Friends of Choice in Urban Schools (FOCUS) is now the DC Charter School Alliance!

Please visit to learn about our new organization and to see the latest news and information related to DC charter schools.

The FOCUS DC website is online to see historic information, but is not actively updated.

Bill to save teachers' jobs would slash reform programs

The Washington Post
Bill to save teachers' jobs would slash reform programs
Thursday, July 1, 2010

ONLY A SMALL portion of the $100 billion the federal government directed to states in school stimulus spending funds last year was directly tied to reform. But even those relatively small amounts have had a sizable impact as states rushed to make needed changes to compete for Race to the Top dollars. Yet Congress is considering taking precious dollars from this and other reform programs of the Obama administration to fund a suspect effort to preserve education jobs.

Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, wants to take money set aside for reform initiatives to help fund the $10 billion Keep Our Educators Working Act. To help come up with spending offsets to advance the long-stalled bill, Mr. Obey proposed cutting about $500 million from the $4.35 billion Race to the Top fund, $200 million from the Teacher Incentive Fund that supports creation of pay-for-performance programs and $100 million from the Charter Schools Program. The plan, unveiled Tuesday, set off howls of protests from advocates for education reform, who see it as major setback to their efforts. Mr. Obey, though, was unapologetic, telling us that reform is rendered meaningless when massive numbers of teachers are in danger of losing their jobs.

We have made no secret of our skepticism about this jobs bill -- as opposed, for example, to an extension of unemployment benefits, which Congress should approve without delay. The jobs bill's stimulative effect has been exaggerated, as has been the need for it. When the bill was first advanced, its advocates warned about looming layoffs of some 300,000 teachers. However, school districts across the country are finding other cost-cutting ways -- freezing pay, increasing class size, consolidating administrative functions -- to save jobs. Mostly, though, we were suspicious of throwing yet more money into stopgap measures to sustain an educational status quo that is not working. Why, for instance, would the federal government want to give additional funds to a system that blindly allows effective teachers to be laid off but keeps those who do poor work but have been on the job longer? Why wouldn't the federal government insist that any new federal money be conditioned on districts making reforms in how teachers are evaluated or compensated?

Instead, Mr. Obey would penalize the precious few programs that do foster needed change. If his measure is approved, fewer states will get funds to reward high-performing teachers who work with at-risk students, there will be less money to help effective charter networks like KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) and there will be no incentive for states to enact reforms. That Mr. Obey's proposal would pull back money intended to fund Race to the Top applications that have already been filed can only be seen as undercutting any credibility U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan would have in coaxing state officials to make the often-hard political decisions of education reform.

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Gray outlines his agenda for education in District

The Washington Post
Gray outlines his agenda for education in District
By Bill Turque and Nikita Stewart
Friday, July 2, 2010

Calling the Fenty administration's approach to education reform "shortsighted, narrow and sometimes secretive," D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray unveiled a blueprint Thursday to guide education policy if he is elected mayor.

The plan promises more transparency, funding equity for public charter schools, tax credits for early-childhood programs and greater support for the city's neighborhood high schools.

Educators, students and supporters filled the library at Thurgood Marshall Academy, a public charter high school in Southeast, where Gray outlined an ambitious plan and tried to further distinguish himself from Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, who has made public schools one of his priorities.

Gray, who is challenging Fenty for the Democratic nomination for mayor, said he gives "tremendous credit" to Fenty for calling attention to the need for education reform. But "what we've learned over the past three years is that it's not enough to have mayoral control. What we need, ladies and gentlemen, is mayoral leadership," he said to hearty applause.

Gray's 15-page plan reflects broad areas of agreement with the reform program led by Fenty and Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee. The plan comes during a week of political one-upsmanship by Gray and Fenty, beginning Monday when the mayor canceled an appearance at a well-publicized education forum.

Fenty appeared to counter what became a cozy town hall meeting for Gray by holding a news conference Tuesday on three years of progress. And he had Rhee by his side. On Thursday, he held a news conference 1 1/2 hours after Gray's.

