By Alan J. Borsuk Published on: 12/27/2008
It's been that way throughout Patricia Hoben's life.
A doctorate in biophysics and biochemistry from Yale. Influential work as a science adviser in Washington.
And now: founder and head of a small high school on the south side, where low-income students are being pushed to commit themselves to two things: High expectations. High performance.
In its second year, many of the 140 students of Carmen High School of Science & Technology show signs they are making those commitments. And Hoben shows the traits that make schools like this succeed: Unrelenting dedication, clear vision, an ability to bring people together, and a positive outlook.
Hoben's personal path to founding the charter school is definitely different from the personal paths, up to this point, of Carmen's students, more than 90% of them Latino, almost 90% low-income.
That hasn't stopped them from coming together. It's too early to see definite results, but the school seems to have its act together more than many schools with such short histories.
Attendance is high, averaging 92%. There is a serious-minded feeling in classrooms and even (comparatively speaking) in the lunchroom. Kids appear to be on-task a high portion of the time. The dress code includes ties for the boys and buttoned shirts with collars for both boys and girls. The aim here is to give teens from an impoverished neighborhood something much like a private high school experience.
Standards are high - students have to get a C or better to pass a course, because anything lower indicates they don't really know what they should. Four years of English, math, science, social studies/history and Spanish are required to graduate. Students are expected to average several hours of homework a night.
There are sessions after school, during the break between semesters and in the summer, aimed primarily at students who are having difficulties. For those who are doing well, there is a strong emphasis on providing experience in the work world - about 30 of the students are taking part in an internship program doing jobs at both private and nonprofit workplaces.
The tall, thin 54-year-old Hoben is the person at the center of the Carmen action.
Hoben's route to the former Milwaukee Public Schools middle school at S. 32nd and W. Mitchell streets where Carmen is based involved some sharp turns.
Her own academic career, she says, "was on that track" - leading to a major university position, such as head of her own lab. "That was my intention."
Hoben grew up in a Detroit suburb. Her father was successful in real estate. Neither of her parents went to college, but they were determined their children would.
With her strong interest in science, Hoben got an undergraduate degree at the University of Colorado, a master's at the University of Oregon, then that PhD at Yale. She went on to the University of California, San Francisco for post-doctoral work.
"But things happen in your life," Hoben said.
For her, one of those things was breaking her hip during the San Francisco period. It slowed her down for a while, which meant she had a lot of time to think. One of her conclusions was that a lot of the post-docs she knew were activists in major causes, while she had been pretty strictly into the science side of things.
"It felt like there were things that mattered other than me working in the lab," she concluded.
In 1986, she got a fellowship to work in Washington, which led to a position in the office that advises Congress on technology issues. She moved on to positions that included advising the assistant secretary for health in the Department of Health and Human Services and heading the pre-college and public science education program at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a multibillion dollar philanthropy for funding research. She was mentored by Bruce Alberts, a major figure in science research who was president of the National Academy of Sciences in that period.
Along the way, Hoben was part of such momentous decisions as federal policy on mapping the human genome and using animals and fetal tissue in research.
One issue that drew her was "where are we going to get the next generation of scientists and engineers?" She became involved in recruiting minority students and women into science careers.
Hoben's husband, Charles Carter, whom she married in 1983, was also a scientist with powerful credentials, including patents in his name. He also decided to change career routes away from science labs and got a law degree from Georgetown University.
The couple adopted three children in four years, all now teenagers, and concluded that their work-all-the-time lifestyle in Washington was not a good idea for people who wanted to be involved parents. The children also had an impact on Hoben's professional interests - "all of a sudden, you care about education on a different level."
Carter took a position in 1993 with a law firm in Minneapolis. Hoben's mentor, Alberts, told her that systemic change was needed in science education in the United States and urged her to get involved in the issue in her new city. She did.
Hoben became manager of a $6 million grant from the National Science Foundation to improve science education in the Twin Cities, as well as associate director of a science museum.
