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the david school

interview with Danny Greene

About The David School

  • Founded in 1974 with 10 students
  • Private, non-denominational and founded on Christian principles
  • Enrolls 75 to 100 students a year
  • Costs $6,500 to educate each student annually, but tuition is token;most families only pay $30/month
  • Supported by private donations plus funding from foundations
  • Much of the school building was built by volunteers with donated materials
  • Many teachers are long-term volunteers who receive a monthly stipend of $400 to $500
  • Students (and teachers) do much of the day-to-day work at the school, from preparing lunchtime meals to sweeping the floors
  • Before they can graduate, students must have a well-paying job or plans for further education
  • Roughly 50 percent of graduates go directly to a two-year college or vocational training program
  • About 30 percent go directly to full-time employment

After floundering in the local public schools, both Chris Johnson and Cody Perkins enrolled in the David School, an alternative high school in David, Ky. For most students, the David School is their last chance at getting an education. Every year, many of the school's incoming freshmen test below the fifth-grade level in reading and math. However, the school's small classes, personal attention, and individual pacing help students catch up academically, while its emphasis on pride and respect help them thrive.

Many of the students were taught and counseled by Danny Greene, the school's founder and director. A transplanted New Yorker, Greene first encountered the poverty and illiteracy of the region more than 30 years ago. Greene is featured in "Country Boys," and here, he speaks with FRONTLINE about the school's history and philosophy, students like Chris and Cody, and what drew him to Appalachia. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on Dec. 9, 2005.

How did you first come to David, Ky.? …

By way of answering that, let me give you a little background. I grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and as a youngster I was very challenged as a student; [I was] retained in the fifth grade and completed grade school as a non-reader. And so on a real personal level, education was very, very difficult for me. …

By the time I finished high school, I had become a very good student, made most of the top colleges, NYU, Fordham, Columbia. During my freshman year at Fordham, the spring of '68, a group of us responded to a call of a minister in [Floyd County,] Kentucky, who was looking for volunteers to help finish building a church. And we just all thought this would be fun: Spring Break -- go to Kentucky. Most of us didn't even know where Kentucky was on the map.

… [But] we came down [and spent] 10 days in Appalachia. And for all of us it was quite an eye opener about what was then perceived as the "other America." It was an area that in '68 was very stark. The coal had bottomed out. There was widespread unemployment and a great deal of poverty. I met a number of teenagers during that week who were functionally illiterate, barely reading at third-grade level, and I felt that in some way I understood their frustration with academics. …

So that fall, I transferred out of Fordham and came to Floyd County and enrolled in Prestonsburg Community College as a sophomore and began working with the youth in a rather loose tutorial program that involved recreational activities, kind of like a Big Brother type [program]. … I spent two years in Prestonsburg and then I returned to Fordham and got my education degree. …

Upon graduating, I returned to Floyd County, and with the help and support of a number of friends, we began a full-time academic, vocational program to help youngsters finish high school. The dropout rate was daunting. …

The president of Prestonsburg Community College had befriended me. Another teacher was a wonderful mentor for me. They encouraged me to talk to the local superintendent at that time, who wasn't particularly keen on outsiders.

Why was that?

Well, because in the mid-'60s, Appalachia was flooded with VISTA [Volunteers in Service to America] volunteers and Appalachian volunteers. When I came in '68, there already was throughout the region sort of this attitude of outsiders coming in and trying to change the system. I think they all had very good motives, but I think their methods were probably a little bit radical. … The difference I think with me is I kind of came in the back door. I came as a student. I didn't come in trying to change institutions or to address the politics of the area or even to address the shortcomings of the public school system. My focus was to provide an opportunity for kids who had dropped out of school.

So let's go back to how you started the school.

exterior shot of the David School

The David School

There were two other individuals: Reverend Bill Poole, who was pastor there in Floyd County, and Jason Petosa, who then was director of public relationships for Alice Lloyd College. The three of us began looking at how could we start a program. We spent many late nights sitting around talking that led us to establishing the non-profit corporation called The David School. We were able to find facilities in David, Ky., that were abandoned: the old [coal] company commissary, adjacent to that was a movie theater which had been abandoned for some 13 years, and a service station that had been closed -- all of which had been part of this coal mining community. … [The coal company] had basically built the entire town. They named it after the owner of the coal company's newborn son, which was David. That's how David got its name.

