Transforming Dropouts into Scholars, 1967–1977.
Hussein Ahdieh and Hillary Chapman (United States: CreateSpace, 2016), 131 pages. Available at Amazon.com.
Reviewed by Donald T. Streets for The Journal of Bahá’í Studies.
At first glance, A Way Out of No Way: Harlem Prep: Transforming Dropouts into Scholars, 1967–1977, by Bahá’í co-authors Dr. Hussein Ahdieh and Hillary Chapman, might mistakenly be judged as dated given that so many years have passed since that school’s doors were closed. Quite to the contrary, I believe that information regarding Harlem Prep’s inception, tenure, uniqueness, success, and ultimate demise provides invaluable insights. In particular, this book may benefit any educational pioneer interested in rescuing struggling education systems from “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” that tend to accompany most, if not all, efforts presently being made to improve the quality of public school education.
A Way Out of No Way does not attempt to provide a panacea that can be applied to significantly improve the quality of education for all children and youth. Teaching techniques and curriculum components are either not mentioned or only briefly referenced in the book. Nor does the book focus on the elusive ideal of articulating a truly comprehensive system of education, whether in concept or suggested practice. Instead, the authors attempt to illustrate—as an aid to educators and all others interested in this subject—the benefits that can derive from creating an intrinsically healthy environment within which teachers, students, staff, and the extended school community come together in unity for the purpose of fostering optimal learning and thereby release human potential. In this regard, the experience at Harlem Prep provides a sharp contrast to many themes in the development of education in America.
Harlem Prep and the Evolution of the American Educational System
By the year 1900, the American educational system had achieved both the recognition and the admiration of the entire world for having established free and comprehensive access to elementary and secondary schools for most of its children and youth. However, this accomplishment was short-lived. Gradually, equality of educational opportunity began to disappear for a number of reasons, such as race-, class-, and gender-based prejudice, as well as a decline in teacher salaries, especially in comparison with other professions.
Those most adversely affected by this change were the poor and minority populations, many of which reside in large metropolitan areas (Snyder 6, 25). Within one such major urban community, that of Harlem, New York, were the students targeted by Harlem Prep—youngsters already severely disadvantaged emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually by poverty and discrimination and living in crime-ridden neighborhoods plagued by drugs, alcohol abuse, and violence.
An underlying theme of A Way Out of No Way is the contrast of the historical, economic, social, and cultural contexts of the underprivileged in America with those of their larger, more privileged, white counterparts. The disparity between these two groups was significant and far-reaching at the time of the founding of Harlem Prep. There was a huge gap in the quality of education offered because of the lack of support systems required to ensure the likelihood of academic success. There was also an inadequate level of safety, physical well-being, and protection necessary to provide a reasonable learning environment. A Way Out of No Way does a good job of describing this discrepancy and also documents Harlem Prep’s success in consistently addressing this gap and discovering an effective educational antidote to those conditions of disadvantage.
As described in Ahdieh and Chapman’s book, the timing of Harlem Prep’s genesis was fortuitous. In the 1960s and 1970s, the United States was experiencing a kind of euphoria, a period of renewed hope, due in part to the fact that the great military threats of the recent past either had been eliminated or were in check; and economic growth was apparent, which meant that prosperity was not just on the horizon, but was actually being experienced. Yet at the same time, that hope and that resurgence of economic opportunity were not universally shared.
Nevertheless, with a determined spirit of optimism, fueled by recent progress in the civil rights movement, backed by supportive legislation, and energized by post-World War II economic gain, there emerged a new generation of concerned individuals who had suddenly begun to hear and respond to the plight of the poor and the spoken and unspoken pleas of the dispossessed and the neglected.
Paralleling this phenomenon of concern, there also emerged a new breed of educational innovators, idealists whose energies, hopes, and aspirations for educational improvement were attracting the attention of a few enlightened leaders who, in turn, became committed to doing what they could to right the wrongs of the past.
It was within this new spirit of awareness, idealism, and optimism that the founders of Harlem Prep began what truly proved to be a courageous and successful effort to respond to the long-neglected need to provide the kind of education that might enable students to overcome years of disadvantage and to find a way out of the debilitating conditions that in the past had sealed their fate.
Examples of the impressive success of Harlem Prep are anecdotally represented throughout the book, and as one reads these stories, one begins to gain insight into what those accomplishments were, how they were achieved, and the results that issued from them. For this reason alone, Ahdieh and Chapman’s account is extremely vital to both educational practitioners and researchers, as well as to scholars in the closely related fields of psychology, sociology, human development, and anthropology, where new knowledge is continually being generated with implications that are helpful in efforts to improve educational practice.
Harlem Prep and the Challenge of Educational Innovation
A Way Out of No Way is also timely because it reminds us of a particular challenge in our efforts to achieve educational reform appropriate to a global society. There was emerging a chaotic mountain of research and thinking about various approaches to education and the continuing struggle to allow theory and research to influence practice.
