If you don’t come to work, you don’t get paid: Q& A with Andy Boy

Foreword

In both our role as researchers and as a charter school authorizer we have come to appreciate over-and-over again the critical importance of school leaders in making schools great. In our “Needles in a Haystack: Lessons from Ohio’s high-performing, high-need urban schools” report from 2010 we identified school leaders as one of the keys to these schools’ success. School leaders drive success for their buildings, and in the schools we authorize (currently 11 buildings serving about 2,700 students) school leaders are pivotal in leading school success and improvement efforts. Public Agenda and the Ohio Business Roundtable have also made it clear how important great school leaders are in their excellent new research on high performing Ohio schools Failure is Not an Option.

There is no harder job than running a successful school building for high-poverty students; nor a more important job. Yet, there are school leaders across the state and the nation who do it day-in and day-out, and too few get recognized for their great work.

We are fortunate that some of these leaders work in schools that Fordham sponsors and it is our privilege to tell a little bit of their stories and the impact they are having on students in Ohio. This Q&A with Andy Boy, the founder and executive director of Columbus Collegiate Academy (CCA), is the second of our seven-part series on school leadership. (Please see our Q&A with Dr. Glenda Brown.) Boy leads two of Columbus’ highest-performing charter schools, which together serve over 200 inner-city students.

Columbus Collegiate Academy's Andy Boy

Introduction

Andy Boy was not the only one in 2005 who didn’t really know what was going on at Cincinnati’s then-celebrated W.E.B. DuBois Academy. A science teacher whose students were making stunning jumps on the state’s proficiency tests, he and the charter school’s legion of supporters had no idea that the school’s director was cheating the state by inflating enrollment figures and pilfering money for personal use.

In 2006, Wilson H. Willard, III, resigned and, in 2008, he pleaded guilty to charges of theft and tampering with records. He was sentenced to four years in prison.

After that experience, Boy, now 34, considered leaving education. But in August 2006, he was one of 13 individuals chosen for the Boston-based Building Excellent Schools Fellowship. After completing the year-long program, the Bellefontaine, Ohio, native, came to Columbus and set out to start a charter middle school.

In the fall of 2008, Columbus Collegiate Academy opened with a class of 57 sixth graders. Classes were held in a Baptist church in the Weinland Park neighborhood. Three years later, the school moved to a former Columbus City Schools building on the near east side.

Now in its second year there, Columbus Collegiate Academy has 185 students in grades 6-8, and it earned an “A” on the state’s 2011-12 report card. A new sister school opened this fall in west Columbus. Its 75 sixth graders attend classes in the Boys and Girls Club.

Boy, a father of two, wants to open still more schools, including an elementary school.

In 2010, Columbus Collegiate won a “silver” EPIC award from New Leaders for New Schools for its gains in student achievement. In 2011, the school won a “gold” award, recognition given that year to just four charter schools in the country.

The following are edited excerpts from an interview with Boy.

Interview with Andy Boy

Q: What happened at the W.E.B. DuBois Academy?

A: Prior to the moment that I saw about 10 men and women in black trench coats walk into the school, I had no idea that anything less than honest was going on. In the last days before I left, I had no idea what was going to come. I knew there were issues with student records. I knew it wasn’t good.

Q: Did the experience demoralize you?

A: I was close to leaving education when I saw the scandal unfold. I thought we were the best thing that had ever happened in education. But I realized that if we were the best, then I probably was in the wrong profession.

Q: Did you feel duped?

A: No. I felt that we did 99 percent of things right – and 1 percent of them so very wrong. After the experience, I just wasn’t sure that this work was feasible or sustainable. I was tremendously discouraged.

Q: In Columbus Collegiate Academy’s early days, your father loaned the school $80,000. Did you pay him back?

A: We paid him back in three months. This strategy of growing slowly, one grade level at a time, is a terrible business model. And Ohio’s school funding method makes budgeting challenging. When we added a grade, we weren’t going to be paid by the state for all the new students we were enrolling until October. But we had to pay the staff as soon as school started – before we started receiving payments from the state. The shortfall was a temporary thing, a cash-flow issue.

Q: Columbus Collegiate Academy students are penalized for missing school even when they’re sick. Explain the thinking.

A: Students work on a paycheck system. If they are tardy or absent, or if they don’t have their homework done, they’re docked. They also get bonuses for class-wide behavior and other positive things. If a student doesn’t come to school, he or she loses $15 on his or her paycheck. If you don’t’ come to work, you don’t get paid.

Q: Do I understand that all of your staff teaches?

A: This is the first year that I am not teaching. Some other folks don’t teach. Our director of operations and our office manager do not teach. But everybody else has some classroom responsibility.

Q: Was it smart to start a school with a sixth-grade class? Isn’t middle school the toughest time to reset students’ expectations about school? At that age, aren’t many of your students so far behind that it’s almost impossible for them to catch up?