[But by the time I arrived,] David was a ghost town. It had remnants of an absolutely beautiful community, but the homes were in decline significantly. The mining company had left. The company store was closed. The movie theater had shut down for years. The swimming pool was just sitting there empty. The service station closed. It was very stark. Many of the homes were empty. There was virtually no sewage system, and the water service was functional maybe every other day. So it was a sad commentary on individuals in that community who had worked extremely hard in the coal mines and here they sat: unemployed, disabled, left with not very much hope. Not just David, but throughout Appalachia this was happening. Town after town, coal camp after coal camp had declined and become abandoned.

And you meet the teenagers that are growing up [where] there is obviously no future for them, … where there is no employment availability. They don't see where education is going to be a meaningful venue for them because where will this education get them? So, the idea of starting a program was to provide an opportunity for youths to get a renewed sense of their education with tutoring, with small classes, with a heavy emphasis on vocational education.

And so, we wrote some grants, and took a lease on these buildings with an option to purchase. We contacted friends, family, everybody that we might know to say, "We need volunteers. We need help. We need resources." Gosh, it is wonderful how many responses, how many volunteers came. … So we opened Jan. 10, 1974, with 10 students and a handful of volunteers. …

Describe the early days at the school.

From '74 to 1990, we tried our best to maintain these tired, old facilities. It was around 1989 when the building inspector really paid us a visit. … And when they came in, they said, "Listen, your buildings are on life support. You need to build or move or close or else we are going to shut you down."

… We were able to enter into a unique partnership with the David community. And this is a whole other story and a really wonderful chapter, but the David community was able to purchase the entire township back [from the coal company]. And so at this point in 1989, the town owned itself. And [there was] this large tract of property, which … was never mined. And we were able to purchase this property -- about 210-plus acres. … And we began construction [in 1989]. But it took a close to eight years. We were finally able to get in the building in March 1997. …

How much was that capital campaign, in the end?

We expended under a million dollars and had a campus and facility that was valued at about $2.7 million. And through those eight years, we had a thousand hands of love. I mean we had volunteers and church groups and colleges all around the country that came and worked and served and [contributed] thousands and thousands of dollars of in-kind services.

Let's say a company … [has] to unload 300,000 square feet of tile because it has an imperfection. What they do is they allocate this to non-profits, so all you do is pay the shipping from their back dock to your front door. And so we were able to get what they perceived as seconds or defects. But we were able to put hardwood floors in our school, parquet flooring, ceramic tile.

Then we turned to American Standard, and they said, "Sure we will get on board," and they donated every faucet, every sink, every toilet in the building. We contacted the power company and Phillips Petroleum and other companies, and we have a state-of-the-art, geothermal heating and cooling system, one of the first in the entire region. It was all donated. The list goes on and on. Students of Notre Dame built the wooden deck all around the facility. College students applied the stone on the building, which took a couple of years, one stone at a time. Our students in the old facilities voc-ed program built every cabinet for every classroom, for the kitchen, for the dining room. ...

But aside from the beautiful campus, the facilities, the most important thing is providing an environment for our students to succeed. Back then, in a lot of alternative schools, [the students] were generally [put in] the trailer out back, or these kids were shuttled down to a classroom at the end of the hall for in-school suspension.

Different educators from around the region and other states would come in and visit [our school], and they were like, "My gosh. You've got far too many windows. It would be just terribly distracting for your type of kid." I looked at them and said, "What do you mean, 'Our type of kid'? … They are everyday kids. They are everyone's kids." And I said, "These schools that are being built with no windows, I just think it's absurd."

… Over the years different administrators and educators have come to David. And they ask us, "What is your philosophy?" What it really comes down to is just getting back to the basics and being practical. …

Early on in the building [process] we didn't have the funds to go out and buy student desks, so we bought conference tables. We sat the kids around the table. … Our students can walk around the table. One student can work with another student. It's comfortable. … It has always been about the kids, creating an environment that is comfortable and an environment that they feel a sense of ownership in, too. That is why we had the work-study program there, where the kids are engaged in the preparation of and clean-up of the breakfast and lunch programs. And they're involved in preparation and general maintenance of the school, the cleaning, the bathrooms, whatever. … I think all of this builds into their own personal success. They come each day and feel that they are valued, that they are respected. They will achieve. …

Who are your target students, and what are some of the paths that they have traveled before they land on your doorstep?

science teacher

Science teacher Jammetta Meade and her class.

