Making a Difference: Equal Opportunity

UPDATED: June 14, 2012
PUBLISHED: June 14, 2012

No matter that he ate government cheese and week-old baked goods. No matter that he lived in the projects, received reduced-rate school lunches and that his “new” clothes always came with scuffs and holes and were in serious need of repair. It never occurred to outspoken education reformer Steve Perry, Ph.D., that, when he was a kid growing up in Middleton, Conn., he was as poor as they come.

“My mother was the first one in our neighborhood to have a microwave, so I thought I was rich,” says Perry, founder and principal of Hartford, Conn.-based Capital Preparatory Magnet School, one of the most successful middle and high schools in the country. “I mean, it takes really long even in a microwave to melt the block of government cheese—you can blow up the microwave before you melt that brick. But I thought everybody got free cheese. I thought bakery trucks came to everybody’s neighborhood and gave away day- and week-old food. I thought all doughnuts tasted that way. I didn’t know Connecticut was rich until I watched Robin Leach show off houses there on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. I was blown away. I didn’t know because the one thing poverty does, it limits a person’s access. So it makes people live—and in some cases die—in a very small radius.”

But to young Perry, where he lived—how he lived—was the coolest thing on Earth. “People who grew up in the projects were the cool kids. We could fight the best. We could play sports the best, and you could get girls. I mean what else did you need?”

Perry’s blissful ignorance of both his financial status and the judgmental eye society trains on the poor turned into fiery determination when he arrived for his freshman year at the University of Rhode Island. Soon after he dropped his trash bags full of his belongings in his dorm room—his single mother couldn’t afford luggage—he faced off against a barrage of low expectations and negative assumptions about Americans, particularly black Americans, living in abject poverty. “I thought it was messed up that these kids thought they were smarter than me—better than me. It really made me mad,” Perry says. “People just didn’t believe in my people, man. It just messed with me. I couldn’t accept that the strain of a person’s skin has some impact on their capacity to learn. I just couldn’t eat that. It didn’t go down, no matter how many different ways I tried to swallow it. I wanted to hear what these people had to say, but I didn’t see what they saw.

“But as I recognized that people like me were being maligned by what other people thought about what we came from, I knew I needed to just do something.”

And that was the spark that stoked Perry’s raging passion for transforming the education of disadvantaged children. His philosophy? Personal success is measured by where you end, not where you begin, and anyone, when given the right tools, can succeed, regardless of how much money their parents have in their bank accounts or even if their very survival depends on that big block of government cheese.

With a degree in political science, a master’s in social work from the University of Pennsylvania and a doctorate in education from the University of Hartford, he returned to his hometown to serve as the director of a homeless shelter before starting a nonprofit organization for low-income high school students with aspirations to be the first in their families to attend college. In 2004, with encouragement from the parents of the children he was helping, he founded the Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Connecticut, a state where the achievement gap between low-income students—often black and Hispanic—and the overwhelmingly white higher-income students is the highest in the nation, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

His mix of tough love, high expectations, accountability and educational access has earned Capital Prep, its students and Perry national accolades for achieving exactly what he set out to prove: that when given the opportunity, children—no matter their financial status, skin color or home situation—can and do succeed. In its eight years in existence, Capital Prep has graduated 200 students, all of whom were accepted into four-year colleges. It’s a triumph so impressive that the school has been recognized by U.S. News & World Report as one of America’s Best High Schools and was presented on CNN’s documentary Black in America as one of the solutions to solving the education gap between black and white students.

The outspoken Perry has also received personal acclaim for his no-holds-barred criticism of America’s public education system—a condemning analysis that he often speaks about as a CNN education contributor. He’s a nationally sought-after speaker and a five-time author whose most recent book, Push Has Come to Shove: Getting Our Kids the Education They Deserve–Even If It Means Picking a Fight (Crown), lays blame for the nation’s failing schools squarely at the feet of teachers, unions, outdated curriculum and ineffectual school boards.

“You have educational organizations, teachers unions, and people who back teachers and the status quo trying to give off the impression that the reason why these children are underperforming is because the parents don’t care. And I don’t know that that’s true,” Perry says. “I think that most parents care as much as they know how to, and they commit to how much they have to give. And that’s all relative to who you are. We need to create schools and give children access to schools that have in them educators who really want to go hard. And the results have to be the results—we have to live and die by the results. I live and die by the results.

“I could walk away from this having been very successful and having broken barriers, or I can stay and fight. And by staying and fighting every single day… I accept that I could lose. My numbers could go down. My performance could suffer. And accepting that as part of my fate, I understand that I am only as good as my last year. But I accept that as part of the deal, as part of the calling. Many people [in education] don’t want to be held accountable for what they’re actually doing. So they attempt to deflect; they need us—we parents, we the community—to believe that the reason why their results suck, and I mean suck!, is because we parents sent them the wrong kids. Like, we got good kids at home, we’re just not sending them to you; and I’m going to send you the crazies.”

What is most evident about Perry, the married father of two young boys who attend Capital Prep, is that he absolutely adores children. The passion he has for his students and their success oozes from his every action. He says he is humbled to work with children—that he feels “a deep and abiding obligation to make sure every single child receives the best that I know there is to offer.” Not just because his own kids attend his school, but because it’s only fair. And right. “It does really start with love. I don’t understand how people can work with our kids and not fall madly in love with them.”

Indeed, his dedication to the children of Capital Prep begins when he leaves for work before sunrise, stopping at no less than three houses to pick up students who go to the school early to get extra help with their studies. He eats in the same cafeteria as the students and can sometimes be found cleaning the same hallways he walks as the head of the school. He is a leader, for sure, but also equal parts mentor, big brother, cheerleader, confidant and, on the afternoon of this interview, stylist. He was on a mission to convince one of his charges—a 14-year-old who was wearing matted cornrow braids in his hair—to go to the barbershop across the street and get a haircut. “I said, ‘Man, it looks matted and dirty, and that’s not OK. You’re a smart little boy. Don’t you want to look smart? Don’t you want to look sharp? You say you like girls—don’t you want girls to like you back? Nobody’s looking at you looking dirty like this. And the only reason you look dirty is because your hair is a mess. You gonna cut that mess, homie?’ ”

Perry’s point? He wants his students, who wear uniforms with ties, blazers, and smart skirts and pants, to look successful. “If you have a tie and blazer on and someone sees you hanging on the corner, you look odd,” he tells them. “But if someone sees you on an internship, you look right.”

And with Perry in their corner, the kids at Capital Prep will do much more than look the part.