Powerhouse Principal Dr. Steve Perry Shares His Thoughts

Dr. Steve Perry shares his thoughts on school readiness, the role of community involvement in education, and keys to Capital Preparatory Magnet School's success.
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Dr. Steve Perry is the founder of the phenomenal Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford, Connecticut. Recognized by U.S. News and World Report, 100 percent of the graduating seniors are admitted to four-year colleges. An outspoken and highly successful national leader in education, Dr. Perry is also an Education Correspondent for CNN.

I was excited Dr. Perry could share his thoughts on school readiness, the role of community involvement in education, and keys to Capital Preparatory's success.

1. The 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress study noted that two out of three children in the United States are not reading at grade level. School readiness is a major crisis in our country.

Question: Are you witnessing incoming students not being ready for high school?

Perry : Forty percent of our sixth graders are coming in at least four grade levels below in reading. Literacy, which reflects understanding of the written word, is very low. This is the direct result of schools failing to teach children to read in the primary grades. Sure, there are some children for whom reading will be a challenge for their entire life, but this group represents less than 20 percent of all students -- including poor and minority communities.

Children are being nurtured more than they are being taught basic skills. We have too much macaroni arts, coloring and not enough teaching state standards. Last time I checked there are no jobs for people who have a mean macaroni art game or who can color within the lines. Yet the world is open to those who can read well. Most parents love their children's elementary school because of the way the teachers and schools make them feel. There is too much emphasis on socialization and not enough on teaching basic skills.

Schools, with our certified "literacy specialists," bear the responsibility of teaching children to read. Students cannot reflect what hasn't been taught. Failing to teach children to read is closing them off of education.

Our beloved elementary schools, with their colorful well-appointed classrooms, theme days and the endless celebrations of all things, have failed to teach our children to read and that is unforgivable. Failed schools must be closed and the children provided with vouchers so they can attend good schools in their lifetime.

2. The organization that I lead, Reach Out and Read, consists of 27,000 pediatricians and medical volunteers who "prescribe" reading to parents and infants to help prepare them for kindergarten. Across the country, there are many community organizations that are trying to impact the educational achievements of children.

Question: What role do you think community and parental involvement play in a student's success?

Perry: This is a very important and complicated question. I spoke two weeks ago at New Olivet Baptist Church in Memphis -- a city in which it has been reported that as many as one third of the adults cannot read.

Earlier in that same week I went to Corona, Calif., to do a story on a man who kids call "Mr. Z." He learned to read when he was 35. I was moved by his story because my own paternal grandfather could not read. So when I spoke to the church I presented them with a scenario: If an estimated 30 percent of Memphis adults cannot read, then that means that of the 2,000 today in church -- quite a few of you can't read. I told them, as I did Mr. Z, that their illiteracy was not their fault.

At the speech's conclusion, the pastor, Reverend Dr. Whalum, invited those who could not read to come down. Within minutes, members of his church who were mostly men, came forward with tears. They wanted to learn to read. Pastor Whalum invited church members to the altar to help -- and within minutes, the alter was too full for more people to either volunteer or ask for help.

So, can parents help their kids to read? Yes, if they know how. All of the people who came forward to learn how to read are parents. Their schools did not fulfill their obligation and as a result the parents couldn't fulfill theirs. During the interview Mr. Z said that he couldn't be the kind of father he wanted because he couldn't read. All of the parents who came to the alter at New Olivet are equally limited. So, can parents help? Yes, if they know how.

School districts can make up for lost time. Philadelphia joins other cities by operating Parent University. This is a program designed to help parents and some grandparents with parenting skills.

Finally, yes the community can help. When the church members came to the alter they were proving this. Some are teachers, but most are not. It's just that they can read. As long as you can read, you can help someone learn. Reading is like swimming, if you know how, you know enough to teach it.

In my book, Man Up! Nobody is Coming to Save Us, I challenge churches in the Black community to come together to teach the community to read. I outline a plan that says that if just 50 percent of the churches in one of these poor minority communities agree to focus on literacy then illiteracy will disappear.

3. Dr. Perry, you founded the Capital Preparatory Magnet School where 100 percent of the graduating students are admitted to a four-year college.

Question: What do you attribute to your remarkable success?

Perry: We send 100 percent of our graduates to four-year colleges every year because we are committed. Too few schools are focused on sending all grads to college. I don't claim to know what they are focused on, I just know that if they were focused, then more of their children would be headed to a college or university.

Our school is designed to build relationships between students and faculty as well as among staff. Through these relationships we get to know our kids and therefore can advise them as to which college is best for them.

We don't have a guidance counselor. That system of one guidance counselor to every 200-300 kids is a failure. We operate like the private college prep schools where every teacher is an advisor and we have people who build relationships with colleges, but no guidance counselors. That strategy is a waste of money.

Finally, my sons are going to college. I knew that before I ever had a kid. I expect that my kids are going. My wife and I therefore foster a college culture in the home. This same culture is embedded in the ethos of Capital Prep.

I give my students everything that I would give my sons. My sons have an advantage because I am their father, well my students have that same advantage because I am their principal. Too many educators don't expect the same from their students as they expect from their children. How they can say that college isn't for everyone, yet all their kids are college graduates?


Dr. Steve Perry can be seen on CNN's Perry's Principles.

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