TOPICS > Education

Washington D.C. Charter School: School for Success

December 29, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: This place wasn’t built to be a school. It was an abandoned and sagging men’s lodge, on a sagging block in a sagging neighborhood in the District of Columbia.

This area, with too much crime and too little work, is now home to a public charter school named for the poet Maya Angelou, and 100 students are getting what might be their last shot at success in school. Alisha Woods is 17. Like many young women in her neighborhood, she’s dropped in and dropped out of school since the eighth grade.

ALISHA WOODS: It was a decision I made that I would have to pay the consequences for.

TEACHER: Why don’t we pull them out, and let’s get them ready.

RAY SUAREZ: Last year, Allandrew Shepparson attended a large public high school where he had failing grades, was late, or never even got there.

ALLANDREW SHEPPARSON: If you’re in a school where you have too much freedom and you don’t want to learn, you don’t have to. They’re not going to force you to learn.

RAY SUAREZ: In Washington, D.C., capital of the richest nation in the world, stories like Allandrew’s and Alisha’s are common. Thirty-five percent of children live below the poverty line. Fifty percent of teenagers quit school before earning a diploma. The death rate for teenagers by accident, homicide, or suicide is three times the national average.

So how do you throw a lifeline to a kid you might otherwise lose to underemployment, drug abuse and crime? In the mid-’90s, two Washington lawyers, James Foreman Jr., and David Domenici, got involved in an after-school jobs program, a pizza parlor. Domenici was a corporate lawyer interested in education, Foreman, a public defender who saw too many kids lost in the criminal justice system. The jobs program did good work, but both realized it couldn’t do enough to address the problems of the mostly juvenile offenders they served.

JAMES FOREMAN JR., Co-founder, Maya Angelou Public Charter School: Given how far some of them were behind in school, and given how bad the schools that they were forced to go to were, and given how few supports they had, often, outside of school, they needed more than an after-school program. They needed the smallest classes, they needed the best teachers, they needed the best job training, and they were getting the worst of all of those things.

RAY SUAREZ: The pair didn’t exactly start at square one. Domenici’s father is U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, and Foreman’s father is the civil rights activist James Foreman.

The duo got to work raising money for the transition from jobs program to school — a school designed to answer the needs of kids headed for trouble with a ten-hour day, and a school year 11 months long.

TEACHER: C plus S is the total number of —

RAY SUAREZ: This is, first and foremost, a school. The design is simple: Stress academics to quickly make up for lost time and lost progress. Many of the students at Maya Angelou arrive significantly behind grade in math and reading. Junior Damien Owens knows it’s a big jump from the very basic math offered in his previous school.

DAMIEN OWENS: They make me look silly because I’m sitting here, still doing sixth- or seventh-grade work. In here, it’s like math is dangerous.

STUDENT: If you learn how to do it, learn the formulas and stuff, it’ll be kind of easy.

TEACHER: Push, push, push, push, push!

RAY SUAREZ: Next, hire good, committed teachers, ready to provide personalized attention in small classes. Ilham Askia teaches English.

ILHAM ASKIA: They’ve just been passed through the system, and when I say, “oh, why don’t you come and meet with me” or “I’ll come and sit with you during lunchtime, and we can go over this assignment,” their first look is, like, shocked, like “is she serious?”

TEACHER: A lot of people don’t love a lot about their life.

RAY SUAREZ: Kimberly Perry urges students to find their own voice in her poetry class, and that’s a big deal for teens who feel ignored and voiceless.

JOE BLYTHER, Tenth Grade: I’m from where the sun don’t shine and Dr. Seuss don’t rhyme. Kids make mud pies just to pass time. I’m from where gunfights keep going and don’t stop. If you get locked, you’ll get more time than a Rolex watch. I’m from government cheese and Murray’s chicken strips. I’m from dirty alleys infested with crack heads. I’m from dirty money stashed in my bunk bed. Where I’m from, you always have to think twice, but I’d just like to tell the people that this is my life.

STUDENT: Go! ( Applause )

STUDENT: Words can’t express that poem. It was good. He told it how it is.

RAY SUAREZ: And while you’ve got them in school for ten hours, make the most of it. The school keeps students out of danger by keeping them there, using the extra hours to teach skills and work habits, giving the students a chance to earn money by working in one of the school’s two businesses: Untouchable Taste Catering serves private clients and feeds students and staff three meals a day; and the technology center tries to close the digital divide.

ALISHA WOODS: We have classes here for the community, teaching people how to do basic things on the computer.

