Jeff Minton


Education Equalizer

Caesar Mickens Jr. wants to make his charter school better than public schools, on the same budget.

Something must be wrong with Caesar Mickens Jr. The man earned his Ph.D. in education from Michigan's Wayne State University and went on to serve 27 years in Detroit's notorious public-school system. Mickens should be jaded by now, or simply worn out. Instead, he sounds almost giddy as he talks about his new job as the principal of the high school at Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy in Las Vegas, a charter school founded in 2001 by the former tennis star, with a mandate to change how we think about educating our children."I'm still learning, which is the cool thing," Mickens, 58, says. And when it comes to charter schools, we're all still learning. The idea dates back to 1988, when Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, proposed a school funded by the government, but given the leeway to employ alternative teaching methods not found in tightly-regulated public schools. By 2004, there were nearly 3,000 charter schools operating in 37 states. Few definitive studies have examined charter schools' effectiveness, and the approach remains controversial-critics argue that educators should work to innovate in existing public schools, rather than creating new schools that help relatively few students. Mickens disagrees. "I loved my experiences in Detroit. That prepared me for everything I have to do now," he says. But "we have less bureaucracy [at Agassi Prep], so we're able to do a lot more. Our goal is to take all our students from here to the end of college. If we set [a lesser goal], who would we choose not to go?"
Our goal is to take all our students from here to the end of college.
Agassi Prep isn't going to miraculously discover the solution to the problems with public education in the United States. But Mickens, with his years of first-hand experience and his charismatic belief in aiming high, gives Agassi Prep the steady hand of practical leadership to insure that the school's lofty ideals do not fall short. Besides keeping class sizes small and adding two hours to the school day-it runs from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m-Agassi Prep works hard to get students learning through direct experience outside of the classroom.

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