Joanne Goubourn: One Woman Changing Education In America

Joanne Goubourn went to Hyde because she wanted to. At 51, Joanne is Head of School of the Hyde Leadership Charter School in the Bronx, NY, currently in its third year. She sits in her office, a whirlwind of activity with non-stop phones and the alarm of an unexpected fire drill. When the fire drill passes, she has a moment to reflect on her years at Hyde and what inspired her to affect change in the American school system.

“At Hyde I learned that I was a real person and that I could be something in this world,” Joanne says. “I did not graduate with honors, but Hyde taught me something even more valuable. They helped me to discover my authentic self and to live that life with a standard of personal excellence.”

This distinction is at the core of Hyde School philosophy – and its allure. In a competitive society that measures success in terms of grades, awards, and achievement (even to the point of creating a national cheating crisis in our schools), Hyde measures successful students not only by what they do, but by who they are. Joanne can sum it up in the five words that have remained on Hyde School’s shield since its inception in 1966:

Courage. Integrity. Leadership. Curiosity. And Concern.”

For Joanne, the Hyde School principles provided a new blueprint for education in America, and she decided to take them to the public schools. To date, she has started up four inner city schools rooted in character education, including the Roberta Flack School of Music at the Hyde Leadership Charter School in the Bronx.

At this time there are 450 kids in the school, with 400 more on the waiting list.

This school serves grades K-2, 6, 7, and 8. Joanne intends to make it K-12 in the next four years, as well as build more schools to accommodate the demand.

“Character-building is built into everything the children do,” Joanne explains. “It’s in language arts, social studies, all their classes. We have morning and afternoon meetings with the kids, and we discuss the words and the principles.”

She is not the only believer. In its history, Hyde School has attracted the children of Paul Newman, Barbara Walters, athlete Julius Irving, and musician Michael McDonald. Scan the Hyde School web site and you’ll see copious testimonials from parents and students.

Twenty-year-old graduate Dana Wappler adds, “This school has helped instill a sense of responsibility in me. If your character comes first, everything else flows from that.”

While Hyde School in Maine is a high school, Joanne Goubourn has introduced its principles to children as young as five in her schools. Do they understand them?

“Through many discussions and debates, school staff came to the conclusion that the ability to self-reflect is a necessary skill that kindergarteners must have in order to grow and develop their characters,” says Caroline Hanley, kindergarten teacher at Hyde Leadership Charter School since its inception.

“As kindergarteners are able to pinpoint how they feel in reaction to other people’s actions,” she explains, “they can start to think about the effects that their own actions have on others. They start to see themselves in the context of a community, which is crucial.”

Perhaps this self-awareness has been a component in the academic strides Hyde Bronx has made as well. This year, such significant leaps were made that the New York City Department of Education gave the school an “A” in Student Progress. After only one full year of instruction, seventh graders improved their performance on the NYS English Language Arts exam from 44.3% proficiency in 2007, to 55.7% proficiency in 2008 — a gain of over 11 percentage points. In math, the seventh graders posted similar gains, improving from 71.6% in 2007, to 82% in 2008, exceeding both the district and city averages.

Parent involvement is the key to student success. Practicing the Hyde process of self-discovery just as their students do, parents attend monthly Parent Discovery Group meetings and may also attend weekend retreats.

Isha Smith Allen, 29, one of the founding parents of Hyde-Bronx, says she “saw something different” about the school. “In regular public school, you don’t know anything. All you get is a report card. But Hyde was the opposite.”

“Too many schools are focused on tests and achievement and do not focus on who the children really are,” Goubourn explains. “If we can address the whole child, we would be a better country. This is all part of growing up and negotiating a society. Somebody has to challenge it.”