MATCH set: charter-school founder Goldstein, left, and Sagan, teacher and philanthropist.
MATCH set: charter-school founder Goldstein, left, and Sagan, teacher and philanthropist.

A Charter for Achievement

The dream behind MATCH is delivering the promise of a brighter future, not to a specially selected cadre of overachievers, but to students whom almost everybody else has given up on.
Writer: 
June 1, 2002

Boston's Media and Technology Charter High School (MATCH) hardly looks like the high-tech secondary school of the future. Housed for now in the upper floors of the city's oldest synagogue, MATCH is not crammed with flat-screen LCD monitors and tangles of Ethernet cables. Its staff does not tote PDAs or digital walkie-talkies. Its TV studio consists of little more than a couple of donated laptops and some used lighting equipment. Its labs have one computer per two students, but the DSL lines in almost every classroom are not connected to computers.

MATCH students will not graduate as trained information technology experts or web designers or computer programmers. Their high-school diplomas will not qualify them to join the upper echelons of the digerati, at least not right away. The vision behind MATCH is far grander, far nobler, and far more ambitious than that. "We're not necessarily trying to prepare anyone for a career in the technology world," says founder Michael Goldstein '91. "We're trying to prepare them for college. We're trying to be a really good, rigorous, regular small school, and then figure out ways that technology can help."

MATCH's goals sound conventional enough: to create a school where students feel safe, where teachers are both effective and accountable, where parents feel they are invested in the process and, by far most importantly, where all students--no matter how disadvantaged, no matter how far behind when they begin--graduate from college. While those goals may not sound radical, they are the very ones that schools around Boston and the nation fail to meet every year. They represent the hopes of millions of American parents still imagining a dream their own parents told them was real. The dream behind MATCH is delivering the promise of a brighter future, not to a specially selected cadre of overachievers, but to students whom almost everybody else has given up on.

When George W. Bush spoke during the 2000 campaign about "the soft bigotry of low expectations," he may well have had the typical MATCH student in mind. Seventy-five percent of the school's students live in poverty. The vast majority come from Boston's most notorious neighborhoods: Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, Hyde Park. More than 93 percent are African American, Caribbean American, or Hispanic.

Unlike the droves of teenagers--most of them wealthier and whiter than the public school population as a whole--who pass entrance exams to enter Boston's prestigious magnet schools, MATCH students start out on a track to failure. The average MATCH student arrives in the ninth grade reading on the fifth-grade level; he or she was likely absent 20 percent of the time in middle school. The school has no selection criteria--there are no entrance exams, essays, or other requirements. Instead, MATCH uses a random lottery, which netted eighty students out of 240 applicants in the school's first year.

Without massive intervention, these students will fail the mandatory state achievement tests administered in the tenth grade. If they do, they cannot pass high school in Massachusetts. That this two-year-old charter high school wants to turn such students around is not revolutionary. What is revolutionary about MATCH is that it's working.

Goldstein's interest in education began when he was an undergraduate majoring in public policy at Duke. Coming from a relatively large and homogenous suburban high school in Pennsylvania, he says he was struck by what he found while tutoring Durham students: "Seeing what Durham public schools were like, just seeing how much kids were struggling, made a big impression."

But the road to MATCH didn't begin there. Instead, Goldstein moved to New York City to work for Richard Frankel Productions, the Broadway producers responsible for Stomp! and The Producers. After working as a freelance journalist for such publications as New York magazine and BusinessWeek, he returned to public policy. He enrolled at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, where the charter-school concept sparked his interest.

In his study of charter schools, Goldstein saw many advantages that would later figure prominently at MATCH--small schools, with 100 to 300 students, schools where a teacher or principal could know every single kid. Choice, for both parents and students, that would allow even the most disadvantaged families to "vote with their feet." And finally, Goldstein saw a way to apply technology to the larger goal of making successful college students.

"Most inner-city kids start college and drop out," he says. "I thought it would be useful to have a mission that says we can create kids that not only enroll in college, but make it all the way through." MATCH became his master's thesis. The school opened its doors in 2000 with a ninth-grade class of eighty.

MATCH may be the product of a top-flight policy education, but many of Goldstein's ideas sound like homespun common sense. The school will remain small, aiming for approximately fifty students per class. Its current student-teacher ratio is 10 to 1. Class sizes are never more than twenty, and most are smaller. Principal Charles Sposato--a veteran principal and former Massachusetts Teacher of the Year--greets students at the door every day; he and his staff telephone each student's parents at least once a week. Students are expected to follow the school's dress code--slacks and collared shirts or MATCH T-shirts--and never be late for class.

