The National Conflict Resolution Center’s 25th annual Peacemaker Awards will take place Thursday, March 14. This year, the Peacemakers are the U.S. Naval Ship Mercy and the Preuss School UCSD. We talked with Cecil Lytle, a renowned musician, a former chair of the Awards, and a founder of Preuss School.
LW: You must be hugely gratified by NCRC’s Peacemaker Award to Preuss – not “only” for the recognition, but for the strength & success of the School. Bring us up to date on its mission and practices. What – if anything – has changed since it’s beginning?
CL: I’m especially proud of the parents and families that entrust their children to Preuss. We select students and families on three criteria: 1) applicants must come from low income backgrounds; 2) they must be the first in their families to aspire to graduate from a four-year college; and, 3) the family and student must demonstrate motivation to strive for success. Begun in 1999 after several years in development, Preuss School UCSD today has over 800 students, grades 6 through 12. Its first seniors graduated in 2004. Since then, over 1,000 seniors have graduated and gone on to attend the most competitive colleges and universities in the world – proving that poverty alone should not be a barrier to overcoming debilitating social and economic situations.
LW: You are among its founders. What in our community, society led to its establishment?
CL: California’s Charter School Act passed in 1992. At the time, I was Provost of UCSD’s Thurgood Marshall College. It seemed to me that anyone leading a college named after Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall had a duty to promote quality education. A strong connection between higher education and k-12 just made sense to me.
Convincing my colleagues to approve what we then were calling the UCSD Charter School was not easy. Arguments raged over resources, risks, and the likelihood of success. When an alliance of community members began to support our effort, though, a path was finally cleared. Community organizations began to speak out. Other than the services of the Hillcrest Hospital, the impact of UCSD in the lives of people living south of Highway 52 was, in their eyes, negligible. Indeed, UCSD was viewed with suspicion. Yet, residents south of I-8 saw the potential benefit of a UCSD intervention in their lives.
The turmoil during this four-year debate about establishing such a school caught the attention of entrepreneurs and politicians as well. Even President Bill Clinton included a reference to the dust-up about our charter school proposal in his UCSD commencement remarks in 1997. When the faculty voted down the proposal for the third time, Peter and Peggy Preuss offered an initial large gift – and their sponsorship finally convinced all doubters that the school coincided with the mission of UCSD, and that there was strong support across the state and country. The Preuss family have remained advocates and supporters; the school’s success has led dozens of other university campuses to engage in similar efforts including, University of Chicago, UC Davis, UCLA, the UC Berkeley campus, Penn, Harvard and many others.
LW: What in your own educational life led to your interest?
CL: I was the last of ten children in Harlem. Our parents, despite their own thwarted educational ambitions, believed that a quality education led to the leveling of many different playing fields. Today, all my siblings are college graduates leading successful lives. This convinces me that with opportunity and encouragement, any person can rise beyond the expectations society holds for them.
After 40 plus years as a faculty member and administrator at UCSD, I am convinced that higher education is, perhaps, the last and only institution that citizens truly believe can be life-changing. What parent does not want to see their child graduate from a four-year institution—indeed, the higher the quality, the better?
That belief led us at UCSD to cause the university to treat reform in public education as it does all other areas of legitimate research. I see Preuss School as something of a petri dish–a particular effort to build and run a national model for high quality urban education.
LW: You’ve been an amazingly successful musician – and a teacher, so you know plenty about education. How do Preuss teachers differ from those at public, or say, other private schools?
CL: I do not believe that the teachers at Preuss School differ very much from k-12 teachers everywhere. The chief difference is institutional—the ability of the bureaucracy surrounding and embedded in the school to promote innovation and true reform that benefits students.
Bud Mehan (Professor of Sociology) designed the curriculum and pedagogy that has helped to make Preuss a successful learning environment. He refers to Preuss as a “hothouse.” Just as students are expected to develop and sustain the habits of learning, staff is expected to continually develop and maximize their skills. Teachers willingly support a peer review system. Treating teachers as members of a learning community goes a long way to recreating the atmosphere of the university community on which Preuss is conceived.
The remarkable thing about Preuss School UCSD is that the innovations or reforms taking place there are not new. If you were to ask 100 k-12 teachers what educational changes they’d like to see, they would likely list the same three or four ideas–small class size, parent engagement, continued teacher development, more time with students, high standards, among others notions.
LW: Tell us about the children who attend Preuss.
CL: Because students must come from low income backgrounds, most live in the neighborhoods with the highest concentration of low income families and Title 1 children: south of I-8 and west of Highway 805. It is unusual to admit students beyond the 9th grade; there may not be enough time to instill proper learning habits necessary for success in college.
LW: Among the challenges in today’s schools is motivating parents and families to become involved, support the school’s efforts, help sustain their children’s learning? How does Preuss address this issue?
CL: Our families do not always look like “Ozzie & Harriet.” Each family is required to provide 15 hours of service/volunteerism during the year. If two children attend, then 30 hours, and so on. This service can be attending parent-teachers conferences, chaperoning field trips, attending parent association meetings one Saturday a month, and other activities. So far, families enthusiastically support their youngsters and engage with teachers. No doubt, the imprimatur of the University of California conveys a greater sense of importance to them.
Once Preuss School proved successful, Bud Mehan and I sought to “replicate” the Preuss model in a neighborhood school; now the same enthusiasm exists at Gompers Preparatory Academy (GPA) in southeast San Diego, thanks to the same Charter School Act. Our hope is that both Preuss and Gompers will encourage more institutions of higher learning and k-12 leaders to collaborate for the benefit of our children.
LW: Your recent Beethoven concert (that benefited the “Lytle Endowed Scholarships” at Preuss) was a masterful example of learning, discipline, practice. You performed two lengthy, highly complicated Sonatas totally by heart!
CL: After my wife passed in 1995, our kids and I established a scholarship in her name that supports Preuss graduates who attend UCSD’s Thurgood Marshall College. Each year, I perform a concert to benefit those youngsters, and each year with a different theme, usually focused on a specific composer (Chopin, Liszt, Schubert) or genre (jazz, ragtime, blues and hymns). The first Lytle Scholars have now earned doctoral degrees and the most recent scholars are at UCSD majoring in Communication, Biology, and Engineering.
LW: You’re a noted expert on Franz Liszt. What is it about his music that so compels you?
CL: Both his music and life intrigue me. Liszt was the world’s first “rock star,” a pianist of phenomenal ability who, in fact, received only 18 months of lessons from Carl Czerny. He was perhaps the most original musician of recent centuries, the quintessential outsider who learned to play the game of Parisian salons. Later in life in Weimar (1849-59) he premiered works by daring symphonists at the Weimar Court. His last compositions reflect a more meditative and religious interior life. Throughout, Liszt championed the cause of social justice by speaking (and writing) on behalf of the Roma (Gypsies), and laborers.
For more information about NCRC’s Peacemaker Awards and Banquet tickets: www.ncrconline.com.