A Response to Pritzker and DiBella by Chun Yi (Judy) Wu

An Educational Model Driven By Passion

On September 10th, 2012, two guest speakers, Karen Pritzker and Jeanette DiBella, gave a presentation on their experience as educators and administrators of two schools in two very different countries—The Providence St. Mel School (PSM) in Chicago, Illinois and the Jay Pritzker Academy (JPA) in Siem Reap, Cambodia. While working in PSM as the principal and chief educational officer respectively, Ms. Pritzker and Ms. DiBella conceived of an educational model that propagated the disadvantaged students of PSM to produce extraordinary academic results. After many fruitless attempts at spreading this model in the United States, Ms. Pritzker and Ms. DiBella decided to bring it overseas to help countries that had underdeveloped education systems. In 2008, they founded JPA in a poor and politically unstable Cambodia. By 2012, JPA students were shown to have competitive test results comparable to those of students in the United States.

It was very inspiring to hear the backstory of Provident St. Mel School. PSM is a private K-12 school serving a 100% African American student population in a dangerous and poor neighborhood. Prior to working at PSM, Ms. Pritzker talked to its students and was alarmed to see that the students were “hopeless” and only ever considered becoming professional basketball players. Determined to expand the students’ sights and choices, Ms. Pritzker and Ms. DiBella worked together to create an educational model which included a vigorous academic curriculum, frequent test preparations, and faculty trainings with one ultimate goal: to get every student accepted into a four-year college. For the next twenty years, PSM students had consistently produced far above average scores in the Standardized Admissions Test (SAT), American College Testing (ACT), and Advanced Placement (AP) exams and most remarkably, a 100% college acceptance rate.[1]

Unfortunately, it would appear that high statistics and numbers were all there was to the seemingly magical PSM model. Test preparation encompassed a large part of the PSM curriculum and left very little room for developing creativity and passion of learning. For example, according to a case study of PSM conducted in 2004, test preparation began as early as Kindergarten.[2] Furthermore, when asked about extracurricular activities, the two guest speakers answered vaguely and quickly brought the subject matter back to the high test scores, which showed the strong prioritization of test scores in the PSM model.

From my personal experience, I remember when I was a junior at Brooklyn Technical High School and it was time to declare a major. When I looked at my choices, it was a struggle between staying academically competitive by choosing the International Arts and Science major which had many AP courses that could boost my grades and staying true to curiosity by choosing the Architecture major which was a demanding major and had no AP courses. To keep it short, I spend two difficult years with many all-nighters spent designing models, drafting floor plans, and building models and I could not have been happier. The grades I ultimately received were good, but numbers can never reflect nor replace the enjoyment of learning. When I talked to some of my friends over break, I asked them if they declared a major yet, and many of them still had no idea what interests them. The cause of this confusion is the robotic testing system that we were subjected to at a very young age; we were only ever taught to get the good grades.

For a large country like the United States, ranking through numbers is a system that is undeniably necessary—and this fact is reflected thoroughly in the PSM model. However, I feel that since JPA is a complete fresh start in a country with little educational regulation, the PSM model should be adjusted. Instead of prioritizing academic competitiveness, half of the model should be focused on extracurricular that help students find what they like to do. In a country that desperately needs rebuilding and creativity, students should not be trained to achieve only high numbers, but also the drive to change and create from a young age.


[1] Pritzker, Karen and Jeanette DiBella. “Jay Pritzker Academy: A Globally Competitive Education.” The Cooper Union, 41 Cooper Square, New York, NY. 10 September 2012. Guest Presentation for the course S318: The Cooper Union World Forum.

[2] Pressley, Michael, Lisa Raphael, J. David Gallagher, and Jeanette DiBella. “Providence St. Mel School: How a School That Works for African American Students Works.” Journal of Educational Psychology 96.2 (2004): 216-35.