On Wednesday, WAMU radio and The Washington Post ran interviews with Rhee in which she all but closed the door on serving as chancellor if Gray becomes mayor. In interviews, Rhee said Gray did not share Fenty's philosophy on education reform. Gray has been noncommittal when asked about Rhee's future should he be elected.

On Thursday, Gray continued to make the case that school reform "cannot hinge on one person."

But his supporters were fired up by Rhee's involvement in the election. "I am offended by the Rhee offensive," said former council member Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6), who was among several community leaders in the school library. "My whole time in D.C. politics, I've never seen anything like this. . . . Listen, this is not about your career. This is about the children."

The audience included school board member Lisa Raymond; Virginia Williams, mother of former mayor Anthony A. Williams (D); philanthropist Judith Terra; and Jacque Patterson, president of the Ward 8 Democrats.

Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) praised Gray's plan for going beyond "teaching to the test" and being more comprehensive.

Gray reiterated his support of mayoral control of the school system, noting that Fenty had voted against a similar takeover as a council member. Gray's plan adopts ideas embedded in the District's new contract with the Washington Teachers' Union, including holding educators accountable for student performance and paying them accordingly.

The plan does not offer a cost analysis, but under questioning, Gray said he has identified areas in which the school system is overspending, including special education, in which millions of dollars are paid to transport and educate special-needs students in private schools at taxpayer expense.

"We are well north of one-quarter of a billion dollars. I have absolutely no doubt that there's opportunity for enormous savings in there," Gray said. "As we do that, we will reinvest those dollars right back into our children's education, especially early-childhood education."

According to Gray's blueprint, school reform has been damaged by a lack of respect for community input and failure to provide stakeholders with basic information about school budgets and other key matters.

"When I am mayor, I'll insist on respect for all. I will bring a collaborative approach to education reform so that all stakeholders in our educational system have a seat at the table," he said.

Along those lines, Gray's plan calls for strengthening the office of the deputy mayor for education and turning it into the lead agency for management of the city's "educational investment portfolio." Gray also wants the deputy mayor to lead a forensic audit of the traditional public and public charter school systems to establish how money is being spent.

Gray's plan describes a "holistic, birth-to-24 approach" to education, starting with increased access to infant and toddler care. Gray cited waiting lists with more than 6,000 families. He also said he would propose a local supplement to a federal tax credit for child and dependent care and seek to broaden eligibility to include more working- and middle-class families.

The plan also criticizes what it calls "the two-city tale for secondary education," referring to the gap in funding and other resources between the District's selective, application-only high schools and its regular middle and high schools. In particular, Gray's plan criticizes Rhee for proposing a new arts magnet middle school "while whole segments of the city lack a middle school at all, and the current middle schools languish." The plan calls for all middle and high schools to offer special programs and outside partnerships like those available at Ellington and Banneker high schools.

The plan also addresses concerns expressed by the charter school community about millions of dollars that flow to traditional public schools outside the uniform per-student formula. Areas such as building maintenance, crossing guards and legal services are funded at D.C. public schools at taxpayer expense, "while charter schools have been left to fend for themselves."

Gray offered no specific fixes but said as mayor he would convene a panel of national and local experts to deliver a plan within three months to establish funding equity.

Joshua Kern, co-founder and executive director of Thurgood Marshall Academy, introduced Gray to the audience Thursday and said the council chairman is one reason the school is hailed as a national model for charter schools. Kern said that the school was having problems with its lease agreement a decade ago and that he sought advice from Gray, then director of Covenant House, a shelter for homeless teens.

He said Gray told him that many times, he had seen people with good ideas come east of the Anacostia River and then leave when "they hit a roadblock."

"If you really want to help . . . you'll stick it out," Kern quoted Gray as saying. Kern added: "The rest is history. . . . We stayed."