Undoubtedly, the founders of Harlem Prep faced this same challenge, for as has too often been the case with innovative educational programs, those with the knowledge, energy, skills, leadership, and guts to attempt such ambitious undertakings tend to underestimate the benefit that can be derived from a systematic, scholarly perusal of the plethora of research findings from the various social sciences. For example, gaining a better understanding of the nature of human beings—which should be the actual subject and object of what the whole educational effort—is critical for assisting educational practitioners in the field to understand better the nature of the learners and how best to interact with them. In particular, by seeking out such knowledge we can more effectively accomplish the sine qua non of the teaching/learning relationship, namely, the individualization of instruction—giving individual students what they need, when they need it, and in the amount they are capable of absorbing. Being open to pursuing this type of approach, however, requires coming to terms with a wealth of information that could potentially be indispensable to the improvement of education for all age levels, but which is currently unorganized, undigested, and therefore cannot, in its present form, be effectively drawn upon by educationalists in their efforts to both conceptualize and implement more effective ways to improve instruction.
This overwhelming challenge is addressed by Dr. Daniel C. Jordan—a prominent Bahá’í scholar and educator—in his unpublished paper “Putting the Pieces Together: Making Education into a Science.” In it Dr. Jordan summarized this dilemma by quoting the following poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay:
Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour
Rains from the sky a meteoric shower
Of facts … they lie unquestioned, uncombined.
Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill
Is daily spun, but there exists no loom
To weave it into fabric…
Equally challenging is how to employ the modern instruments and techniques of assessment that have been developed and made available through the efforts of test theorists and psychometrists. Many educators tend to consider those techniques too sophisticated, too complex, or too time-consuming and expensive for practical use. As a consequence, those involved in many educational reform programs have settled instead for anecdotal narratives as evidence of their success and to support their appeals for continued funding. In retrospect, this has turned out to be a sort of “Catch-22” that still prevails as understandings of why something has been successful, and how that might be transferable to new contexts, has remained limited.
As recounted by Ahdieh and Chapman, Harlem Prep was in many respects no exception. A greater integration of theory, research, and practice could have assisted in extending the success and longevity of Harlem Prep. However, this factor notwithstanding, what cannot be denied and should not be dismissed or ignored is that the majority of its students, who previously had been condemned as so-called “throw away youngsters”—a term I have often employed to capture the attitude of those who ignore and neglect young people based on racial and class prejudice—not only graduated from Harlem Prep, but also went on to gain admittance to some of the finest institutions of higher learning and to enjoy professional success after earning their degrees. This accomplishment alone stands as impressive evidence that Harlem Prep’s educational program was on the right track to discovering one of the key factors, if not the key factor, in educational success, and was doing so with a segment of the population considered the least likely to succeed.
What was the indispensable ingredient required to reach this neglected demographic? As described in the book, its discovery began with sensing the need to improve the quality of relationships collectively represented within the school environment, a social context that I label simply as a “culture of inclusion”—one in which everyone who is a part of the school community matters, is respected, is related to in an authentic way, and is truly loved. One might refer to such an achievement in interpersonal dynamics as a quality of “moreness,” where the whole is truly so much more than the sum of the parts. That quality was achieved by nurturing a network—or perhaps a web or tapestry—of kinship created carefully and meticulously through the development of meaningful ties.
The authors have highlighted this crucial dynamic that was achieved at Harlem Prep at multiple levels—students with students, teachers with students, students with administrators, and administrators with clerical helpers and volunteers—and the effect it had on student learning. Apparently this shift in the environment toward greater intimacy and inclusion at the school was sensed before anyone could quite put his or her finger on what had brought it about, and then eventually members of this particular school community began to see it in the way in which they were able to relate to each other.
There thus emerged a bond that was more than just one of friendship. I am compelled to use the word love, as there is truly no adequate substitute. As one student states: “Harlem Prep is really a family—and not in name only. People at the school I formerly attended spoke of being a family, but what was projected was the coldness of an institution that paralyzed creative thinking. The difference between that school and Harlem Prep is the difference between my turning out to be a graduate statistic or a creative thinker in whatever field I might have chosen.”
This guiding principle became evident in the school’s growing level of respect, affection, and warmth, qualities that can only come from mature intimacy and caring. In conveying this, the authors have taken on the challenging task of trying portray the very dynamic that constitutes the indispensable foundation upon which the creative and imaginative educational philosophy and practice was being constructed—the fertile soil, as it were, in which all students, no matter who they were, where they had come from, or what they may have experienced in their environments, would be able to grow and experience the full release of their unique potential. And yet, an articulation of this equality, this element that was at the core of Harlem Prep’s success, is and shall remain forever ineffable and thus beyond the power of words.
Because of Harlem Prep’s success, educators and scholars in general, as well as anyone concerned with improving the human condition, would do well to read A Way Out of No Way and examine this narrative of this school’s history and its contribution to the field of education. Especially informative is the depiction of how its team of creative, perceptive, and dedicated educators went about implementing its mission—to educate a small segment of the future generation to be more successful in reaching their God-given potential through the creation of healthy relationships.
 For an insightful study of the decline of the salaries of teachers see Patricia A. Carter’s “Everybody’s Paid But the Teacher”: The Teaching Profession and the Women’s Movement (New York: Teachers College Press, 2002).
 See Thomas D. Snyder, editor. 120 Years of American Education: A Statistical Portrait. U.S. Department of Education, 1993.