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|An Interview With Jay Altman
What was your first contact with Summerbridge and where were you in your career
path at the time?
I had just completed my first year of teaching at Newman, a prep school in New Orleans, and was
very impressed when I visited the Summerbridge program at UHS for a day during the summer. I
wanted to start a program in New Orleans because I thought it would be great if more kids could have
that kind of prep-school experience; it really changes student’s educational aspirations.
In what ways did Summerbridge influence the school you have started in New Orleans?
Summerbridge is the place where I first got this aesthetic of high aspirations and an engaging and
fun curriculum all at the same time. The goal was to make the school’s curriculum engaging and
rigorous at the same time, with a wide variety of experiences in addition to the academics.
Tell me about the profile of your student body?
We have about thirty feeder schools. Students and families apply and because admission is
determined by a lottery, our kids reflect a wide range skill levels. Over 90% of the kids receive free or
reduced lunch and 98% are African American. The majority of our entering sixth graders are reading
around the fourth grade level. When our students graduate from 8th grade, over 80% attend
academically competitive high schools: academically selective public magnet schools or private prep
How culturally diverse was your personal background?
I grew up in Ferndale, a rural area where there wasn’t much racial diversity but there also wasn’t a
lot of class division, everybody was just equally human. In big cities the consciousness of class and
race seems to be more developed. There can be prejudice in rural areas but there seems to be more
of an innocence and naïve open mindedness too. I probably fell into that category. In order to get
your students prepared for success with a college-prep high school environment, literacy must be a
major curricular focus.
What methods of remediation do you use in order to elevate achievement to college-
We do a reading workshop approach, heavily influenced by the work of a couple of educators named
Pinell and Fountas. We use a variety of teaching methods and real texts, we don’t buy text books that
much. In social studies classes we are using historical fiction and we integrate a lot of writing into the
social studies and language curriculum. For kids who are really behind we do a more directed
intervention, using SRA, in small groups geared at decoding fluency.
Are there sensitivities on the part of students or parents to correcting and changing
We tell the kids that standard English is the language of school and business and they have to learn
it to do well in school. Most parents, 95% of parents, know this; no one has ever made it an issue.
Lois talked about teaching Summerbridge students “the fine art of working hard” and
the young Summerbridge teachers are great at motivating kids to raise their standard
of effort. How do you motivate your kids to elevate their work ethic to college-prep
First, we try to inspire students and an ethos of hard work as part of a positive identity associated with
the school. Second, we give rewards for working hard and use consequences to motivate the kids. The
staff have created seven principles, a core set of values, which we call ‘The Charter Way.’ They are
perseverance, caring, responsibility, respect, honesty, forgiveness, and gratitude. We have created
experiences that all kids go through that are designed to inculcate ‘The Charter Way,’ and, at the
same time, we are quite strict. If you don’t have your homework you have detention that day; you do
not get a lunch recess. We have rewards at each grade level called ‘Big Benefit Field Trips’ and you
get ‘Benefit Bucks’ over the course of six weeks. For example, tonight we have arranged a special
movie screening for kids to see The Incredibles and Lemony Snicket. The rewards are effort based and
measured by things like homework, behavior, and morning math, which is a non-graded class; that’s
how we build incentive.
You mentioned that you have a very robust Afro-centric extra curricular program, to
what degree are racial issues a topic?
Racial issues are addressed in class all the time. For example an English unit might be built around
the Civil Rights Movement, the Holocaust, or the Harlem Renaissance. Students are reading novels
about these events and viewing history from an African American perspective. We are encouraging
students to develop a positive aspirational identity and helping to engage students in the learning.
This naturally leads to units that are built around topics which will facilitate a positive racial identity
and also around topics that are engaging for kids. People ask what kind of model we use for our
curriculum. We have tried to stay free of being labeled as being of one kind or model of school on
anything. We are just trying to be a good school. For example, the language- phonics debate—we do
both. We have daily oral drills in all the classes every day. When kids are chanting together you feel
like you are in a boot camp and if you walk in 15 minutes later you may see students in cooperative
learning groups trying to figure out how to build a budget for a fictional family.
Is there any formal overlap with Newman Summerbridge and do you have any
Summerbridge students enrolled in your school?
Yes we have Summerbridge kids. There is no formal overlap but whenever there is a new Dean of
Faculty, the Summerbridge director will send them over here to talk about curriculum, and I try to
speak to the Summerbridge staff every summer. I am on the New Orleans Outreach board, a nonprofit
started by a Summerbridge teacher alum, which brings high school, college, and adult volunteers into
schools to run after-school programs, serve as teacher assistants and tutors, and provide
extracurricular job and career awareness programs. Outreach now serves 5 elementary and middle
schools and their main headquarters is here on our campus. I learned from Summerbridge that lots
of people can be good educators. The challenge is to strategically translate that into ways that work
for schools and the volunteers.
When you were directing Newman Summerbridge where there ways that the young
teachers were more effective with the middle schoolers than the adult professional
teachers you now employ?
Oh yes. The Summerbridge teachers have tons of energy; they are very creative and they remember
what turned them on in terms of learning when they were that age. There is a certain quality that you
gain from those younger teachers. They probably couldn’t sustain that for nine months, it is sort of a
burnout model, but it works great for six weeks. I wish every kid could have a Summerbridge kind of
experience. It turns kids on to school, motivates them and helps build their identity--the younger kids
see themselves in the older kids and the older kids certainly see themselves in the younger kids.