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D.C. High School Where Everyone Goes to College

CBS Evening News with Katie Couric
D.C. High School Where Everyone Goes to College
Charter School in One of City's Toughest Neighborhoods Beats the Odds One Graduate at a Time
Thursday, June 17, 2010

To view this piece, CLICK HERE.


At its top levels, the American system of higher education may be the best in the world. Yet, in terms of its core mission - turning teenagers into educated college graduates - much of the system is simply failing. In fact, fewer than one in four students who attend college will receive their degree, often because they are unprepared to handle the work or face financial difficulties. It's a growing problem that one public charter high school in Washington, D.C. is attempting to tackle, one high school graduate at a time, reports CBS News anchor Katie Couric.

Over the last five years, Thurgood Marshall Academy, a public charter high school in one of Washington D.C.'s toughest neighborhoods, has consistently sent 100 percent of its seniors to college - many of them on full scholarships.

Josh Kern, who started the school 10 years ago, says from the beginning, students and teachers have their work cut out for them.

"Typically, a student coming from a middle school is three or four years behind in basic skills in reading and math," Kern said.

The school takes a tough love approach - a 10-hour day and some weekends, that makes kids focus on academics and stay out of trouble.

"You see a lot of kids out here locked up, dead, neighborhood violence, drugs," said one student named De'Sean Suarez. "None of that stuff outside goes on in here. You're just in a totally different place."

But getting students into college is not enough. The goal is to get them to stay there and graduate.

The students are nervous about going to college.

"I'm just anxious to see the work load," De'Sean said. "I want to know if it's going to be a lot or a little bit. No matter what I'm going to do the work, though."

Drew Johnson worries about his mom who has M.S. and doesn't know who is going to care for her.

Emma Levine is Thurgood's full-time alumni coordinator. Her job is to keep tabs on these kids for four more years.

"Sometimes I think they are very close to giving up," Levine said. "The responsibility of myself and everyone in the building who has been part of their lives is to write back, to send them cards, to go visit them and keep that contact going."

"We actually have something called an emergency fund so throughout the course of any given year, we'll give out 20 or 30 small grants to our kids who need textbooks or need food money or need to pay the rent," Kern said. "And those little things are the difference for many of our kids between staying in college and dropping out."

Justin Williams, graduating from Morehouse College in Atlanta, wondered if this day would ever come.

"I was just hoping that somebody would clap for me," Williams said of his graduation. "But I heard them in the back, so I was happy."

As a sophomore he came close to dropping out, but with financial help and encouragement from his high school alma mater, he received his BA in psychology.

"Yo, mom, I graduated, mom," Williams said, crying. "I didn't think I could do it."

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Fund public schools fairly, Mr. Mayor

The Washington Examiner
Fund public schools fairly, Mr. Mayor
Monday, June 7, 2010

Examiner columnist Jonetta Rose Barras recently took the District's public charter schools to task for "whining" about the inequality in public funding between public charter schools and traditional public schools.

Publicly funded but independently run, charter schools educate 38 percent of all public school students in the District.

Incorrectly, she accused charters of not celebrating the nearly 22 percent pay increase for District of Columbia Public Schools' teachers that will result from the new union contract agreed between D.C.P.S. and the American Federation of Teachers.

Barras also falsely accuses the city's public charter school community of begrudging the city money spent upgrading D.C.P.S. facilities.

In fact, charters and my organization have been enthusiastic supporters of Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and better funding for all public schools-charter and traditional-and their teachers, whose salaries are a major component of school operating costs.

Our quarrel is with Mayor Adrian Fenty who has been unwilling to treat D.C. public charter schools fairly by providing them with equitable funding of operating expenses, including teacher pay.

The D.C. School Reform Act requires that the operating costs of D.C.P.S. and charters be funded through the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula.  As its name suggests, the formula is designed to ensure equal public funding for D.C.'s public school children.

Under the formula, students at the same grade level or who need the same level of special education services are to get equal funding.  Teacher salaries are a major component of school operating costs.

