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Our School: The Inspiring Story of Two Teachers, One Big Idea, and the School That Beat the Odds Hardcover – November 24, 2005

4.3 out of 5 stars 13 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Jacobs had been an education-beat journalist for more than 15 years before she decided to quit and find out what was really going on with the charter school movement. In 2001, she started volunteering at Downtown College Prep (DCP), a first-year charter school with 100 ninth graders from predominantly poor, Mexican-American families in San Jose, Calif. The cofounders of the school had a clear mission: to take failing students and prepare them to attend college and do well. Students would have to break with gang culture and adopt DCP's mantra: ganas (motivation), orgullo (pride) and communidad (community). Unlike the formulaic, for-profit charter schools of businessmen like Chris Whittle (see the review of Crash Course in PW, Aug. 29), DCP is enthusiastically experimental. When something's not working (e.g., trying to teach algebra when kids don't know fractions), they try something else. As Jacobs tells the story of DCP's amazingly committed teachers and their (mostly) courageous students, even hardcore opponents of charter schools may soften. Some useful data (DCP's student stats, funding summaries) and a listing of resources for people thinking of starting a charter school round out this fascinating case study. (Dec.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

This is the remarkable story of two idealistic and motivated high-school teachers who decide to open a charter school in downtown San Jose; their lofty mission is to prepare underprivileged kids to succeed at four-year colleges. Jacobs, a journalist, follows their progress for four years, from the opening semester of Downtown College Prep (DCP) in the fall of 2000 with a class of 102 ninth-graders, 83 percent of whom are Hispanic, and most of whom had all Ds and Fs in middle school. Each student completed a Summer Bridge Program, where the stiff homework requirements were introduced. Most of the initial teachers were young and inexperienced yet very dedicated, and the first year was described as "collective insanity." Jacobs vividly portrays everyday life at the school, including mock-trial competitions against much larger schools and "the shortest basketball team in America"--the girls' team--the only one meeting the required C average. The founders' credo is "the only thing that isn't OK is to quit trying," inspiring words for anyone hoping to replicate their success. Deborah Donovan
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press; First Edition edition (November 29, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1403970238
  • ISBN-13: 978-1403970237
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 0.9 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,286,560 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
As both a teacher, and a student of urban education policy, this look at the struggles of a charter school in downtown San Jose is a welcome addition to the urban ed canon. From the tone, it is clear that Jacobs admires the leaders of the school, Greg Lippman and Jennifer Andaluz, and the work they do. That's not to say the book is overly subjective. On the contrary, the writing seems to reflect Jacobs' roots as a journalist, as the book is ethnographic in nature. The title alone implies that the book will have a positive bent but the downs are shared as often as the ups. Probably, the most valuable lesson to be learned from this story has nothing to do with charter schools but with the virtues of tenacity, perserverance, teamwork and building a culture of achievement. I am tempted to compare Jacobs to Mike Rose, whose books, Lives on the Boundary and Possible Lives, share the same tone of respectful observation and ethnographic professionalism. This book is definitely going on the shelf next to his books. The book is well-written, with a clear voice that is enjoyable to "listen" to.

(My only gripe about the book is that the discussion of grades comes up quite frequently but there is no mention of how grades are computed, what grading methods the teachers used, etc...so it is hard to judge how reliable the DCP GPA statistics are, since grading, by nature, tends to be highly subjective and vulnerable to the expectations of individual teachers.)
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Format: Hardcover
I'm buying this absorbing, breezy read for all my teachers, as it captures so many of the high school reform challenges (definitely NOT just for charter schools people). For example:

1. Should students who misbehave get unlimited chances to shape up, or is there a point of no return?

2. What is the job of a teacher in an urban school - to "transfer knowledge" to kids who are willing to study hard, or to somehow personally generate enormous effort from students who heretofore have never done the assigned reading, never completed the math homework, et al?

3. Given freedom, do charter leaders come up with fancy instructional techniques, or essentially become obsessed with executing mundane "basic" details so well (often in an entreprenuerial way) and consistently that the institution rises towards excellence?

Jacobs explores these issues and more (in each case, she finds the latter answer).

My only quibble is I'd love to see the author explore the progressive versus "No Excuses" debate. One school of thought, popular in grad schools, is that kids will study hard if they are interested in the topic, particularly those which are "culturally relevant." The other, popular in the real world high performing charter schools like KIPP, Roxbury Prep, Amistad, and Downtown College Prep, is that kids will study hard if they are held accountable, taught lovingly with old-fashioned methods and mega-doses of after-hours help.

But any one book only has so much room, and this one zips along.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
First, let me say, WOW! In my local area, there are several charter schools, two even run by the previous public school district Superintendent -- yep, there is a good story there. While the charter schools here are doing some good things, it seems to me that there really isn't as much difference between them and their nearby district schools when it comes to test scores. They have the same achievement gaps and high percentages of kids not making grade level proficiency as their counterparts in the local district. With this perspective, I haven't really seen charter schools as the answer to public educations' problems. Part of the answer maybe, but not the solution.

After reading Joanne's book and my recent appreciation for certain charter schools, such as American Indian Public Charter in Oakland, I think with the right leadership, charter schools offer the opportunity for educators to try new approaches. When these approaches work, the students are successful and the charter school is successful. When they don't, both fail.

In the case of Downtown College Prep, the school explored in Joanne's book, I think this is a success. While their test scores are good, not great, the fact that their students almost all failed in their previous traditional public school experiences really makes their test scores outstanding. The simple fact that they can turn around many of these students and get them to college is extraordinary.

One of my major complaints of public education is that too often, teaching practices exist simply because "we've always done it that way" or because the administrators or teachers like a specific program or strategy, without any regard to whether it really is successful.
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By Ivory on December 14, 2005
Format: Hardcover
In an approach similar to that of Tracy Kidder, Joanne Jacobs spends time immersed in a California charter school. I grew up and went to school in San Jose so the problems that are explored in this book had special meaning to me. I had friends who slipped through the cracks educationally and many were poor Latino and Asian students like the ones profiled in this book. I'm glad to see that people are waking up and working towards solutions to the problem of the chronically underperforming socially promoted student. This book gave me hope that things can be better if we are willing to explore alternative options and believe in the potential of all our students.
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