Our philosophy is: send us a youngster who needs us. I mean it sounds pretty simple but it is so true. We are not a school of choice. The David School is a school of need. … We're looking for youngsters who are not in a position to make a choice. They don't have the financial support at home to go to a private school. … They often have had a history of failure in public school. They have gotten behind academically, many of them significantly.

The average student starts the David School around 15 or 16. The average student has been retained, generally, at least once, sometimes twice through their grade school years.

We administer a standardized, diagnostic test as part of their application process, just to get a good barometer of where they are in English and math, and the average kid is testing between third- and fifth-grade level. … Now, that is no reflection on that individual's intelligence and potential. All that is indicated is that they did not get the basics. …

Generally what triggers a student to decide to come to your school? Is there some event that sets them on that path?

I think a real turning point for a lot of kids is when they begin high school, and it is more clearly pointed out to them their shortcomings. And where high school is different, it is either "Get in this boat and we are going to start going out to sea," and [if] they are not able to get in the boat or paddle; it's pretty apparent. And these kids -- not all, but some of them-- will become the rascals and seek out attention by being rather mischievous or they will act out their defense to some of their shortcomings. So it's the kids then saying, "I don't want to go to school. I hate school. I'm going to drop out of school." Teachers in the county, at this point, have often encouraged these students to transfer to David. …

Your curriculum is different from most public schools, right?

… We are really simply going back to the basics. If Johnny tests at a certain level, then it just makes sense to start him at that level. Why throw a sophomore geometry book at this boy when he is struggling with fractions and the times table? Why would we think of setting up this kid to have more frustration and more failure? So let's get back to the basics. Let's begin where the students are at. Let's build self confidence, build self respect. When these kids feel that they can achieve, put the curriculum in front of them that they are, in fact, achieving. When they feel they are achieving, they are going to feel that they can tackle the education.

We also try to make this education relevant to the world around them. That doesn't take a rocket scientist. So I use the example of their driver's permit. You know, every kid, at 16 is like, "All right. I'm going to get my driver's permit." But we know that the kid can't get through [reading] a book. So this kid really wants his driver's license -- why don't you take out the driver's manual and work with that in the reading class? It is a wonderful motivator. This is what Johnny wants. It is important to him. And so the connection between that driver's manual and his task is really important to him.

As it was for Chris, right?

Exactly. And so for him, that kept him in school because he knew he needed to work. He needed to have income. He wanted to, at the time, help out at home. But in order to get the license, the school had to sign for it. So he had this little motivator that said, "Okay, if you [want] to [do] D, you've got to do A, B, and C." Pretty logical.

So, I think what [makes the] formula [work] here at the school is having teachers who have made a distinct decision to be here. … The teachers at David obviously have had to make a major decision and a huge sacrifice, often financially, to teach at David, because we can in no way compete with public education salaries. And many of our teachers and leaders are volunteers. … They get like a monthly stipend, $400 to $500 a month, which is not much. You are not building your 401K.

From where do you draw your teachers? Are they from the community or are many, like you, from outside the community?

What's kind of been really neat for our own personal struggle to survive, to stay open, we've enlisted the support of various college service groups that have come in, during the summer or spring or fall break, to help us with manual labor or tutoring and all that. Often, these individuals stay. For example, three years ago, we had on staff three full-time Notre Dame graduates. … Many of the teachers who come to serve a long commitment, at least a year or two or longer, first found their way to David through a short-term service trip to David.

Is there a high turnover rate then? Is that a problem?

It can be. The last probably 15 years, we've had what you might say a strong committed core group that have been here long term. … And then you need to supplement your teaching team with volunteers, because you could never afford to place every person in a salaried position because we are tuition-free. We couldn't do it and probably never will be able to do it unless we get wonderfully endowed.

Do students pay any of the cost of attendance?

