Lorraine Monroe: The Monroe Doctrine

Article excerpt

SHE wanted to be a physician in order to help and to heal. Instead, Dr. Lorraine Monroe chose education as her profession and found that she could touch far more lives through the power of teaching.

In her estimation, all children are reachable, teachable and capable of achieving success--regardless of their station in life.

"My philosophy is that school is set to transform children's lives," says the no-nonsense educator, who has devoted more than 30 years to the profession. "And really good school is working at that every single day."

Since September 1991, Dr. Monroe has been building such a school, such a program, at Harlem's Frederick Douglass Academy, where she and a team of administrators have created a public prep school that rivals some of New York City's costliest private institutions.

At a time when many of the nation's public school systems are in a dismal state, Dr. Monroe is hopeful. And, by insisting on order, respect and genuine effort in her classrooms, she has convinced the Academy's 900 mostly Black and Hispanic students, grades 7 through 12, that they can and will achieve. This is in spite of the fact that about 65 percent of them come from single-parent homes, live below the poverty level and reside in areas where drugs and crime are ways of life.

Way too long, she says, teachers have written off inner-city youths as underachievers. In order for students to feel confident in their abilities, she says, teachers must first expect--and require--more of them. "One thing that makes good education difficult for some people is that they keep trying to figure out what to do for disadvantaged kids and kids of color," Dr. Monroe says. "But once you start making the assumption that what you do for White kids or privileged kids is very different than what you should be doing for others, you start running what I call `strange school.' When in fact, good school is good school. It really doesn't matter who the kids are."

And a student's background, no matter how dysfunctional, should not be an excuse for failing to get a decent education, the seasoned educator says. "I just expect kids to come in here and give us the opportunity to make them smart," she says, wrinkling her brow. "I tell them: `This is going to save your life, so we don't have time for nonsense. We've got to save you.'"

The problem, she says, is that much too often educators think salvation lies in reinventing the wheel. "We spend a lot of money reforming [school] in strange ways, and people throw out a lot of the stuff that works," she says. "But I never move off of what I call the core, which is learning to read, write, compute, think, speak, appreciate art and behave in socially acceptable ways"

For Dr. Monroe, education has been more than a career for the past few decades; it's been a calling. She readily admits that she bases a lot of her teaching and administrative techniques on what she observed as a public school student right here in central Harlem. "I remember as a kid that there was order, that there were some tough teachers, and that it worked," she says.

Thus, the Monroe Doctrine was born: "Teach hard, tutor kids to be excellent and keep after them," Dr. Monroe says, summing up her daily creed.

That is why it's no surprise to those who know her that supreme order reigns at Frederick Douglass Academy, which shares a city block with boarded-up buildings, vacant lots and crack houses. Inside the school, there are no metal detectors in the entrance way. There is no graffiti on the walls. And students wear uniforms to school daily, save two days a year. "When they leave the building, 98 percent of the time people assume this is a private school," Dr. Monroe says, beaming with pride. "So [the students] have this sense of being very, very special, dressing like people dress who are going off to work.

It's all a part of conditioning children for success, Dr. …