RAY SUAREZ: Technology literacy is viewed as a basic necessity, and students are expected to save their work and submit their papers electronically. After their core courses and electives such as drama, photography, or fitness training, each day ends with a personal tutoring session.

STUDENT: Mostly…

RAY SUAREZ: Natasha Hall is one of 300 volunteers who shows up one night a week, ten months a year, to work one-on-one with Damien.

NATASHA HALL, Tutor: These kids are used to people stepping in and out of their life for whatever reason. I think that if I can instill in these kids that someone cares about them, someone trusts them, and someone believes in them, then I’m helping society.

RAY SUAREZ: Like any teens, Maya Angelou students can complain about the long hours and constant attention.

STUDENT: They stay on you — stay on you like white on rice.

RAY SUAREZ: But many also seem to be relieved to be here.

STUDENT: I’d probably be in trouble right now, locked up somewhere, or I could be, you know, dead somewhere.

DAVID DOMENICI, Co-founder, Maya Angelou Public Charter School: It’s a hard decision to be 16 and say, “I’m going to commit to being in school from 9:30 in the morning till 7:30 at night.” That’s not a real common — just a common idea for a lot of teenagers. It’s particularly not a common idea for teenagers who maybe the year before went to school half the time, which is about the average for our students.

RAY SUAREZ: Last year, Drew Shepparson was one of those part-time students. His father, Paul Jones, says he’s relieved Drew is away from the housing project where he lives with his mother and younger sister and brother.

PAUL JONES: He doesn’t have any real tight structure in the home. We’ve got people knocking on the door, and, you know, it’s like a 24-hour entertainment session at his place. So, you know, I’m sure he can’t really rest, and with him being the only male there, I think he’s trying to be very, very protective of his siblings.

RAY SUAREZ: The school’s response is, over and over, to figure out what these kids need and provide it. Maya Angelou has created an intensive, mandatory mental health program and a residential program for kids who need a place to live. Dr. Quentin Graham leads the mental health counselors. On-site individual and group counseling is an important part of the program.

DR. QUENTIN GRAHAM: When we really come to understand students, we find that they’re struggling with tremendous amounts of trauma in their life stories, that they are struggling with managing and really functioning in some ways as an independent adult would, but with limited amounts of resource, both emotional as well as material resource, to help them to, to help them to do those things.

RAY SUAREZ: Allandrew Shepparson, in his short time at Maya Angelou, is blossoming. His father still can’t believe he made honorable mention on the dean’s list.

PAUL JONES: Out of seven classes, he got seven “A”s. I never got seven “A”s in my life, I’m telling you!

RAY SUAREZ: After dropping in and dropping out, Alisha Woods has had a longer struggle, but this year she’s on the dean’s list and hopes to become a pediatrician.

Turning these young lives around costs lots of money, three times as much as most districts spend per high school student. Each student costs $28,000 a year on average. 65 percent of that comes from Washington, D.C.’s public education funds, 10 percent from local and federal social service agencies, and the remaining 25 percent comes from extensive fund-raising.

DAVID DOMENICI: Our jobs, we believe, is to keep pushing institutionally against everybody on this notion that high school-age students who are behind academically aren’t worth it. They are worth it, but it’s expensive.

JAMES FOREMAN JR.: We explain to people straight up that this is saving money. Your car is less likely to be busted into, and you’re less likely to have to pay for prison, and you’re less likely to have to have somebody who’s on unemployment.

RAY SUAREZ: To raise the necessary funds, both Domenici and Foreman trade on their famous fathers’ names unapologetically.

DAVID DOMENICI: We have the opportunity to get resources to a place that they should be, and we have a unique opportunity to do that because of our backgrounds, because of our education, and because of our family names, and all the more reason why we should go do it.

TEACHER: I ask you, what does the phrase “probable cause” mean?

RAY SUAREZ: History teacher Tony Dugas is committed to this approach. He wants to move from the classroom to helping run more new schools like Maya Angelou.

TONY DUGAS: You won’t save every kid, and that’s hard to deal with. Even with an amazing place like the Maya Angelou with all of the support that we have — the tutoring, the jobs, the counseling, just the small classes, everything — that still isn’t enough.

RAY SUAREZ: Still, almost everyone you see at Maya Angelou will get a high school diploma…

STUDENT: We’re best friends.

RAY SUAREZ: …And seven out of ten will head to a two-year or four-year college. Spurred ahead by the conviction that far more kids need this kind of school than can attend one, the partners will get another chance soon: They’re opening another charter school in partnership with the D.C. public schools.