We ask each family to contribute a minimum of $30 a month. It gives them an opportunity to feel that they are contributing to their child's education. It helps offset, partially, their transportation to school. It wouldn't even touch anything else.

But what does it cost to educate a student for a year?

It probably runs about $6,500 minimally for each student per year. So … I write grants, raise money, mobilize resources to help address the cost. And it has not been an easy road, but we just take one year at a time and that's all we can do.

Let's go back to the curriculum. In addition to the basics -- reading, math, science, social studies -- what are some of the other things that you focus on, such as the vocational programs, the counseling and the mentoring that you do?

Let's start with the voc-ed program. We really encourage every student, whether they are inclined or not, to take a voc-ed class. And we know some don't want to become carpenters, but, again, we are pressing them to take advantage of an opportunity where we feel they will have an opportunity to succeed and to build something that is beautiful. Some of these young ladies have built the most beautiful shelves and end tables. So they have something tangible to say, "I created this." So the goal is not necessarily saying, "Well, you are slotted in here for Carpentry I or Woodworking I because we know this is your vocation in life." It's an opportunity. The kids are up and about. They are not sitting in a classroom.

Our voc-ed program has also had a partnership with another program that is very similar to Habitat [for Humanity]. So our kids, every year, build cabinets for homeless families and take them out to [install them] on-site. So it's another opportunity for our kids to reach out and help someone else, and that is really empowering, it provides an opportunity for our kids to feel success.

In the film it seemed like there were regular counseling and goal-setting sessions, individually or with small groups.

Every student that graduates must take a post-secondary seminar we call "Keys" [where] they set personal goals. The teacher is reviewing with students their academics, helping them line up to take the ACT or SAT, helping them look at vocational or academic options. The students travel to the different colleges in the region. … [The teachers] will take the kids to job fairs and [talk about] career paths. … We are a small school and can afford to have a lot of personal one-on-one [time] with students.

What do your students generally do after they graduate?

students of the David School

Students at the David School

They have basically [two] options: post-secondary education -- whether it's college or technical school -- or employment. When I say employment, frying burgers at McDonald's would not be a long-term plan that is going to get them a signature on their high school diploma. [They must have] gainful employment. A third option, and this has kind of been available in the area, is the armed services. Over the years, we have had a number of students that have looked towards that after graduation.

And there is a fourth option that really comes down to a very individual decision by the administration of the school. You have kids who are in a position where they really can do none of the above, whether it's for financial reasons or because of a crisis at home. We've had young girls who have become mothers, and what may be the best option for them is to be a great mom next year. Maybe the most important thing for them is to be at home.

But a lot of our students go on to the community college. Financially, it's very reasonable because most of our students are eligible for the maximum funds available through FAFSA [Free Application for Federal Student Aid]. So we work with our kids filling out all those forms. But many of them go on to the community college. This way, they are living at home; they don't have to make a major break yet. They don't have the funds to do a [term] at UK [the University of Kentucky]. They can get their first two years at a very reasonable cost.

In the film, "Country Boys," it appears many of the students are computer literate. Is there an emphasis at the David School on teaching students to use computers?

… Our kids come to us with lots of experience with instant messaging, and are pretty astute on e-mail. Generally speaking, beyond that, they are, unfortunately, not adept in the computer's full capabilities. So we have a computer lab, a computer in every classroom, and a pretty good selection of computers in our library. So where they're interested in the computer, we try to provide them with the tools for doing research, teach them how to save documents, create things like a photo gallery, things they can really use and want to use.

What's your general sense of how the Internet is affecting the worldview of young people in Floyd County, both inside and outside the classroom?

In many ways it's helping to level the educational playing field. Students can work on independent studies for high school or college credit, more readily access research without that barrier of transportation to get to a library or such. [It's easier to do] basic things like filling out financial aid applications for post-secondary school, filling out applications for jobs and employment. They can also research job qualifications, pay, benefits, etc.

But I've found that with our kids, though, that it's a double-edged sword: Where they often have not had the formal training in terms of many possibilities of the Internet, they can become fairly addicted to instant messaging and spend hours in front of a computer just talking with friends. And I don't think that helps encourage the use of grammar or writing. Sometimes it almost has the opposite effect, where in many words are abbreviated and you don't have to check spelling and all that. This is an important tool that needs direction by the school, and I've found our kids very receptive to that when they can be taught shortcuts or where they have learned to do things that really interest them. At David, we've had a class in journalism where the kids put together the school yearbook, so they've had to learn text editing, Internet research, photo layout, and that has strengthened other academic areas.

