, George Sanker focuses on student formation through exposure to the story of Western tradition.

I am glad to be invited into this conversation, but I need to make it clear up front that I am the Christian leader of a school instead of the leader of a Christian school – I head up a Classical Core Knowledge Charter School. While I know many might be curious about what I can add to this conversation because of the limitations that I have a public school, I do believe that the formation of the child’s spirit plays a central role in the mission/vision of our school.

My emphasis on formation, however, is implicitly shaped through the story offered through exposure to the Western tradition as discussed by the teachers and staff in the school community. Formation is also reinforced through the distinct nature (i.e., rituals and traditions) of the community.

While I started my teaching career in a private, Christian school, I subsequently decided to see if I could make an institutional impact in the public school world. Four years ago I became principal of an urban charter school. When I first looked at the academic standing of the students that registered to attend my schools, I realized that these kids had been truly let down by the district-run public schools. I would have to ensure that academic excellence was a central component of our school’s culture if these kids were going to have a chance of becoming well-educated, virtuous citizens in their community.

Part of my hope for the project came from the fact that I myself had grown up in these neighbor- hoods and was able to escape as a result of great mentors who stepped into my life. Solid educational opportunities ultimately enabled me to get into and graduate from a very strong college in the Northeast, something that had not been done in my family to that point. As I reflected on my journey, I tried to look for other examples of success in the black community that ran counter to the current malaise in urban public schools that we read about weekly. I was overjoyed when I started to read about amazing work that the American Missionary Association (AMA) did the Southern blacks following the Civil War. The AMA, out of the Northeast, sent groups of teachers to establish schools and to teach and acculturate the children of freed slaves into new possibilities that didn’t exist for them before.

By 1866 there were about 1,400 Northern white teachers teaching black children in 975 Southern schools. The classical education that these teachers brought, provided a solid foundation in the English language while also exposing students to the broad range of stories in the Western tradition. Through these stories, former black slaves were able to gain a perspective on their situation that they had never had before. With this perspective they gained a new sense of hope and courage to face their situation as newly freed citizens.

One of the success stories from this period was Mary Jane Patterson, whose family emigrated from North Carolina to Ohio before the Civil War. Patterson graduated from Oberlin College in 1862 and became the first Principal of Preparatory High School for Colored Youth—later renamed Dunbar High School—in Washington, DC. While most women were not allowed to take Latin, Greek, and mathematics in college, she insisted on taking these courses and brought her strength and determination into her job at Dunbar. Having this kind of person shaping the standards and traditions of the school in its early years undoubtedly had something to do with its later success. The school continued to attract high-achieving black leaders. Three of the school’s first ten principals had graduated from Oberlin, two from Harvard, and one each from Amherst and Dartmouth.

Over the entire 85-year history of academic success in this school, from 1870 to 1955, most of its graduates went on to higher education. This was very unusual for either black or white high school graduates during that era. It is also important to note that not only did Dunbar students go on to college, but many of them became successful, ground- breaking leaders. The first black man to graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy came from Dunbar. The first black enlisted man in the army to rise to become a commissioned officer also came from this institution. So did the first black woman to receive a PhD from an American university. And the first black full professor at a major American university. The first black federal judge, the first black general, the first black Cabinet member, the first black senator elected since Reconstruction, the doctor who pioneered the use of blood plasma, historian Carter G. Woodson, poet Sterling Brown, and Duke Ellington, all attended Dunbar High.

What is amazing to me about this story of academic success and student formation is that they did this during a time when there were supposedly no doors open to blacks in the broader culture. Because of their excellence, though, they opened doors that previously did not exist. These stories stand in stark contrast to the low academic standards prevalent in many urban centers, and at Dunbar High School today.

To recover some of the academic and moral excellence that arose in the black community in the last century, I focused first on hiring excellent teachers who knew their content more than their educational psychology. But their intellect alone would not be able to do the job. Like the AMA teachers, the teachers I hired would also need to be living examples of moral excellence so that their students could see the qualities that we sought for them to acquire. I also worked very hard to develop strong rituals and traditions in the school community that reinforced a sense of “we” versus “me” while also providing for regular opportunities to publicly celebrate the embodiment of our core values in particular students.

I realized, despite all of the effort to build a haven of academic excellence, I needed to make sure that we were truly helping our students to become “fully human.” Glimpses of success in this area became evident in conversations with sixth graders as they debated some of the moral issues in The Prince and the Pauper or when seventh graders discussed what it means to be “authentic” in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

I truly believe that the various works from the western tradition that we exposed our students to did make a great impact on many of our students, if not all equally. For once they were able to see a world beyond the videos of BET and the Hip-Hop music that permeates their iPods. For once, they could let down their cynical and jaded attitude toward the world and explore questions of truth, beauty, and goodness in a setting where it was cool to be somewhat intellectual.

One of the best indications for me of the formative impact we had on students took place with the enrollment of new students. As these new students came on board the existing students felt it was their responsibility to acclimate the new students into
the unique culture that they had helped to build at our school. While I would love to say that massive cultural changes took place within the doors of my school, they did not. But I am very proud of the tremendous progress that I saw in the young men and women, and amongst the staff and students who worked so hard to build a counter-culture in Washington.

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