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An Educator's Balancing Act

Some Say Capital Prep's Steve Perry Has Too Many Nationalcommitments; Others Say He's Always Here When They Need Him

Steven Goode

May 29, 2011

Steve Perry is one busy guy.

He flies around the country speaking at universities and corporate gatherings as many as 20 times a year.

He's just finished his fifth book.

He appears so frequently on CNN that the cable news network installed a minicam and studio lighting in his office so he can more easily make guest appearances and his "Perry's Principles" spots, which appear on the TV shows "American Morning" and "Anderson Cooper's AC360."

That office is in the Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford, where Perry is the principal.

Some might feel that the travel, the multitasking and the time spent away from his wife and two young children would be too much. But not for Perry, who regularly puts in a full day as principal, takes a flight from Bradley International Airport for a speaking engagement that night, then catches an early morning flight back to Hartford for another day's work.

"I live the most productive life there is to be lived because there is so much to do," Perry said.

To illustrate his point, Perry recalled this year's spring school vacation.

On a Sunday at 6 a.m. he took a flight from Philadelphia to Atlanta and spoke that night at Georgia Tech about education reform. Then he caught a flight to San Francisco to work on a feature on an after-school program that would air on CNN later in the week. He flew to Los Angeles on Tuesday. On Wednesday he went to the Silicon Valley headquarters of Ashford College, an online university, where he talked to faculty.

The next day, Perry was at the University of North Carolina, where he spoke to students about how to make children believe that college is not just a dream. Then he flew home to attend the state tournament games of Capital Prep's boys and girls basketball teams.

He flew out of Bradley again on Sunday morning for a speech in Memphis at the New Olivet Baptist Church, where he chided the audience for its acceptance of an estimated 30 percent illiteracy rate in the city.

It's not unusual to see tweets from Perry's Twitter account in the middle of a school week, at 10 p.m. from a college town where he's just spoken and at 6 a.m. the next day from an airport as he prepares to board a flight to get to school in time for a parent-teacher conference.

"We get 20 vacation days a year. [Other administrators] take vacations. I work," he said, adding that when he's away, the year-round school doesn't miss a beat because of his dedicated team of administrators, teachers and staff.

Perry, 41, who founded the school of 400 middle and high school students and has been its principal since it opened in 2005, likens his drive to that of a football player who feels the urge to make every tackle, throw every pass and score every touchdown.

"I understand that someone has to lose. I just don't think it has to be me," he said.


Perry can be found most mornings waiting at the front door of the spectacularly renovated Barnard Brown School on North Main Street at 7:30 a.m. to greet students.

Sometimes he reminds the uniformed students about dress code violations as they head to class. Then he adjourns to a large room he calls "the bullpen," where all the teachers and administrators meet to discuss issues and, sometimes, individual students who are having problems.

"I was called to education," he said. "I believe that I did not choose this life. It chose me and I answered."

Perry was raised in public housing in Middletown and still lives there. He credits his fourth-grade teacher, high school guidance counselor and the director of the Upward Bound program he attended for keeping him on the right track.

"None of the kids in my housing project went to college," Perry said.

Perry has been on the national lecture circuit since about 2000, when he made guest appearances on the Fox cable show "Hannity & Colmes" and on MSNBC. He crossed paths with CNN's Soledad O'Brien at a seminar in Brooklyn, which led to his participation in O'Brien's "Black in America 2" special in 2009.

Much of Perry's appeal as a speaker and commentator lies in his blunt criticism of teachers unions and strong opinions about why schools are failing.

Bart Feder, senior vice president of current programming for CNN/USA, said the network was impressed by the way Perry ran Capital Prep and the achievement of its students. But the network was attracted "mostly by his ability to communicate and his passion for the subject," Feder said.

The "Perry's Principals" segments, which take him to schools around the country for filming, currently air more than a dozen times a week. The same is true of his weekly appearances with Anderson Cooper. Perry was recently featured on another Soledad O'Brien special, "Education in America." Coming soon will be a second installment of "Education Makeover," in which Perry helps a family in Atlanta.

But Perry's outspoken criticism has also made him enemies. Andrea Johnson, president of the Hartford Federation of Teachers, doesn't appreciate or put stock in Perry's anti-union message.

"He blames everything on the unions," she said. "Mr. Perry needs to open his mind."