Yet the D.C. government has, whenever a new contract is signed, funded raises outside the formula.  Charters, which also are public schools, get nothing.

The teacher pay raise in the latest union contract is no exception.  Of the $135.5 million pay increase only 10 percent will be funded through the formula.  But under the School Reform Act, all teacher pay must be funded through the formula, so that all of D.C.'s public schools-charter and traditional-can hire good teachers.

This is not the only inequality forced upon D.C.'s charter schools by Mayor Fenty's administration.  D.C.P.S. gets more than twice as much funding for school buildings per student as the charter schools get.

Not coincidentally, the average charter school can only provide half the square footage per student as the city-run public schools.

And while every D.C.P.S. school occupies an actual school building, charter students often go to school in former warehouse, office and retail spaces that lack basics like playgrounds, playing fields, auditoriums, cafeterias and gymnasiums.

Creative but consequently unfair accounting by the administration provides many other funding advantages to D.C.P.S.

The city-run school system receives money for students the mayor estimates it will enroll whereas charters are only funded for students they actually enroll, giving D.C.P.S. millions of extra funding each year.

Charters also have to maintain their buildings out of formula funds but D.C.P.S. building maintenance is funded outside the formula.

Combined public funding inequities mean that D.C.P.S. gets nearly $5,000 more per student in local taxpayer funding than the public charter schools do.

Now that the bulk of the latest pay raise for teachers in the city-run schools is being funded outside the formula, the inequality between the two types of public school will widen further still.

It is the city's blatant disregard for its own law and for the needs of the nearly 28,000 District children who now attend public charter schools that have led some in the city's public charter school community to consider legal action against the city.

Thousands of charter students, and thousands more on waiting lists trying to get in, deserve no less.

Robert Cane is executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, a D.C. nonprofit that supports education reform through development of high-quality public charter schools.

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A Night to Remember with Louis Gossett, Jr.

The Washington Informer
A Night to Remember with Louis Gossett, Jr.
By Denise Rolark Barnes
Thursday, May 27, 2010

Actor and author Louis Gossett, Jr. applauds the achievements of Nina Thompson and other D.C. charter school graduates during an event sponsored by the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium in Northwest, Fri., May 21.

The audience, comprised of District charter school graduates, not much older than 16 themselves, had their own stories of challenges and achievements that made the evening with Gossett, a night to remember.

"Have a good time; enjoy yourself, but put a plan together for your life," the 78 year old actor said. "You know to realize why you were put on this planet and what you're expected to do with it. It may not work out perfectly, but God will help you to do it. Stick with your plan," he said.

The D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools hosted the event that also served as a fundraiser and celebration of the achievements of six outstanding charter school college graduates and two Class of 2010 charter school high school graduates. Gossett talked talked about his life and provided words of encouragement to the group, especially those who are pursuing careers.

Gossett is most recognized for his Oscar winning role as the tough drill sergeant in "An Officer and a Gentleman" (1982). His stellar career also includes memorable roles in "A Raisin in the Sun", the television mini-series "Roots" and the new lead on the science fiction series "Stargate SG-1."

Gossett has battled alcohol, drugs, a toxic mold infection and prostate cancer, which he chronicles in his recent autobiography, "An Actor and a Gentleman." He reflected on his career in the early 1970s when he had to live as an agreeable black man who didn't speak up, he said.

"It wasn't me, but I had to do it to survive. I was in between a rock and a hard space," Gossett said.

Gossett also established the Eracism Foundation, a nonprofit organization aimed at creating entertainment that helps bring awareness and education to issues such as racism, ignorance, and societal apathy in 2006.

The winners of the DCACPS 2010 college graduate award was Antwain Coward, a SEED Public Charter School graduate who received a B.S. in Management from Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland, Ohio. Nina Thompson, a 2010 graduate of Cesar Chavez Public Charter School received the outstanding high school graduate award. The other finalists included Alvin Brown, of Hospitality High School and a graduate of Michigan State University; Nicosia Young of Cesar Chavez Public and a graduate of the University of Rochester, Rochester, N.Y.; Claudia Alvarez, a graduate of Kamit Institute for Magnificent Achievers; I-sha Davis of Friendship Collegiate Academy; and Chantel Washington, Integrated Design and Electronics Academy (IDEA).

