A MATCH FOR SUCCESS
Charles Sposato delivers the promise of a brighter future to students who were told it wasn’t possible to succeed
BY AMY CHIU
Monday morning. 8:30 a.m. A swarm of students dressed in slacks and white shirts line up outside 1001 Commonwealth Avenue. A green and white flag with the word “MATCH” flickers with the wind above the entrance as the students wait patiently for the door to open. A medium-built, middle-aged man with a slightly receding hairline arrives at the doorway of Boston’s Media and Technology Charter High School (MATCH) to greet the students. “Good morning, Rachel,” says Charles Sposato, MATCH School principal. “And how are you doing this morning, Stesha? I hope you’re ready to learn.”
The MATCH entrance leads to a grand staircase. Classrooms are found on the floor above. Surprisingly, students of this newly founded charter high school will not graduate as trained information technology experts, web designers, or computer programmers. The MATCH school’s mission is not to prepare students for a career in the technology world. “We’re trying to prepare them for college,” says Sposato.
As the founding principal of the MATCH School, Sposato encounters many issues throughout the day. He has to perform the duties of a traditional principal, as well as prove himself and his school as a valuable commodity for the community. Sposato and his staff push the students to excel academically. Most arrive in the ninth grade having failed the Math or English (or both) eighth-grade Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) exams. Massachusetts students need to pass the MCAS tests to graduate high school. Sposato works twice as hard as any other principal to demonstrate the importance of such an innovative school, which integrates technology into the core curriculum.
In addition to greeting and dismissing each student every day, Sposato, who was once voted Massachusetts Teacher of the Year, advocates a “family” feel at the school. He knows the names of each of the 160 students and his or her respective parents. Sposato and his staff telephone each student’s parents as least once a week, “just to keep the communication flowing and to build trust,” he says.
Running an unconventional high school is not an easy task. The average student arrives in the ninth grade reading at the fifth-grade level. Yet, Sposato has been a success thus far in his efforts to promote MATCH not only as a new and innovative school, but also as a flourishing development in which inner-city Boston adolescents are given the chance to make the unlikely a reality. In a single calendar year, the average student gained two levels in reading.
Some Americans lack faith in urban teens. Statistics show that two-thirds of kids who start college don’t even finish—the numbers are even lower for those from the inner-city. The public’s belief that urban youths do not have the ability to obtain a university education is what makes MATCH a force to be reckoned with. “Our objective is for our students to pass the MCAS exams, but college success is our ultimate mission,” says Sposato. “It’s not just getting in. It’s surviving, excelling, and graduating.”
“MATCH isn’t the traditional attempt at an untraditional high school. It’s more an untraditional attempt at a traditional school,” said Michelle Chihara in an article she wrote for the Boston Phoenix. Bringing technology into schools has become a priority among educators. While traditional high schools tend to purchase expensive computers, the inadequate knowledge of teachers to apply the technology causes computers to be poorly integrated into the curriculum. “Technology does offer a lot of promise,” said MATCH founder Michael Goldstein in the Harvard Gazette, “but you can’t let the tail wag the dog. The goal isn’t to produce people who can design websites, but to get them into college.”
While studying at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Goldstein saw many advantages in his study of charter schools that would later figure significantly at MATCH. His vision: small schools where technology would be applied to satisfy the larger goal of producing successful college students. Goldstein wanted a warm, safe, respectful, and disciplined environment where a teacher or principal could know every student.
Enter Sposato. Goldstein courted Sposato for three months before Sposato agreed to take the job as principal of MATCH. Goldstein told the Boston Globe he “wanted to make sure [he] had the right staff to fit who the kids were.” Goldstein went and found a 33-year veteran of the Framingham school system—a former English teacher the local newspaper described as a “local legend.”
“We don’t accept mediocrity,” Sposato emphasizes. The school’s mission is to reach underprivileged city kids by involving them in long-term creative projects while teaching them the core subjects of high school. Web sites, radio diaries, and the like are integrated into a basic school day of math, history, science, and English. Students are expected to put in longer hours than at traditional high schools. Some students even spend summers playing catch-up if they fall behind in any subjects. At MATCH, the motto is: What we do is important. We will not give up on you (even if you give up yourself). You can do it.
As a principal, Sposato gives more than 100 percent. Between classes, Sposato stands in a different part of the school to watch students stroll through the hallway to their next class. An unsuspecting boy, dressed in a white collared shirt—tucked in—and crisp, clean khakis, walks in front of Sposato. Sposato slowly lifts his arm up and playfully punches the young man on his right shoulder. “Hey Fehry, what’s going on?” Sposato says. Fehry whips around, coyly smiles, and continues on his way. Sposato makes himself accessible to the students. He wants to be seen as “a person more than a principal.”