But beyond that, the average student in eastern Kentucky isn't necessarily e-mailing a buddy in Japan as Chris did. Early on when David Sutherland first met Chris, Chris had just bought his computer through Fingerhut, a mail-order catalogue, and had a penpal he e-mailed in Japan, but he was kind of unusual. Chris was very, very curious to reach out beyond those borders. Our kids in eastern Kentucky, they have a comfort zone, and they stay mostly within their own group of friends through instant messaging. I don't know how it has influenced their perceptions about the world.

The David School is not a parochial school, but religion doesn't seem entirely absent either. In the film you pray before meals. And in some class discussions that are shown, religion comes up -- in talking about evolution, in talking about how students like Cody dress. Can you talk about that?

Well, the David School is located in what we call the Bible Belt of America. It's a strongly Christian-based, very fundamental[ist] region. And many of our students come from families who are believers. The school was founded on Christian principles, but it's clearly and very explicitly stated in our corporation that we are open to all, of any religious background. We as educators recognize we cannot define, we will not attempt to define God to our students because each of them have their own sense of, or how they have perceived their God. … We don't proselytize at the school at all, even with the grace, [but] we do give thanks each day; there are times a teacher will just give thanks for a beautiful day and the sunshine, something very generic. Sometimes the word "God" is used; sometimes it isn't. It needs to be comfortable.

And our teachers come to us from all different religious backgrounds. And, again, the school respects from where they are coming from, but we do want all staff and volunteers to at least be a witness to, a role model of those principles of Christian faith. And I think it is pretty clear that we are founded upon the Christian principles.

In the film, one of the many hats that you seem to wear is being an adviser and a counselor to Chris, is that right?

Right. … Well, I taught Chris's dad [Randall]. Chris's dad started at the David School when he was 15. And at that age, he was already an alcoholic. There were times when we would find him, a teenager, in the morning, passed out on the front steps of the school. He was a nice kid. He really was a nice kid, but he never finished at David. And I hadn't seen him in maybe 20 years, then one day a car pulled up, and a guy got out. I didn't recognize him. He had a beard, and he had really aged.

… He started hollering at me: "Hey, Danny. You know me. I'm Randall, Randall Johnson." And he said, "I need your help." He said, "I have my boy here." And Chris got out of the car. And I had never seen Chris before. He must have been 15 then. He said, "I need to get my boy in school here. … He is not doing well." But even on that day, Randall had a load on him, I mean he was three sheets to the wind.

But, I had an opportunity to teach Chris. Chris would talk about that he had drawn Social Security, that he was [learning] disabled -- dyslexic, ADD, ADHD. He had all these acronyms down. But in class, I could readily see that he was a pretty bright kid, and he is darn good in math, but that he had learned to yank the chain of most teachers. Well, he wasn't going to yank my chain.

… I think some of the teachers there were getting a little bit exasperated with Chris because he would procrastinate, put things off. He always had a good story. He would try to talk himself out of everything and anything. And when he first started David School … [he would] sit by himself, isolate himself, pull the cap down over his head. He didn't talk to anybody. He just shut the world off.

I kind of felt a little of a history with the family, and maybe I could get through to him, maybe I could make a difference. When I taught him in math, we developed a relationship. I tried to extend the respect to him. I also let him know that I expected an effort in return, and I wouldn't cut him much slack. And so I would stay on his butt.

The David School tries to give students a second chance, when they have failed at public school or elsewhere. But how do you strike that balance between giving students a second, third or fourth chance, and also having to lay down the law sometimes?

It really comes down to looking at the individual students and looking at the family, how much support they do have, trying to find the heart of the kid. Every single Wednesday at David School, from the day we opened, we have a faculty meeting. Every faculty member is expected to be on board and focused after school. … Sometimes it can go two and a half hours, and [we discuss], "OK. We've got Chris here. He is at home. He is helping lay a sewer line. What are we going to do about this?" You don't want to declare bankruptcy on the kid. So what are we going to do?

