Distinguished Young Alumni Award
Douglas Stephen McCurry ’94
If you’re going to close the achievement gap between inner city kids and suburban kids, Doug McCurry believes, you’ve got to sweat the small stuff. A founding teacher at the 6-year-old AmistadAcademy charter school in New Haven, Connecticut, he serves a student body typical of many inner city schools: The vast majority are black or Hispanic and most receive free or reduced-price lunches. The entering fifth-graders come in, on average, two grade levels behind. But by the time they graduate from eighth grade, they’re doing as well as or better than children from the wealthy suburbs nearby. McCurry helps his students set their sights on college, and he gives them the tools to get there.
It means paying attention to the tiniest detail: Training students to pass out papers efficiently so more classroom time can be spent on learning. Insisting that students tuck in the tails of their blue uniform shirts and keep their eyes on the teacher and their minds on their work.
“We fight the small battles so we don’t have to fight the big ones,” Doug says. “If you can stop them rolling their eyes at you, they are not going to curse at you.” This zero tolerance policy, combined with high academic expectations and an emphasis on citizenship and responsibility, has had astonishing results. AmistadAcademy, says U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, is “quite possibly the nation’s best charter school.” The eighth-graders study algebra, the seventh-graders read Shakespeare, and the students—who are selected by lottery—consider themselves lucky to be there despite an extra-long school day and hours of homework each night. Many of them go on, with full scholarships, to prestigious private prep schools.
And Amistad now has become a leading model for other schools. Two years ago, by starting a non-profit called Achievement First, Doug and other school leaders expanded Amistad’s impact by establishing a sister school in New Haven. This year, they’re opening three charter schools in New York City, and next year they plan to open two more. As Achievement First’s superintendent, Doug aims to replicate Amistad’s success in some of the country’s lowest-performing school districts.
This means a lot of running back and forth between Connecticut and New York, solving problems and unwinding red tape. “You can’t imagine,” Doug’s colleague Melanie Mullen says, “how many no’s you get daily.” Though the work is often hard and sometimes thankless, she said, Doug has great tenacity and a great sense of humor to boot. But any conversation about Doug comes back to the nitty gritty work behind the scene in the classroom.
“He grinds away at how to solve some major problem in the organization,” she said. “He focuses on process, procedures, policy and instruction,” another colleague says. “He’s always trying to solve the puzzle. He fades in the back, but he deserves credit for Achievement First being what it is.”
Doug was a Morehead Scholar at Carolina and studied history and journalism here. He is passionate about the fight to provide equal educational opportunity for all. He has an extraordinary eye for choosing highly talented principals and teachers. “My colleagues are amazing,” Mullen said. “This model is not for everybody.” But through a very thorough evaluation process, Doug and other school leaders have developed a good sense of the kind of talent they need to implement their vision. New teachers are trained to have a specific vision of how they want their classrooms to operate. Mullen says Doug is adept at taking the air out of wasted time in the school day, so there’s exponentially more time spent on learning, less on management.
AmistadAcademy pretty much blew the socks off anybody’s expectations for its students’ capabilities. The Amistad mission is to close the achievement gap, and the school definitely is achieving it. Through their success at that school and now at others that follow that model, Doug McCurry and other Amistad leaders have changed the nationwide conversation about closing the achievement gap from whether it could be done to how it can be done. That nitty gritty work he does results in families improving and children going to college.
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