by Chester E. Finn, Jr.
President, Thomas B. Fordham Institute

In the educational deserts of inner-city America, you occasionally find a green tree, a school that successfully equips its students with the knowledge, skills, and other attributes (character, behavior, attitude, aspiration, etc.) that are necessary to succeed in college and adult life.

Many of those terrific schools serve young kids, i.e. they are elementary schools—and all too often the girls and boys emerging from them pour into the dreadful high schools that comprise far too much of urban secondary education across this land. Putting it gently, truly effective inner-city high schools are rare. If you limit your search to “open admission” public schools that serve “ordinary” kids, thereby omitting selective-admission, private and parochial schools, your search is even more challenging. And if you’re looking for them in the declining cities of America’s “rust belt,” places that have lost much of their human and financial capital, their civic energy, their corporate headquarters, and too many of the families with spirit and ambition for themselves and their kids, you’re lucky if you find any such schools at all. The odds are too slim, the circumstances too daunting, the kids too afflicted, the budgets too tight, and the leadership too dispirited.

That’s why this heartening book by Nancy Brown Diggs is so welcome. It’s the tale of a rare exception, an educational green tree that’s growing in an environment so adverse that little else by way of public secondary education is thriving.

That’s the environment today in my hometown, Dayton, Ohio, once a powerhouse of industry and invention (think the Wright brothers, Charles F. Kettering, the cash register, General Motors in its heyday, and so much more). Dayton today is plagued by poverty, unemployment, the exodus of major private-sector employers, and the loss of corporate chieftains who once also served as community anchors, leaders and philanthropists. The city’s public school system displays all the woes of American urban education, as well as shrinking enrollments, failed tax levies, an obdurate teachers union, and (most of the time) a dysfunctional school board that undermines the best efforts of well-meaning superintendents who don’t lack for worthy ideas but rarely can find the political backing, financial wherewithal or administrative support to make them happen. Even Dayton’s enormous charter-school sector—now some 27 schools enrolling 6,500 pupils, i.e. about one third of all public-school pupils in the city—has few shining stars. Things just don’t grow well in a desert.

But then there’s the Dayton Early College Academy (DECA), the remarkable (charter) school that Dr. Diggs profiles in these pages. It’s not perfect, but it’s working really well—and getting better. It’s also growing, its leaders having realized first that they needed to catch these kids before high school and, more recently, that to really have a profound impact they need to start in kindergarten. That’s why DECA, which began in August 2003 (as part of the Gates Foundation initiative) as an “early college high school,” and added grades 7 and 8 in 2008 and 2009 respectively, has recently been joined by “DECA Prep,” a K-6 charter school.

I’ve intersected with DECA in several ways, besides being a wary watcher who evolved into an enthusiastic booster. The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, where I work, and which has a longtime interest in Ohio generally and Dayton particularly, is the “authorizer” of DECA Prep. We’ve made several grants (small by general philanthropic gauges but large for us) to help sustain and grow DECA. Our on-the-ground team in Ohio, especially my long-time colleague Terry Ryan, has played utility infielder for DECA in myriad ways. And the chairman of DECA’s board, who also just happens to be married to Dr. Diggs, has long been perhaps our staunchest ally and collaborator on sundry education-reform efforts in the Dayton area.

I cannot begin to do justice to the many other people who in less than a decade have turned DECA from a concept into Dayton’s brightest public-education star, but I would be unconscionably remiss if I didn’t name former University of Dayton education dean Tom Lasley, who got it going, and DECA superintendent Judy Hennessey, who nurtured it into the tall green tree that it is today.

Tall doesn’t mean big. In 2011-12, DECA enrolled just 400 kids, all of them there by choice. But it’s been remarkably successful at taking kids, most of them black and essentially all poor, from home environments that are often sorely afflicted and prior school experiences that were usually mediocre or worse, and equipping them with the knowledge, skills and other attributes mentioned above. And the proof—recounted in these pages—is externally validated by the DECA’s “excellent with distinction” rating by the Ohio Department of Education and by graduation and college-matriculation rates far higher than any other public secondary school in urban Ohio is producing.

Yes, it’s a remarkable school, a star that belongs in America’s small constellation of successful “no excuses” charter schools like KIPP, Achievement First, Harlem Village Academy, YES Prep, Success Academy, and Cleveland’s Breakthrough Schools. The others are better known, to be sure, because there are more of them, they’re located mainly in major cities, and they’ve gotten much media attention. But DECA is part of the same constellation.

What’s remarkable about this book, however, is that it’s so much more than the story of an educational institution. Most of it consists of stories of the people involved with DECA, above all its students, and much of it is told in their own words. Some of these sagas are heart-rending, particularly as kids describe the miserable circumstances of their early lives. But much that’s here—very often from the same girls and boys—will uplift your spirit and rekindle your faith in what human beings are capable of becoming—and overcoming—if given a decent chance and access to great schools.

Nancy Diggs has titled it Breaking the Cycle, and in truth it recalls “The Little Engine That Could,” the beloved children’s story of the small locomotive that made it up a very steep hill through grit, hard work, self-confidence and boundless aspiration. That’s what DECA has done already—and will do more and more of in the years to come. It’s what American education could do in thousands of other places and for millions of other kids. It’s what green trees in quantity could do to turn a desert into a healthy forest of successful education and realized human potential.


Chester E. Finn, Jr.

Chester E. Finn, Jr., scholar, educator and public servant, has devoted his career to improving education in the United States. As Senior Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, chairman of Hoover’s Koret Task Force on K-12 Education, and President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, his primary focus is the reform of primary and secondary schooling. Mr. Finn has also served as U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education and Special Assistant to the Governor of Massachusetts.

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