Goldie Maple Academy is a middle school situated at the heart of a vast area of social housing, known as ‘the projects’, in the borough of Queens in New York. Of all the schools I could have gone to, why visit this one? Well, because it is only one of two Core Knowledge schools in the State, which means that right at its pedagogical heart lies Ed Hirsch’s manifesto of cultural literacy: for Hirsch, there is an irreducible body of core knowledge that each child should know if they are to make sense of the world and, importantly, progress, both academically and socially. I was lucky that, as part of my CPD programme, my school paid for me to go to the States to talk to teachers, educators and, of course, students.
The Principal of the school is Angela Logan-Smith, and she is one of the most remarkable head teachers I have ever met. To say she is passionate about her job, and the life-changing impact she and her staff have on children who, very often, come from very disadvantaged backgrounds, does her a disservice. As she showed me around the school I sensed a tangible excitement at the progress her students are making with her teachers, and I say that because, to use a modish phrase, their learning was very visible: folders are hanging in corridors, each one containing work which is immaculately presented, the handwriting clear and carefully cursive in almost all year groups. In every piece of work there was, manifestly, a pride in what had been achieved.
There was also an atmosphere of calm at the school, even though sirens wailed outside so often that I began to screen them out unconsciously. The classes I saw were focused, the pupils engaged, and in each one the teachers (sometimes without seeing us there) repeatedly asked the students to recall what they had previously learned, and to apply it. The curriculum is unapologetically rigorous: students are stretched, being asked to grapple with difficult texts, and challenging mathematical problems, but they seem to thrive on it. They are a credit to the school: they wave, surreptitiously, to me when their teacher is writing on the whiteboard, smiling, holding up their written work, and when we walk to other classrooms between periods the children walk (they don’t run), holding the doors open not just for us, but for each other.
Of course, things are not perfect. I was surprised, and saddened to learn that although the school is oversubscribed in the pre-K years some parents take the older children out, perhaps because, it was mooted, as they learn, acquiring new knowledge, new views of the world, new languages, they become more distant from those at home who remain, socially, fixed. It is a complex area that requires more research. For Angela Logan-Smith the desire to fight for every child’s right to be educated, empowered, to better themselves, remains undimmed. ‘Some kids come here expecting to read Dr Seuss in English’ she said over coffee, ‘and then we give them Hamlet! And that’s their right!” Her laugh was infectious, her can-do attitude almost the personification of the American spirit. Outside, the tailend of a hurricane was passing by, and Queens, tough place though it undoubtedly is, felt, suddenly, a little more welcoming. I left the school smiling, buoyed up by the impact teaching can make. It is a uniquely wonderful feeling that, I believe, only this profession can inspire.