Perry is unapologetic about the time he spends on the lecture circuit or in front of the camera because he believes that his celebrity and the relationships he develops will help his students get into college or raise scholarship money for Capital Prep.

"I speak primarily at colleges to which I want to send my kids," he said. "Therefore, when I am on campus my goals are to visit and make connections with people who can secure a seat and money for my kids."

Perry says that all of Capital Prep's graduates have been accepted by four-year colleges, though not all attend.

"I can get a kid accepted," he said. "It's up to them to go."

Hartford Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski said that he has seen Perry "develop into a national leader on school reform" while providing his students with a good education. The school's standardized test scores easily surpass school system averages, but still lag behind state averages in most areas.

But his anti-union stances and relative success - Perry still gives Capital Prep an overall grade of "C" - have resulted in veiled accusations from other educators of cherry-picking students and kicking out students who decide not to pursue a four-year degree.

Perry rejects the criticisms and said the only requirement for acceptance at the school is "a pulse." But he acknowledged that families know from the start that the school's ultimate goal is to send students to college. He says he has "disenrolled" students, but never based on their college aspirations.

One former student who graduated from Perry's ConnCAP summer school program, the precursor to Capital Prep, criticized some of Perry's claims.

Jamil Ragland, who began attending the summer school program as a sophomore and graduated from Bloomfield High School in 2003, said Perry is disingenuous when he claims to have sent 100 percent of the program's low-income, first generation graduates to four-year colleges.

"We weren't all poor and first generation. And we were all uniformly bright, capable students who were going to college anyway," Ragland said. He said Perry denied his brother Kalil entry into the program because his grades weren't good enough.

"He was on a slide and they were looking for kids on the rise," he said.

Ragland, now a junior at Trinity College who plans to become a teacher, discounted much of Perry's message.

"He has achieved cultural cachet based on what people want to hear," he said. "That message carries weight with people who don't want to hear that there are systemic and racial inequities."

Perry said he didn't remember Ragland, but said he was pleased that he went on to college, which was the goal for ConnCap and Capital Prep.

Adamowski said Perry's outside interests have never interfered with the operation of the school. As for any accusations of cherry-picking or overstating the percentage of students accepted to four-year colleges, Adamowski chalked them up to Perry's demanding, sometimes in-your-face style.

"Steve's not the easiest person in the world to work for," Adamowski said. "Like many strong leaders, he has a plan and a program. You fit into it or you don't."

Nikki Belton, president of the parent-teacher organization at Capital Prep, has a son who is a sophomore at the school and a daughter in the sixth grade who will attend next year.

"I'm loving this school," said Belton, who said she has no trouble with Perry's outside activities. "Whenever we need him for anything, he's there."

Gail Chinitz of Avon will be sending her son, Nathan, 6, to Capital Prep for second grade as the school expands to elementary grades. Chinitz said her son has been identified as gifted and talented, but Avon can't provide him with the challenging curriculum he needs. Perry, she said, has promised to do that.

"He was very refreshing to talk to," she said. I have a lot of faith in Dr. Perry."

Perry has also put his faith in students who weren't on a college track when he got them, including Khamaar Smith, who came to Capital Prep in the sixth grade with the help of a guidance counselor at Martin Luther King Elementary School.

Smith, 17, is graduating and will attend Morehouse College on a scholarship. He said that when he arrived at the school, he was shocked by the dress and behavior codes and the high expectations of teachers and staff.

"I thought I didn't want to be here and I'll show them that," Smith said. He was always on the edge of being kicked out, but somehow managed to hang on.

Smith recalled that Perry was blunt, telling him that if he left Capitol Prep he would end up a "stereotype" of the inner city kid who dropped out of school and took up life on the streets. Smith said he had a feeling that Perry was right and persevered. He plans to become a teacher.

"I want to have an impact on someone the way they had an impact on me," he said. "I feel like I'm obligated."

For now, Perry said he is enjoying his national exposure and the opportunity to use it to spread his beliefs about what needs to be done to make sure all children have the opportunity to go to good schools and college. But he says he has no illusions that it will last forever.

I'm probably on minute 13 of 15," he joked about his fame.

Perry said if demand for his message wanes, he'll be happy to return to being just be the principal of Capital Prep, which he wants to turn into the best school in the country someday.

"Teaching is an art," he said, "and I'm an artist."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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