Sometimes we make a home visit, or we will have a conference. I think it is very important for David or any school in the country to figure out where this kid is coming from, what is the environment in the school that the student is caught up in, and that's what makes it so different.

Here Chris stayed out of school to help his family move into a new trailer, digging these lines, do this, do that. Well, do we just give the kid walking papers? No. I think where we held the line was, "OK. We are not going to sign [off on] any driver's license, but we do want you to come back."

… We also realize, too, that when you get out of school, life, and the world in general, is not going to give you second, third and fourth chances. So if we can help make it right now, help get them on a right track, maybe they will be less likely to screw up later on.

With Chris, toward the end of his tenure there at school, he told Mitzi he was going to work full time and drop out of school. … He was done. He was finished. … And I said, "Chris. Give me six weeks, give me a month. That's all I want. And I will guarantee that you will pass the GED. You will have your high school diploma." And I said, "Please, do not get on the phone and call Pizza Hut and tell them you are coming to work. I want you to get on the phone and call Pizza Hut and tell them that you will not be at work today."

And I could hear the shuffle, because this wasn't going as he had thought it was going to go. I don't even know if this was in the film, but this is what happened: I said, "Chris, you absolutely are not going to work. We will help. We will help you get to school. We will find you housing." And that's when he began the road to take his GED and graduate. And I personally picked him up, and I drove him down to take the test. … He worked his butt off and tried hard. And by God … he did it, which means it meant a lot to him. I was so proud. I knew he had had many hurdles to climb, and he will probably have many hurdles in days to come, but at least there was a milestone he grabbed hold of and completed. I think we all can be proud of that. I think all of us in the faculty helped prepare him academically and emotionally to go through that test and pass it.

Sometimes it seemed that his parents were the greatest obstacle to success. In the film he says,"I am the lock and my mother is the key. If she wanted me to finish my work, I would do it." Do you find that that's a problem for a lot of your students, that their parents are sometimes one of the obstacles to their success?

I've found in eastern Kentucky, particularly with the male teenagers, that they have a very strong affinity, love, and respect for their mothers. [Take Chris's mother:] Here she is struggling, working, housekeeping, [taking care of his] two younger siblings. And the grandma is there, and there's an alcoholic husband. In one sense she is a pretty powerful figure, having to try to make sense of all of this.

I think probably there were times when she was holding Chris back. But probably there were times when she was encouraging him and trying to get him to make the right decision. But when he said that he is the lock and she is the key -- well, I think Chris would go home every day to a paradox: A mom who wants life better and her husband who is a chronic alcoholic and dying. [She's] trying to make ends meet. But Chris gave up his Social Security check there for that short period of time. Well, that check was really important at home. If he goes out and gets a job at Pizza Hut, that means he is going to lose his check. That will put a panic attack on his mom, too, even though she wants him working full time, making money to make ends meet, to pay for his car, to buy insurance, to pay for gas.

What is the right decision? I'm not sure if Chris's mom knew what was the right road. And I don't think Chris did either. And Chris could always find every excuse. … It is always someone else's fault. … But at that point Chris is about 18, he was at a point that he had to make some decisions, not mom. He had to.

But he loved his mom. I think he really and truly knew how hard life was for her and how much he loved her. … And when you see Chris's mom there in the audience [at his graduation] when he is giving a speech -- I mean, that says it there. You can see how proud she was that her son, her firstborn, was graduating. I mean, wow, what a powerful scene. She looks distraught in one sense. She looks tired, haggard, wore out. But there was such peace in her eyes looking up at her son, so proud, "That's my baby. That's my first." And I think through all these challenges for Chris, he has always been very concerned about his mother.

What would you say are the biggest problems facing the school and your students today?

David faces great odds. In August I was here at the school, and they had just completed testing of our [incoming] students. Some of the kids weren't even testing at a second-grade reading level.

It is a never-ending story. There will always be those that need and have had this struggle with education. The greatest need for our kids is for them to feel they have a lot of self worth, that they have potential. … And if we don't address that, deal with that effectively, they are not going to achieve, at least not in the foreseeable future. And that story can be told anywhere around the country. …

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posted jan. 9, 2006

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