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Year after year, Rafe Esquith’s fifth-grade students excel. They read passionately, far above their grade level; tackle algebra; and stage Shakespeare so professionally that they often wow the great Shakespearen actor himself, Sir Ian McKellen. Yet Esquith teaches at an L.A. innercity school known as the Jungle, where few of his students speak English at home, and many are from poor or troubled families. What’s his winning recipe? A diet of intensive learning mixed with a lot of kindness and fun. His kids attend class from 6:30 A.M. until well after 4:00 P.M., right through most of their vacations. They take field trips to Europe and Yosemite. They play rock and roll. Mediocrity has no place in their classroom. And the results follow them for life, as they go on to colleges such as Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford.
Possessed by a fierce idealism, Esquith works even harder than his students. As an outspoken maverick of public education (his heroes include Huck Finn and Atticus Finch), he admits to significant mistakes and heated fights with administrators and colleagues. We all—teachers, parents, citizens—have much to learn from his candor and uncompromising vision.