Charter School Helps Youth Beat the Odds

Jesse Jean
Jesse Jean

At this time, the national news networks are chasing down the sports story of the week: the all-African American rugby team of the Hyde Leadership Charter School in Washington D.C.

But while the story on the field is an exciting one, it is only part of the story of this charter school–and in many ways, a natural outcome of the Hyde Schools’ approach to education.

Jesse Jean would agree.

Today Jesse Jean is an accomplished young man, a Hyde graduate, and a college graduate. But statistically, Jesse Jean was a youth who could have easily fallen through the cracks–and worse–like so many others. Jesse suffered the loss of both his parents while very young, lived in a threatening neighborhood, and endured negative influences all around, including the omnipresence of drugs he did not want to do.

Jesse lived with his grandmother for some time in inner city Washington, DC, and eventually was placed in a special ed. junior high school where he felt he “didn’t belong,” regardless of his circumstances.

The ability to make this distinction has been a guiding force in Jesse’s life.

At a local Teen Learning Center where he was tutored in the evenings, Jesse met two instructors, Teri Ellison and Toni Hustead, who would change the course of his life. Once they got to know Jesse, they saw too that he was in an inappropriate school, championed him, and became his guardians. The search was on for an education track for an at-risk young man with hope, against all odds.

Jesse’s search ended with a charter school that would measure him as a whole person, rather than as only a student or athlete, which he believes is nothing short of a miracle. But that is all part of the Hyde philosophy.

Joseph Gauld founded the first Hyde School in Bath, Maine in 1966. He explains, “We believe that if schools fully engage the hearts and souls of students, they will develop world-class academic skills in the process.”

“We loved everything we read about Hyde,” Jesse says. “It was a new school and a fresh start. We liked what they taught, we liked the teacher-student ratio–Hyde was awesome.”

Hyde philosophy is based on principles. At the core of its approach are such mimetic phrases as “Attitude over Aptitude,” “Effort over Ability,” “Truth over Harmony,” and “Principles over Rules.” Teachers, students, and family members participate in a process where they prioritize these core beliefs in their learning and in their lives.

“We live in a achievement-oriented society that cares more about aptitude than attitude,” says President of Hyde Schools, Malcolm Gauld. “We say that honesty, persistence, and compassion are important qualities, but we are really more results-driven in how we measure success in ourselves and others.

“My thirty years as an educator have taught me to never kid a kid. They never misread our true expectations of them. When we say character is important in one breath and then look the other way when our students cheat, so they can get the scores they need—. We’re only kidding ourselves.”

So for the first time in Jesse’s life, he was surrounded by people who wanted more from him than he initially believed he could give. Teri, Toni, and his Hyde teachers would not settle for anything less than his “very best,” and though he was bright and uninterested in using drugs or getting into trouble, he still wanted to perform on his terms.

“The school had something that I resisted, but knew deep down I needed,” he says. “The teachers didn’t want to just know if my homework was done; they wanted to know what kind of effort I was putting into my work, or what my attitude was when I interacted with them and my peers. They wanted me to learn from my mistakes and understand myself enough to know what was getting in the way of me doing my best. This was deep stuff that took a lot of energy, and I didn’t want to invest that much.”

Jesse’s mentors could see that even though his new school had motivated him to do better in his studies, the lack of structure in his life had taken its toll.

“I didn’t go to school very often,” he says. “I liked it when I was there, but I had trouble getting up in the morning and going. Finally a meeting was called. We all sat down and my teachers said to me, ‚ÄòJesse, when you’re here, you do a great job. But you’re not here often enough.’ As a character-based program, they told me we had to work on consistency. Then they asked, ‚ÄòHow about a change in scenery?'”

That change of scenery came in the form of another Hyde School located in the rural Connecticut countryside, where there were more cow pastures than asphalt. The closest city was forty miles away.

Learning to live in an environment that was so far from what he had known was nothing short of a struggle, and yet it was the “total immersion” of the Hyde program that caused Jesse to struggle with his decision to transfer to the private boarding school.

“I had no escape,” Jesse says. “At home, I could leave the school at the end of the day or not show up at all. All of the defenses I had against doing my work, engaging with people I didn’t want to be around, participating in sports or performing arts did not work there. The teachers knew all the tricks. They called my bluff every time.”

Over time, Jesse came to accept what he calls the “small things.”

“I started doing things that would just barely keep me out of trouble for awhile—adhering to the dress code, getting to classes and meals on time,” he says. “They call that ‚Äògoing through the motions’. There were so many students there who came from such different backgrounds than I, but eventually I could see what we all had I common–attitudes that weren’t going to get us very far.”

It took at least two years at Hyde School for Jesse to recognize that he was no longer going through the motions. His teachers began to notice he was investing more effort into his studies and sports practices and setting higher goals for himself. As a standout athlete and solid student, colleges began to take notice, but it was the way Jesse carried himself that made him stand out.

“When Jesse saw he was capable of doing great things, he earned–in his own eyes–true, genuine self-esteem,” says Malcolm. “There was no way we could make Jesse feel good about himself. We could only put him in an environment where he could test himself and there would be others who would hold him accountable. We don’t always know where kids will end up, but Jesse’s story reminds me of why I love doing what I do.”

“Everything I am comes from Hyde,” says Jesse. “I gained everything: a perspective on life beyond my own microcosm, an understanding of people beyond race, and life-altering tools, like being honest, and genuine, and many things that if you add them all up, form the perfect groundwork to become a quality human being.”

This is at the core of Jesse’s experience; and it is at the core of the rugby team, as they run together with the highest integrity of teamwork; it is in the heart of the parent who feels they have won a second chance at being a good mom or dad at a Hyde Family Weekend; and it is in the hopes of every Hyde graduate at commencement. There are no governors or authors giving speeches to the kids at Hyde commencement exercises–each graduate speaks for himself to his or her peers.

Over the years, the Hyde approach to character education, and their success rate with “turnaround” kids, has placed them in the national and international spotlight. Recognized as the forerunner in character-building education, Hyde’s approach has captured the attention of major media sources, such as 60 Minutes, Today, 20/20 and the New York Times.

Now, twenty-four, and a college graduate, Jesse Jean is in Charlotte, NC, working as a Behavioral Youth Counselor helping troubled teens at the Alexander Youth Center. It’s a unique opportunity to give back.

But in this troubled economy, finding the job was another searing challenge.

“They just keep coming,” he laughs. But he’s not worried.

“Without a doubt, someone’s watching over me,” he says.