“So there are a couple ways of looking at a seemingly insurmountable task,” said Ben Marcovitz “One is that it exhausts you and overwhelms you. The other is that it inspires and excites you.”
Marcovitz, the founder of Sci Academy, an outstanding college preparatory high school in east New Orleans, is clearly of the inspire and excite persuasion.
The product of an elite East Coast education and teaching stints in Boston, D.C. and New Orleans, Marcovitz has seen a variety of high-performing schools, including many that focus on low-income and minority students. But few of these schools serve high school students.
So Marcovitz started Sci Academy in 2007 with a mission he calls “a tall order.” Sci Academy has no feeder school. Its students come from schools throughout New Orleans, and they often start ninth grade five years behind grade level. The school’s mission: four years later, to graduate them ready for college.
“There is a lot of race, socio-economic and other hang-ups that people experience when they think about older kids, and they don’t really know they’re experiencing it,” said Marcovitz. He wanted to change that.
Of the school’s first cohort, only one-third were proficient on state exams in eighth grade. Four years later, over 90 percent were accepted to four-year colleges.
“Sci Academy taught me that college was possible,” said Micah Theodore, a current senior who started out at a sixth-grade reading level and is now a finalist for the prestigious POSSE Foundation scholarship. “I had never been to a school that pushed me so hard.”
Conversations continually turn back to college. When a student makes an inappropriate comment, Marcovitz asks him to imagine how it would be received in a college classroom. Students get more work and tougher grading than their friends at other schools, and they know it is all in the name of college preparation.
Staff and students at Sci Academy share a common language. “Effort” and “excellence” are key parts of the vocabulary. “Smart” is not, because the school prizes growth above innate ability.
In part, this language is the inevitable consequence of hiring people who believe the school’s mission is real and necessary, and who pass that belief on to the students. Aidan Kelley joined Sci Academy four years ago as an English teacher and is now Dean of Curriculum and Instruction. He recalls his initial conversations with Marcovitz as less of a test of skill than of his full-hearted belief in the school’s mission—which is to say, his belief that every single student can get to college.
In turn, the mission is reinforced by language. After becoming a staff member, Kelley completed an orientation session where he learned mantras like “chase perfection, catch excellence” and “when one succeeds, we all succeed.” “By the end, we were able to speak the language that the returning teachers used,” said Kelley. “And that was important because the kids expected it.”
The key to all this is not that the school has a good mission, Marcovitz explains, but rather that it is driven by one. The school hires teachers who are inspired by its mission. Together, they draw connections between that mission and everything from their classroom decorations to the school’s bathroom policy. “Our mission is our roadmap, but it’s also kind of our gas,” said Marcovitz.
This article is part of our report, “How World-class Schools Deliver for All Students,” which includes our framework outlining six key practices that drive the success of the highest-performing schools. Explore the report to read more school profiles showing what these practices look like in action.