Educator George E. Leonard's Phenomenal Results in New York City: Could The National Stage Be Next?

As a workforce development trainer, I have too often been confronted with the dismal results of an incompetent public school system. Sadly, given my experiences, I cannot help but acknowledge the validity of the "school to prison pipeline." Down to the cinder block walls and windowless classrooms in at least one school where I was assigned to provide instruction, I have concluded that the training that many students are receiving in inner city public schools, is preparation for a life on the wrong side of the justice system.

Yet, there is a bright spot on the horizon -- a leader in education who through his innovative and effective approach to teaching students in the inner cities, has proven himself to be astonishingly disruptive to the status quo in the best of ways. His name is George E. Leonard.

Leonard's passionate belief in the capacity of economically disadvantaged, children of color to succeed academically is of paramount importance to his success, given that studies have long proven the powerful influence of teacher expectations on student performance. This coupled with his high and exacting standards, his cultural competency and his impeccable credentials have yielded phenomenal results that would seem unlikely in the face of the troubling statistics routinely cited on the issue.

Some naysayers have been wary of his unconventional strategies as he is known to go above and beyond standard practices to achieve extraordinary educational outcomes for underserved children. Keeping the schools open until as late as 9pm and on weekends to provide students access to extensive tutoring, along with strict standards of decorum are the hallmarks of his leadership.

His record speaks for itself. In 2007, as the founder and principal of Bedford Academy in Brooklyn, the first graduating class completed the full four-year program with extraordinary results including, a 98 percent graduation rate and an over 90 percent attendance rate. Additionally, each class member was accepted by at least two colleges with students gaining acceptance to prestigious pre-med, pre-law and Ivy League programs. Leonard's results were so successful that he and his class were profiled in a PBS special.

In 2008, The New York Times highlighted Bedford Academy's success during Leonard's leadership where, "63 percent of the students qualify for a free lunch, a majority are being raised by a single mother... yet close to 95 percent of students graduate."

Most remarkably, under his direction at the Science Skills Center, he assisted third and fourth grade students to pass the New York State Science Regents which is a ninth grade exam. This feat demonstrates the phenomenal potential of our youth who have been dismissed by some segments of our political and educational leadership as, "hopeless cases" who are destined to fail due to their lack of ability and unfavorable circumstances.

Leonard's success debunks the myth that this population is unable to achieve academic excellence and gives us a glimpse of an educational landscape where it is possible to nurture and coach our future "Michael Jordans" of the science arena despite the socioeconomic challenges. With such an impressive track record, George E. Leonard would be an obvious choice to lead innovative educational initiatives on a national level.

Interview segment with educator George E. Leonard:

AY: What inspired you to tackle the issue around educating our young people and what gave you the idea that you could even make a difference?

GL: Wow that's a good question. Growing up in Harlem I felt that everyone was being educated the same way until I started to advance in grades and then I realized that there was a difference in how we were being taught and other people were being taught. I think once I left middle school, that's when my naiveté started to decrease and my awareness started to increase and I realized that there were a lot of differences. So as I got into college and was struggling with my biology major, I knew it had to do with my K to 12 prep and I remembered exactly where they fell short.

And then when I became a teacher, I knew exactly what not to do. And because I was from the projects, I knew how to tailor my teaching to anyone who lived in the projects so that they could be successful -- not doubt themselves and then score into the 80's and 90's.

AY: I can relate to what you are saying about having direct reference points for certain situations giving you an insight to be able to succeed where no others have or where others have found it very difficult to succeed.

GL: I rejected the idea that math and science was something that was hard to reach on the level of a 90 and above student -- I rejected it. And then I resented how the teachers were holding back because of who we were and where we were from so they did not give us everything we needed so that we could do it.

For example, if I was teaching a topic in biology and it was focusing on using energy to go from an area of low concentration to one of high concentration -- I could not do it based on how the text book would break it down so I used the example of a house party in the projects that was always very hot, no matter how many fans were running and how many windows were open, you knew it was never going to be cool in that apartment...but when your record came on -- the one that you always danced to, the one that you loved -- you forced your way back into that apartment, and forced your way back onto that dance floor that was the size of somebody's dining room table and you made sure you had a place on that dance floor. And that how I taught them the concept of active and passive transport when energy is used to go from areas of low to high and low to high [concentration].

AY: [Laugher] That's incredible, that's just perfect! Well it's called relevance. When you know the language of the streets, you are an excellent translator of biology, math etc.

GL: Yes, yes and that basically has been one of the major springboards for most of my success, has been that concept of making it relevant and making it clear conceptually so then in that way they will be able to answer any question that is multiple choice with confidence.

AY: Absolutely! In my research on you, I came across something called the "Bedford Approach" and also the slogan "inner city students can outperform the norm." What is this?

GL: The Bedford approach is what we discussed earlier, taking the concepts in mathematics and biology -- any subject for that matter -- and making the child able to feel confident completing any work that is complex on paper or that is complex when explained in the conventional way that it is done in schools. The Bedford approach is the alternative explanation, the alternative instruction that is designed so that it can fit the audience that you're dealing with.

You have to know your audience if you are going to be successful with anything in life. You have to know their culture, you have to know their habits, and you have to know their experiences. So the Bedford model takes into account that there is a cultural and there's a psychological and there's a confidence quotient piece that must work together in order to define the best approach for educating children from the inner city.

Number one, you can't be afraid of them. That's number one. You are not supposed to fear them -- you don't fear your students. Number two, you have to like children. So if you get past those two you might have a shot. Because most educators -- they don't fit that bill. You have to know the subject so well that you can explain the same thing ten different ways. And you have to have some kind of comic relief in there so that they won't be so uptight and so they can relax -- and you have to be able to relate to what they deal with culturally both TV, radio and otherwise.

And then once you are able to bring all of that together, then you will be able to create an institution of learning that was very similar to what we did at Bedford Academy High School where we made it the number one high school in New York State for low income students.

AY: I was quite understandably very impressed by outcomes you were able to create with regards to 3rd and 4th graders passing the 9th grade Science Regents. Did you use these methods to achieve it and is the school still operating at that same level?

GL: Yes, I did use the same methods to achieve it by tailoring the instructional modality to the experiences of the learner. This would allow me to connect with a frame of reference that be used as an example in explaining a concept or scientific principle.

This school program is no longer operating on this level with the younger students since the end of the mid-eighties. My present work with a K-5 Charter School for boys is slowly but surely approaching this level of excellence in science and math beyond the norm. Hopefully their dreams will not be deferred like a raisin in the sun.