"We don't let even the little things go by unchallenged," Goldstein says. "If you're one minute late, you're late. If you miss homework, you might have a homework detention. We focus a lot on those low-level things to try and breed some responsibility."

The same is true of the school's commitment to safety. With no metal detectors or security guards, MATCH relies on its culture--and the cooperation of teachers and students--to keep its environment safe. "I think if you ask the kids about to what degree they feel safe in the school, it's pretty high. You need that before you can move on to getting kids to learn. Feeling safe is the first rung on the ladder." The school expelled three students last year for weapons violations. "We have zero tolerance for the more serious things," says Goldstein.

MATCH also has zero tolerance for failure. The school flunked 40 percent of its first freshman class, diverting them instead into "9x" and "9y" remedial programs that address underperforming students' specific needs. Goldstein shuns "social promotion" and makes clear to parents that sending their child to the school may mean that it takes five years to graduate.

Spending even four years at MATCH takes far more of a student's time. A typical day of classes lasts from 8:30 to 4:30. After that, students spend at least eight hours per week in tutoring, most of which is directed at improving their scores on the state's Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) tests. A Boston public high-school student must score at least 220, or "Needs Improvement," to pass the tenth grade. MATCH is aiming higher: The school expects its students to score 240, or "Proficient," even though MATCH students' starting median math score was 204--well below failing. To bolster their skills further, a majority of students also spend five weeks at the school's Summer Academy.

Although the school is able to offer few formal after-school activities--its lease runs out at five o'clock--its size has allowed both students and staff access to different opportunities. For instance, students are taken to a local bookstore every month, with the school footing the bill for everything they buy. An elective law class taught by a local attorney serves just two students. MATCH was able to join with an organization called the Home For Little Wanderers to bring social workers and psychologists to school, and it is the first placement in the country for the Tech Foundation's "Geeks For America" program, which provides free technical support and computer advice.

Technology, Goldstein is fond of saying, is no panacea. He is proud to note that MATCH spends more money buying students books every month than it has on its video production equipment. In fact, he describes most schools' use of technology as an outright failure. But where traditional high-school technology tends to be expensive, poorly integrated with the curriculum, and constantly hampered by inadequate human knowledge to apply it, MATCH offers a different focus. The school tries to use the cheapest software it can find, opting for low-cost alternatives to heavyweight applications like Adobe PageMaker and Photoshop. The staff wired the school's DSL lines themselves, saving more than $10,000. And most importantly, Goldstein never lets technology divert the school from its mission.

"It goes back to the way we prioritize," he says. "We focus on small class sizes. We focus on excellent literacy, writing, instruction. We won't let the technology tail wag the dog in terms of where the money goes, either." Spending on technology has been especially limited by the school's temporary location; when it moves to its own building at the start of the next school year, Goldstein expects to devote more resources to a permanent technology infrastructure.

Rather than offering students devoted technology classes, Goldstein tries to integrate technology and media into the core curriculum. Where a traditional high-school class might watch a video about the Cuban Missile Crisis, MATCH students might design their own radio documentary, or create their own PowerPoint presentations. Technology has helped students deal with tragedy, too: When Geoffrey Douglas, a tenth-grade MATCH student, was murdered last December, students created a video memorial in his honor.

Starting MATCH, Goldstein says, was a lot like starting a Broadway show. "It's the same set of problems. You have to find a building. You have to hire a bunch of great teachers instead of actors and, instead of a director, you have to hire a principal. And you have to raise money from private donors, because the state money doesn't kick in until you're actually in operation."

Funding the school has been one of Goldstein's most difficult battles. Not only did he have to learn the art of asking for money (a Wall Street Journal article made light of the "self-deprecating humor" Goldstein uses with fund raisers), but he also had to find the school a permanent home. Fortunately, Boston's tech community opened their wallets, donating more than $350,000 this school year alone. Volunteers in the Greater Boston area also donated more than 3,000 hours of community service in the school's first year.

Among MATCH's most ardent supporters are Akamai Technologies president Paul Sagan and his wife, Ann Burks Sagan '80, both of whom have a longtime relationship with the media and technology world. A graduate of Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, Paul had a successful broadcasting career before coming to the still-hot Internet firm Akamai in 1998. Ann has an M.B.A. and experience working for The New York Times on the business side; she also has a master's degree in education and extensive school-board experience. Goldstein saw the pair as ideal companions to carry out his vision.