After spending 33 years in the Framingham school system, Sposato says there is no such thing as a “typical day” at MATCH. The workday “never ends.” He has spent afternoons at the local jail because students have been arrested. Just the other Friday, he was at the hospital because one of his students was shot and killed. However, safety is not an issue at MATCH itself. Though the majority of students come from Boston’s most notorious neighborhoods--Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, and Hyde Park--the cooperation of students and teachers keep the environment safe. “There is a zero-tolerance policy at this school,” Sposato says. “Students know what we demand of them. We don’t settle for anything less.”
While attending MATCH, students commit to a typical day of classes, which last from the conventional time of 8:30 in the morning to an unconventional time of 3:11 in the afternoon. After that, students spend an additional eight hours a week attending tutoring sessions. Most of the extra help is concentrated on improving scores on the MCAS tests. For students entering MATCH, the median math score was 204—well below failing. A Boston public high school student must score the minimum 220 to pass the tenth grade. MATCH expects its students to score 240. The school is on a mission. Students sign up for the school knowing they will be doing more work. “Kids learn to read by reading, so we have them reading at every opportunity,” said Sposato in the Boston Herald. “Kids learn to write by writing, so they write at every opportunity.” Students want the chance to exceed the expectations of those who believe that inner-city youths will never succeed.
MATCH entices students with media and technology to get them excited about otherwise “boring” subjects. School at MATCH is harder, but more interesting. The students not only “work hard, they play hard,” says Sposato. MATCH promises to make learning interesting by supplementing classroom learning with media projects. The constant revision and editing of projects teach students discipline. “Satisfactory is not good enough,” says Sposato. “[As a teacher in Framingham,] I once made a student revise his paper 23 times. Every time he handed it in, there was still room for improvement. I refused to grade his paper until the 23rd time he handed it in. I gave him an A. He died three years later. Do you want to know what his mother told me? She said he took that paper with him everywhere he went. It was one of the few things he was proud of. I read that paper at his eulogy.”
MATCH seems to be a success. At least on paper. MATCH boasts high MCAS results, reading improvement, and high attendance rates. The average MCAS English score for students in the 10th grade was on the Proficient Level, an average student gained two grade levels in reading, and the daily absentee rate was only 4.5%. But the true success of a school is not measured on paper. Students are a direct reflection of a school’s success. When asked if he likes MATCH, John Gatewood, a 15-year-old freshman, responds with an enthusiastic, “You betcha!” Gatewood doesn’t enjoy the work, but he knows it’s the key to college. He aspires to graduate college and attend law school. Gatewood hopes to be a lawyer or a TV producer, but “mostly a lawyer,” he says.
Like many of the students at MATCH, Gatewood is from a single-parent household. He lives in Mattapan and commutes an hour each way to attend the MATCH School. In Gatewood’s Journalism and Media class, he turned one of his essays into a web site. On his website, he shares his likes and dislikes of the MATCH School. “There are some things about school that aren’t fair. But I hope to stay all four years. I like my tutor Mary. She’s funny, nice, and helps me with English and math.” Through tutoring, Gatewood’s math ability has “improved vastly in good part due to his tutor,” according to notes on his report card.
Mary Brothwell, a 19-year-old Boston University student, is Gatewood’s tutor. Brothwell started tutoring at the MATCH School as a work-study job. Although she has tutored before, tutoring the students at MATCH is a different experience. When Brothwell first met Sposato, she was very surprised with his character. “When you run a school like [MATCH], I would expect the principal to be a hard-ass. Mr. Sposato isn’t like that at all. He’s a good guy. He’s in this position of power and you would never know it,” Brothwell says. “In my high school, I would never feel comfortable going up to the principal. He probably wouldn’t even know who I was. Everyone feels comfortable around Mr. Sposato. I see kids go to him all the time. Parents obviously appreciate his attentiveness toward the students. He’s just an all-around nice guy.”
When Susy Choi, another Boston University student and MATCH tutor, was asked about her experience as a tutor, she mentions MATCH’s “family-like” atmosphere. The students “don’t have to raise their hands in class. They can just call out the answers,” says Choi. “The staff gets to know the students on a personal level. Mr. Sposato seems to know everyone. He says ‘Hi’ to [the students] all the time.”
Brothwell’s and Choi’s tutoring experiences are just a few examples of what goes on after the last bell rings. Students who receive a C or lower are required to attend an hour-and-a-half one-on-one tutoring session. There is no formal training for the tutors. Some volunteer their time; others are there because of work-study. “I was just thrown into the situation,” says Brothwell. “It was like, ‘Hi, Mary, this is John and you will be tutoring him.’”
Just as Brothwell and Choi were “thrown” into tutoring, MATCH was thrown into the Massachusetts education system. In one year, MATCH will graduate its first senior class. The success of MATCH in the future is still undetermined. In May 2002, all 50 10th graders took the MCAS exam. Prior to arriving at MATCH, their pass rate was 17%. After two years at MATCH, those same students boast an 80% pass rate. The average English score: 240. Whether the MCAS scores will continue to improve is unsure, but MATCH is currently #1 among the 22 non-exam public schools serving grades 9-12 in Boston. “Some people see things as they are and ask ‘why?’” Sposato says. “But I dream things and ask ‘why not!’”