College pennants have been in classrooms for a long, long time. As a middle school teacher, I had pennants from five or six of my favorite universities strewn about my classroom—less for the purpose of inspiring college and more to decorate my classroom in ways that I felt would be relevant (and it was more about the records of the football teams than the academic aspirations these schools could offer my students). In the mid-‘90s when charter schools began, we would see whole schools use a “college for certain” culture, where every classroom was named after a college or university, teachers would often pick their own schools, and work with an alumnus of that school to serve as a pen pal or resource.
This was certainly the approach taken by the leadership team at Aspire when we started the organization, and quite honestly, it was a lot easier to do in the charter school space where these schools were often founded by faculty members who all subscribed to the mission of college readiness, access and completion. Not only does Aspire do this, but so does KIPP, YES Prep, Achievement First, Uncommon Schools, Noble Street, the Alliance, and IDEA Public Schools. Classrooms named as colleges permeated the early years of charters and continues today. Now, the practice is commonplace, but where did it all start? Heather Kirkpatrick, Aspire’s chief talent officer, chided me and said “Go ahead, use your blog. I know it was you; just tell the story. I saw the evidence on the wall in your den.” So to respond to Heather, here’s the genesis of entire schools naming classrooms after colleges.
Set your time machine to the summer of 1954. That was the first year I was eligible to attend Camp Wyomissing. In those days, Big Brothers and a number of other youth organizations owned summer camps in the Poconos. Today these are known as “sleep away camp,” and in those days, it was a chance for urban youth to spend two weeks along the Delaware River in the Poconos, swimming, rowing, doing crafts, learning athletics and sportsmanship, and relating with other youngsters their own age from all over the city.
My experience at Camp Wyomissing was transformative. I started as a camper along with eight or nine other youngsters in a cabin with a bathroom and running water, but no shower. Faced with a daily inspection for cabin cleanliness, we all had chores and were guided by our junior and senior camp counselors, who were high school and college kids. Teachers and principals from the public and Catholic schools in the Philadelphia area provided camp leadership. It was there that I got my first taste of the importance of education, and was inspired by the teaching and learning that took place. Camp was the ideal complement to a September-to-June formal school experience. I spent five years as a camper, and beginning in 1959, I had the honor of serving as a junior counselor for a couple of years. I too was responsible for young campers, and as a result, teaching became a noble and dignifying profession—one that I set my sites on at the age of about 15. Back then, nothing seemed more important than being a teacher and a counselor, and that hasn’t changed some 50 years later.
In designing Aspire, I brought with me many of the lessons and rituals from Camp Wyomissing. One of the most important was the sense of aspiration instilled by the leaders of the camp. It was subtle and simple, but straightforward. The 230-plus campers who attended Wyomissing during one of the four two-week sessions held in July and August were assigned to one of 24 cabins, and each of those cabins was named after a college or university known throughout the mid-Atlantic and New England states. I took pride in memorizing the names of those cabins—Notre Dame, Princeton and “Cabin E” for East Stroudsberg. My first year as a junior counselor, I had the honor of being in the west unit, and quickly learned that Michigan’s mascot was a wolverine.
So when we formed the San Carlos Charter Learning Center (the first charter school in California and the second in the nation), college pennants welcomed every learner to every classroom. And six years later, when Aspire was launched, we carried the “college for certain” belief to every Aspire school. I don’t know if Heather is right about Aspire being was the first organization to formally do this, but if it’s true, I’m awfully proud, and also acknowledge my fellow charter management organization founders who share in displaying that concrete symbol for what is possible. In my world, every school would set an aspiration for every youngster that a post-secondary education is a noble goal.
PS: The picture below is what Heather calls “exhibit A” in her case that Aspire was first. By the way, I’m the skinny guy in the center holding the Michigan sign.