Coming to Milwaukee
Nine years ago, Carter decided to join the Foley & Lardner law firm in Milwaukee, specializing in law related to scientific issues. That brought Hoben here.
Hoben had been nurturing the idea of starting a school, and several factors came together - some networking among local education activists, the Gates Foundation grant several years ago to develop small high schools - to push the idea toward reality.
Even though Hoben had taught science at Yale, she did not have a Wisconsin teaching license and needed one. She enrolled at Alverno College, where she not only got the license but became an enthusiast for Alverno's distinctive approach to education, which emphasizes developing eight specific abilities among students, such as communication, analysis and civic engagement, along with academic knowledge. Teaching those abilities is now one of the main goals of Carmen High.
Hoben decided to submit an application to create a charter school under the auspices of Milwaukee's city government. A 750-page application was put together, but Hoben and others involved managed to make submitting the document in September 2006 a last-minute rush.
"I had never been to City Hall," she said. "We drove right by it and didn't even know it." Then she and the person with her had trouble parking.
The application was time-stamped at 4:33 p.m. But the deadline was 4:30 p.m. City officials wouldn't budge - the application would be put off for a year.
"That was a major turning point for us," Hoben said, a test of their determination. The decision was to go ahead. They started the process of launching the school as a private school in the publicly funded voucher program in Milwaukee.
But then Marty Lexmond, the MPS administrator who oversaw the small high school initiative, encouraged Hoben to apply to the School Board to be a "non-instrumentality" charter school, meaning the school's teachers and other staff are not MPS employees.
The idea sailed through - among other things, helping MPS to fill Walker Middle School, which was being closed at the end of that school year. As it turns out, Carmen has also attracted students onto the rolls of MPS, since more than half of its students have previously attended parochial schools and would be unlikely to be in a school under the MPS umbrella without Carmen's existence.
Hoben takes the "science and technology" part of Carmen's name seriously - in fact, she prefers if people use the school's full name and not call it just Carmen. If you walk in and out of classes on a typical morning, you get the science and technology message. Using the pre-engineering curriculum called Project Lead the Way, one group of students worked at computers, assembling steam engines on their screens. In adjacent rooms, students in biology and physical science classes conducted experiments such as what happens when alcohol and water are mixed in beakers.
In an English class, students were finishing a unit on Homer's "The Odyssey." Teacher Heather Clark said, "I taught in East L.A. before. I'm impressed."
Spanish teacher Veronica Mancheno said many students had to get used to the school's expectation that they would do a lot of homework. They hadn't experienced that before.
Freshman Jessica Prado said one of the things that appealed to her about the school was the job internship program. And she likes the fact that when she has trouble with an assignment, she can get help after school.
On a recent day, Hoben had a one-on-one meeting with Daphne Gutierrez, a student who wanted to organize a career fair at the school.
"Most of the kids here don't have a single idea of what they want to do with their lives," Gutierrez told her. The school is out to change that.
Mary Diez, dean of graduate studies at Alverno and chair of the board of Carmen, said, "It's taken awhile for the kids to realize we're serious." Diez said there are too many high schools across the country where students get through to graduation without doing much work.
Diez described Hoben as smart, committed and driven.
"She really wants to see that school make a difference for the kids we serve," she said. "She also has a vision of what it takes to really develop a person."
Milwaukee School Board member Danny Goldberg, who was closely involved in creating the school, said, "Charter advocates hope for people like her (Hoben) to come into the school business." He called Carmen "one of the most positive things I've seen since I got on the board" in 2005. Hoben "just won't accept excuses from the staff and she won't accept excuses for herself," Goldberg said.
Hoben said, "The scariest thing to me: Students are coming here so far behind, and we're not magicians." Hoben said the school's staff wants to go to lengths to help students make it, and she's pleased by the number who take part in extra work and, in some cases, are repeating a grade with the aim of getting to the C level.
"It's going to take time to turn around the academic performance of kids who come from places where there have been low expectations," Hoben said.
If they're going to make it at Carmen, they're just going to have to set their expectations higher.