A: We started with sixth grade because it’s where the highest need is. It’s one of the most challenging places to find success. It’s one of the places many schools are failing kids. When we surveyed the school situation in Columbus, middle school was the weakest grade band. We felt it was easier to enroll sixth graders than to take a student out of their school in fifth grade [Editor’s note: Columbus operates K-5 elementary schools and 6-8 middle schools.]. It was a natural break. It would be so much better if we were getting sixth graders who were on grade level. Fifty percent of our sixth graders are three or more years behind. We’re teaching addition and subtraction. It’s very hard to get them ready for seventh grade in one year. Our future plans do include opening a grade school.

Q: Talk about United Schools Network, the management company you’ve started with the goal of opening new schools. Some people say good charters are successful because they’re almost one-of-a-kind, that there’s nothing cookie-cutter about them.

A: We learn from the best. We take from the best. For example, we look at what the organization Uncommon Schools is doing. Our schools are always going to be unique. Our west side school has a very different demographic than our east side school. What will be the same at both is the high level of standards in how we deliver our curricula. We are not dictators. Although we want to build consistency, we are not going to stifle creativity. We’ll make changes that make sense. We will always want to learn.

Q: You expect a lot of your teachers. How long can schools like Columbus Collegiate Academy expect to hang on to teachers? Are the demands manageable over a 30- or 35-year career? Or do you think teaching is only for the young?

A: You see a young teaching staff in schools like ours because of funding. We can’t pay what district schools pay. Our teachers would be making $10,000 to $15,000 more in a traditional public school district. Hiring a lot of veteran teachers is difficult for reasons that are out of our control. We won’t be able to recruit them until Ohio reforms its charter school funding method. It’s also risky to work in schools like ours. Your job is not guaranteed. This year several of our teachers are pregnant with their first child and others are planning to have families. We are absolutely focused on how we can make this job sustainable for someone with a growing family. We have an opportunity to be a trailblazer and find ways to make this job work for young professionals. I don’t know if it’s sustainable for 35 years, but we’re going to try.

Q: Tell me about your interview process. You ask applicants whether it’s better to be strict or caring and, in your mind, there’s a right answer.

A: We always start with mission fit. We have some non-negotiable policies that people have to believe in. We also want to know how smart you are. How good of a writer are you? Sadly, so many people who apply for a position with us have serious writing deficiencies. I can deal with a mistake or two, but if you’re going to teach our kids English or writing, you better be pretty good at it yourself. We want to know if you are you smart enough to be in front of our students.

Q: How important are partners? What’s your relationship with the Columbus Boys and Girls Club?

A: We have lots of partners. The Boys and Girls Club is our closest partnership because we cohabitate. Our west side school is in its facility. It has been a great partner, and the site has been a great space to launch our second campus. The club’s programming gives us additional offerings for our students. A third of our west side school students are members of the club. They can stay in the building until 8 p.m., so some students are there from 8 until 8. They get breakfast, lunch, a snack, and dinner there. Many of the students will have the opportunity to participate in summer programing at low or no cost. We know that summer is when kids get into the wrong situations.

Q: You’ve researched the Harlem Children’s Zone. What did you learn from that effort?

A: It’s not the most sustainable model because of the cost. We had grandiose notions that we could do something similar in a neighborhood here in Columbus. But we’ve realized something very important – that we can accomplish more through partnerships, rather than being a cradle-to-grave operation. We can connect our families with partners who will help them.

Q: What’s your relationship with Columbus City Schools? It has been bumpy. Is it better?

A: It’s absolutely grown to be a relationship of mutual respect. We’ve put aside the district vs. charters debate and focused on how we can have meaningful relationships that benefit kids. It was adversarial, but we’ve put that aside. I think the improvement has a lot to do with creating a track record of success. Columbus City Schools are very straightforward that they’re interested in working with charter schools that are successful. Our track record has certainly helped us. That’s been the biggest driver in being able to have great conversations.

Q: What do you want to tell me that I haven’t asked about?

A: I’m so blessed to have such an amazing staff and board, and so much support from Fordham. I’m not a master of anything. I’m just fortunate to have a lot of people around me who are masters and can do what I can’t do. Our human capacity in this building is out of this world, and it goes back to the hiring process. We have some rock stars.

Q: Talk about a time when a student taught you something.

A: I’m thinking about an incident when we took our first eighth-grade trip to Chicago. Our kids don’t get opportunities like that often. We were staying in an Embassy Suites. One of our students said to me, “Wow, this is the good life.” It really cemented for me how important it is for us to give kids the opportunities that so many people take for granted. I understand where our students and families come from. I understand where I came from. I just learn so much from our kids and our families. It’s one of the reasons we’re in this work.

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