"Michael Goldstein e-mailed my husband and approached him about being involved in the school," Ann Sagan says. "It was at a time when we were looking for a sort of family project. We were looking to be involved with something personally as well as philanthropically."

Along with the family's substantial donation, Ann Sagan joined the school's board of directors. At first, she mostly concerned herself with organizing the school's complex finances, tutoring, and helping Goldstein find a new school building. But as she began to volunteer more and more time with MATCH students, Sagan made an even tougher decision: Though she had never taught full-time before, she decided to start teaching tenth-grade math at MATCH. "It's absolutely the hardest thing I've ever done," she says, "but I love it. You've got to believe every day that you can do this. When you work on the front lines, you get discouraged a little bit. But you have to keep believing that you can."

As both a new teacher and a board member, Sagan deals with dual challenges. She frets about the day-to-day--did Jerome finish his math assignment?--as well as the larger question on everyone's mind: In the end, will this work? "I think we'll get 90 percent of them [into college]," she says. "And the other 10 percent, that'll be their choice. I think a lot of them can succeed. We've got a lot of stand-out kids here."

Sagan admits the difficulties ahead--finding funds in a slackened economy, creating a core curriculum with clear priorities--but she is relentlessly optimistic about her students. "Some students have over a two-hour commute to school. They grumble about it, but they still come. And my kids turn in their homework 90 percent of the time." In fact, MATCH students come to school far more often than their peers. MATCH has a 5 percent absentee rate, while Boston public schools have an absentee rate of 18 percent.

Sagan says she has seen a huge difference in her students since even the start of the year. "One kid said to me, 'I wish you had known me before I got here, Mrs. Sagan. I've really changed a lot here.' He said he used to be a real tough guy. Now you wouldn't ever suspect it."

On paper, MATCH seems to be a success. School officials can cite impressive figures, like the small absentee rate, or students' yearly increase of one-and-a-half grade levels in reading skills. They can point to a low incidence of discipline problems, or highlight hundreds of documented comments by satisfied parents. Goldstein can tout his success with donors, show you his students' multimedia presentations, or brag about the money his school saves in administrative and infrastructure costs over a bureaucratic big school. He can be proud of every single statistic in the school's annual report.

The success of a school cannot be measured on paper, though, but in the attitudes of its students. And MATCH students, it turns out, could be Goldstein's greatest source of pride.

My MATCH experience begins with a visit with Stesha Emmanuel and Rachel Jules, both in tenth grade. Stesha comes in wearing a large, colorful clown hat--the school gives it to students to wear on their birthdays. She takes it off so she'll look "more professional." Rachel says, "Coming to MATCH is totally different. We have a sort of family bonding. Everybody knows everybody really well."

Like most MATCH students, Stesha and Rachel live in single-parent homes in Dorchester, one of Boston's most impoverished neighborhoods. Every day, both girls wake up around 6:30; they need plenty of time for both the bus and the subway to get them to school by 8:30. The commute can take more than an hour, and if they are even a minute late, they get detention after school. (Rachel admits that she's had detention several times.) After school comes tutoring, or jobs, or both. Neither girl gets home before seven o'clock on a typical day. Homework, the girls say, means at least two more hours of work--far more than their friends in Boston public high schools.

"The hours are so time-consuming," Stesha says. "You do so many things, you rarely have time to act up or act crazy. In this school, you grow up sooner."

Stesha was last year's Student of the Year. She does not have the school's top grades, but she is one of its best leaders. She is captain of the school step team--one of the few after-school activities available--and she organized and ran the school's talent show. She also served as a sort of de facto student- body president, negotiating with the administration for a "dress down" day on Fridays. "This school just brought out something in me," she says. "I'm really motivated to do things."

Rachel is not only an exemplary student (between class and after-school reading, she has read more than thirty-five books this year alone), but she also has a superior attitude, for which she awarded the "Spirit of MATCH" honor last year. "I'm always trying to be positive," she says, smiling. "To make a day go great, you always have to have a smile. That's my motto."

Both girls agree that MATCH has changed them. While most high-school students shun reading, they can rattle off a list of favorite authors, including Eric Jerome Dickey and Sister Souljah. Rachel now reads at the college level.

"You know you're learning a lot," Stesha says. "You can just compare yourself to friends from other schools. My friend talks about how she hates her teachers and they argue during class. I just laugh. At MATCH, arguing will get you nowhere."