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D.C. budget lauded by children's advocates

The Washington Examiner
D.C. budget lauded by children's advocates
By Leah Fabel
Monday, June 7, 2010

The D.C. Council restored millions of dollars for children's programs, a move praised by advocates.

About $1 million went toward the city's Year Round Youth Employment Program; $3.5 million went to funding child care subsidies; $2 million was given to subsidies for grandparent caregivers. Those three programs were among the youth-related cuts made by Mayor Adrian Fenty in an attempt to close a $550 million gap in the city's $5 billion budget.

A politically popular effort to expand free, voluntary pre-kindergarten for all 3- and 4-year-olds in the city received its full funding -- about $18 million. Charter schools will receive about $200 more per student to pay for facilities, bringing the city's total outlay to about $3,000 per student.

"In terms of pre-k, we're thrilled the city is staying on track," said Carrie Thornhill, president and CEO of Pre-K for All DC. "Pre-k enrollment is what is keeping the D.C. Public Schools from having a decline in enrollment."

Despite some increases, many remain dissatisfied.

The $3,000 allotted per student to charter schools is still about half of the allowance to D.C. Public Schools students, said Barnaby Towns, spokesman for Friends of Choice in Urban Schools.

"Obviously we're pleased with the increase, but it doesn't make up for the inequity," Towns said.

One of the budget's brighter spots, he said, is the council's creation of a commission to study equity in public school funding.

Judith Sandalow, executive director of the Children's Law Center, commended some "terrific last-minute restorations" to the budget -- including $1 million to provide rapid housing for homeless families. In mid-May, Sandalow said, the city's Department of Human Services counted 11 families on the streets, unable to find room in shelters.

But she worried the big picture remains bleak and was disappointed the council didn't pass a higher income tax on the city's highest wage earners.

"We clawed back most, but not all, of the cuts the mayor made. But that's in the context of having lost dramatically over the past several years," she said, citing ongoing issues like a several-years-long decline in dollars available for child-care subsidies.

"We went in with the safety net frayed, and we didn't succeed in mending it," Sandalow said.

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Fairness for charter schools

The Washington Post
Fairness for charter schools
Letter-to-the-Editor by FOCUS
Sunday, June 6, 2010

As The Post did in the June 3 editorial "Departure point in D.C.," the District's public charter school community welcomes the new teachers union contract.

Charters welcome the contract because they are strong supporters of Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's reforms and higher pay for all teachers in District public schools.

It is incorrect to assert, as the Post's editorial did, that some charters were considering legal action to "upend the contract."  Charter leaders are reluctantly considering suing the city, not D.C. Public Schools, not because of the contract, but because Mayor Adrian M. Fenty is unwilling to fund D.C. charter schools equitably.

The D.C. School Reform Act requires that the operating costs of both types of public school - charter and traditional - be funded via the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula.  This formula was designed to ensure equal funding for all D.C. public school children.  Yet the administration continues to defy the law and spend millions on city-run schools outside the formula, depriving the charters of public funds.

Current inequities in public funding mean that the allocation in city taxpayer funds for the typical charter school student is $5,000 less than the allocation for the typical public school student.  We want fair funding for D.C. kids.

Robert Cane, Washington

The writer is executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools

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The SEED School

60 Minutes (CBS)
The SEED School
By Byron Pitts
Sunday, May 23, 2010

The SEED School was featured on 60 Minutes on Sunday, May 23. To watch the segment, click on the link below:


(CBS)   A few miles from the White House in southeast Washington sit some of the worst public schools in America. The students there are mostly poor, mostly black, and their test scores are low. Only one in three finish high school; of those who do go on to college, just five percent graduate.

