Conversation with Dr. Steve Perry, Head of One of the ‘Best High Schools in America’

Dr.Steve Perry

Dr. Steve Perry

News Story: February 1, 2011

To spend a little time with Steve Perry leaves no doubt where his passions lie: he is a powerful evangelist for teaching, with one agenda on his mind: the welfare and ultimate success of his children. Dr. Perry, as a founder and principal of the Capital Prep School in Hartford, has become a national advocate for the best education possible. He spoke to an audience in University Commons on Monday, February 21.  He was the final speaker in this year's Student Affairs Lecture Series.

Long frustrated by the huge accomplishment gap between young people in good neighborhoods and poorer ones, he says he was almost convinced that it must, somehow, be related to their race or background. But that is just the lazy excuse of people who do not truly care for children, he says, and who should not be educators. He’d fire them all and close the schools that they fail to teach in.

His take-no-prisoners attitude extends to such powerful groups as teachers’ unions and other entrenched forces. He’s on the road as many as 75 times a year, crisscrossing the nation with his passionate advocacy for children – especially those with limited resources. He cited the infamous case of Central Falls, Rhode Island, where he spoke recently. The town’s superintendent threatened to fire all the teachers in town because more than nine of every 10 students were failing math. The teachers and their union fought it tooth and nail and ended the negotiations by earning $5,000 raises but not helping the children advance in any measure. It is, he concludes, the so-called educators who are failing, not the children.

Capital Prep is a public magnet school in Hartford attracting students from all over the region. It has a 100 percent graduation rate, and 100 percent of its students are accepted into four-year colleges. It boasts a no-nonsense code of discipline and a demanding college prep curriculum.

“There are many things we don’t know,” say Dr. Perry, “but how to run a successful school is not one of them. All you have to do is look at the incredible Catholic school system and other private schools. They love the children and that is obvious every step of the way. And their history is of taking all the kids we say today could never make it because of race or class or background – immigrant kids who didn’t speak English and had no ‘expectation of success’ – and turning them into successful people.”

Capital Prep has the atmosphere of a traditional parochial school – down to the strict code of discipline and the uniforms for all students. Its 350 students (grades 6-12) will jump to 500 next year with the addition of an elementary school, with a goal of 750. While 86 percent are children of color, that is very likely to change in the coming year as more white children are admitted.

Steve Perry looks back with great satisfaction on this accomplishment. Having worked with poor children during summer programs who thrived under careful and loving supervision and then went back to failing schools in September, he was challenged by an angry mother, “Why do rich kids get the good schools?” As a black man confronted by a black parent, he recalls thinking the answer was to assemble a first-rate team of black educators who would, “naturally take a special interest in the kids who looked like them.” He laughs at the irony of working to prove that race didn’t matter by gathering an all-black faculty.

While kids in failing schools are disproportionately black and Latino, that is not why they lag behind. Rather, he believes, it is because they are lumped together as hopeless and not worth fighting for.  He had strong advice for those preparing to be educators: “Don’t for a minute choose this because it will fit your schedule or allow you time for your family or that little kids are so cute. Do it because you love children and want them to succeed. Candidates for teaching in my school always hand in a portfolio of their work – and I never open it. If you can’t put one of these together by the time you have a bachelor’s degree, you’re an idiot! What I look for is someone who loves children.”