The girls also have new ambitions. Rachel hopes to attend Spelman College in Atlanta and become a CEO; one day, she says, she would like to be the first female president. Stesha's sights, in terms of college prospects, are set about as high as they can be. "I realize now that I have the qualities to get into Harvard," then Harvard Law School, she says. "I'm just as smart as anybody else."

The girls do have their complaints. Both say they are disappointed by a lack of media projects this year, which the school apparently cut back in response to problems with securing media specialists and keeping students' attention. "Personally, I think [the media classes] were really good," Rachel says. "They think the students didn't appreciate the teachers, but they have to look beyond that to see that we accomplished something really good."

And they have a more traditional high-school complaint: a lack of boys. The school has a relatively even male-to-female ratio (57 percent female, 43 percent male), but the girls say that having such a tight-knit group makes dating impossible. "We treat them more like brothers," Rachel says. "You can't look at them 'like that' anymore."

Goldstein pops his head in. He knows the girls are trying to talk their way through their next class.

Bob Hill's tenth-grade English class comes at a tough time of day--right after lunch, when kids tend to be rowdiest. As the students file in, it's not obvious that they are following a dress code--their clothing looks neat, but not uniform. One girl politely introduces herself to me and asks me why I'm visiting today. I tell her, and she moves on to her seat.

As the students work on a warm-up vocabulary assignment designed to prepare them for the all-important MCAS test, Hill hands me a student essay about seventeenth-century English poet Robert Herrick. There are problems with grammar and punctuation, but the work shows a lot of potential, with rich analysis and a solid grasp of the poet's work. For the rest of class, Hill's students are to critique each other's essays on Macbeth. Stesha, sitting next to me in the class, hands me her essay to look at, but not before showing me a portfolio of her work. Hill has rated each of her essays on a variety of factors, complete with extensive written comments on both technical accuracy and subject matter.

As I read over Stesha's work and listen to the class, the students' discussion becomes increasingly animated--"You keep changing tenses," says one. "Your thesis and topic sentences are the same," another rejoins. On the back wall is a sort of MCAS scoreboard Hill has put up, with a giant "MATCH: 240" on the right side. As the heated discussion of Macbeth persists, one thing becomes clear: There is no objective way to measure the value of what is being done here. Certainly not a learning standards test.

Can the success of MATCH be replicated? If nothing else, Goldstein believes that the concept of smaller schools is making headway in Boston, as evidenced by the creation of six more "pilot" schools in the district with 250 students each. "There are not a lot of economies of scale for big schools," he says. "Most of what schools spend money on is teachers. And teachers are a function of how many kids you have, how long you want your school day, and how big your classes are." Without the overhead and increased security problems of large schools, Goldstein argues, a small school can cost the same or less, and deliver better results.

MATCH receives most of its income from the state government, which pays it about $9,000 per pupil--a "political number" that Goldstein says is about $2,000 less than the actual per-pupil payment to Boston public schools. Add to that the various other payments Boston schools get--for facilities and other programs--and it becomes clear that MATCH is making do with much less money.

Despite the school's early success, Goldstein is hesitant to tout it as a prototype. "What is very popular in school reform, which I don't believe in, is these sort of cookie-cutter models.... A really good school is a lot like a really great restaurant in a way. There's a lot of love and devotion that goes in. It's very labor-intensive, the owners know their customers, they have a loyal following, and they make it work for their own place."

Two years from now, MATCH will graduate its first senior class. Nobody can predict with any certainty whether Stesha will be accepted to Harvard, or what the students' MCAS scores will be. MATCH will be in a new building it can call its own. It might have more technology on hand; it might have less. In the end, what Goldstein and his staff have attempted--and what they have accomplished so far--will be nothing short of heroic. They are trying where others have not only failed, but given up. Their school embraces the possibility of an America where the dreams of the poor can reach every bit as high as the sinecures of the privileged.

The question, as Ann Sagan puts it, is, "Can you make it work? Is it possible to take inner-city kids who are already in the ninth grade and give them a structure of support that's going to help them succeed in going to college?"

Conventional wisdom says no. Conventional wisdom says that no amount of caring and parent phone calls, no amount of fancy technology and policy training can turn ninth-graders reading at the fifth-grade level into tenth-graders having an avid discussion about Macbeth. But in this place, it happens. In this place, the naysayers' soft bigotry has finally met its MATCH.

Blank '01, former editor of Recess, the weekly arts and entertainment supplement of The Chronicle, has completed his first year at Harvard Law School and is editor of its student newspaper, The Record.