Tough School Propels Inner-City Kids

Charter school's long hours pay off with no. 1 math test scores in state.

Oct. 7, 2007 — -- At age 13, Luis Sanchez's mother kicked him out of the house -- permanently -- for misbehaving.

"She just brought me to court and was just, like, you know, 'I don't want him,'" Luis explains.

The memory hurts. For two weeks he lived on the streets.

A year later, angry and on drugs, he arrived at MATCH in Boston, a high school where school starts at 7:45 a.m. and the day lasts until 5, or even 8 p.m. -- late hours required for any kid falling behind.

Watch Dan Harris' report on MATCH tonight on "World News." Check your local listings for air time.

MATCH, opened its doors in September 2000, aiming to close the achievement gap by preparing inner-city students not just to get a spot in college, but to succeed in college as well.

Like other charter schools, it is a tuition-free, independent public school. MATCH receives two-thirds of its operating support from the state, and must raise the rest privately.

The school is supported by Boston University, which provides use of athletic facilities and allows students to audit courses, and with other colleges, universities and local businesses.

Students are admitted by blind lottery. Almost all of them are minorities, the majority live in poverty, and most arrive at MATCH well behind in math and reading.

MATCH provides a mix of rigorous rules, demanding academics and regular tutoring. The rules are posted everywhere at MATCH. Principal Jorge Miranda says signs dictate, "everything from the dress code, unexcused absences, tardiness, poor posture in class."

Reprimanding students for poor posture might seem to hail from a former age, but Miranda believes schools need to make it important.

"If you're in the classroom and your head is down on the table or you're leaning back, you're clearly not focused on learning," he says. "And even if it's for a minute, that's a minute that we've lost and we don't have any time to waste."

Get enough demerits for infractions like an untucked shirt, and you'll end up in detention on a Saturday morning.

It wasn't easy for Luis Sanchez to take at first.

"It felt like a burden on me, because I wasn't used to it," he says. "And it just hurt me sometimes; it got me frustrated and angry sometimes."

What makes the rules work is that they're backed up by -- and this is a word they actually use at the school -- love.

There are only 220 students at MATCH. Classes are small and the kids also get one-on-one tutoring from dozens of recent college graduates who live right in the building.

Hundreds of applicants apply to be part of the elite MATCH Corps. The 45 who are accepted receive a small stipend, which is partly funded through a grant from the federal AmeriCorps program, and dorm-style lodging on the school's top floor. In exchange, they make a one-year, more-than-full-time commitment to tutor students and assist teachers. (See related stories section for more on the tutoring program.)

The program has worked for Sanchez.

"They cared," he says. "I mean, Mr. Sposato, who was our principal back then ... took me aside about every day and just told me, you know, 'You're here to learn. You're here to do something with your life.'"

Many of the students at MATCH need such attention. Christina Bernal learned a few years ago that, as a baby, the state had taken her from her drug-addicted mother. The woman who raised her was actually her aunt.

"When I found out," Christina says, "it just hit me like, I just felt like I've been lied to all my life."

When we asked another student, Izzy Herrera, about her home life, she simply sobbed.

Despite all the trauma, and despite the students' academic deficits, MATCH is turning kids around. Just days ago, the students learned that this almost entirely poor, minority school was number one in math on the state standardized test.

As they were handed their individual test results, many students discovered their lives had changed: They scored high enough to get free tuition to any state school in Massachusetts.

But here are the questions: Can this success be replicated nationally? Can you re-create, on a large scale, this sort of small school infused with missionary zeal, where teachers work 11-hours days for low pay?

MATCH executive director Alan Safran answers, "If we can agree as a nation that we have to do it, then we will do it. I don't think we have in the agreement on the have-to yet.  I don't believe people understand there's a crisis in urban schools."

Sanchez may illustrate what the stakes are.

"I think I woulda never come into high school," he says. "I think I would have dropped out at eighth grade and probably been a drug dealer. ... Maybe a year later I woulda got shot. Maybe a year later I would have been in prison.  Something like that."

Instead, he's an honor roll student applying to colleges -- and planning a future he never thought he'd have.

"It hits me every day, especially now, being a senior and getting close to graduation," he says. "I never pictured myself walking around in a school like this and just being happy every day -- and knowing that in a couple of months I'll be walking down the stage and, you know, maybe my eyes will be tearful because it's something that I'm gonna be proud of ... and all my friends and teachers here are gonna be proud of."

MATCH is having extraordinary success in taking students like Luis to the next level: every member of its first four graduating classes has been accepted to four-year colleges. And the Massachusetts State Board of Education has rewarded that success by approving the school's plan to double in size and to open a new middle school.