But right in the middle of this same area is also one of the most successful and innovative public schools in the country. Started in 1998, the school is called SEED. It's the nation's first urban public boarding school.

Ninety one percent of the students finish high school, and 95 percent go on to college. It's a charter school that's getting national attention. Admission is by lottery, open to any family in the district willing to take a chance.

This last spring, parents and children showed up for a lottery with a unique prize: a $35,000-per year education paid for by private and government money.

Only a third of the over 200 or so kids who applied heard their number called. With a child's future at stake, emotions ran high.

The Grants were one of the families who won the chance to change their child's life.

Asked what it felt like to hear their number called, Purcell Grant told "60 Minutes" correspondent Byron Pitts, "It was shocking. I did not think that was gonna happen."

"When he said 38, I didn't hear anything but joy," Margaret Grant added.

Asked why this means so much to them, Margaret Grant replied. "It's called opportunity. We've never had that before. So why not grab it if you can. Here, you know, the sky is the limit."

With a big smile, the winning student, Taylor Grant, also thought this was good news.

SEED is the brainchild of Raj Vinnakota and Eric Adler. The two former businessmen quit their jobs 13 years ago to take an old idea and make it new.

"There's boarding schools for rich kids; why aren't there boarding schools for poor kids?" Vinnakota said. "The intense academic environment, the 24-hour aspect and constant access to role models. Why wouldn't all of those things be just as important for poor kids as it would be for rich kids?"

"We believe very strongly that there is a group of kids for whom the answer is a 24-hour supportive educational environment. And they're not gonna have a shot if we don't give it to them," Adler added.

It all starts on SEED's campus, a four-acre oasis, a safe zone where 340 kids can focus on school, free from distractions back at home.

SEED's goal is to prepare these children academically and socially for college and beyond. The students enter in sixth and seventh grade; 80 percent of them performing below grade level.

Charles Adams is the head of school. "We're a public school and we have a lottery, we get what we get. It could be an honor roll student, it could be a student three, four grade levels behind that's struggling with a number of issues at home. So we get the gamut," she explained.

According to Adams, there are sixth graders who enter the program with a second grade reading level.

Asked if a child like that will be going to college, Adams said, "Why not? Why not?"

"Because they're way behind. Because they don't read at a proper reading level. They're behind in math, they're behind in science," Pitts remarked. "They're behind in reading."

"I'll take all of that. And they could be a pain in the neck. That's my starting point," Adams replied.

Asked if he thinks it's working, Adams told Pitts, "I know it's working."

It's a 24-hour, five-day-a-week job which starts on Sunday night, when the kids check-in from their weekends at home.

They live in single-sex dorms with strict rules: no television and no Facebook.

The days start early at 6 a.m.; classes run from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Then there's study hall, extracurriculars, and tutoring. The day ends at 10 p.m.

This kind of structure and support is new to many of these students. What's also new is visiting college as early as middle school.

A group of eight graders went to see American University in Washington D.C. It's all part of reminding them of their end goal.

"Show of hands, if you're absolutely confident that you're A, going to college, and B, gonna graduate college?" Pitts asked a group of juniors.

"SEED imbeds college and success and commitment into our minds on a daily basis. It's like we build, and we live and we grow into scholars," one student said.

Asked if they had that confidence before they got into a program, a student replied, "No."

According to the student, the teachers boost their confidence.

Teachers put extra emphasis on the basics. Unlike most schools, there are two periods of English and two periods of math per day in middle school.

Upperclassmen are required to read 45 minutes a day in addition to their homework. Classes are small with 10 to 15 students.

Teachers like Jawan Harris know every student personally, their strengths and weaknesses.

Asked how she helps a failing student, Harris told Pitts, "We usually host tutorials after school. Last week, I sent out an e-mail saying, '5:00 until they get it.'"

What time did they finally get it?

"I would say my last student was in here probably until about 10:45," she told Pitts.

"But what public school teacher in D.C. works till 10:45?" Pitts asked.

"I have no idea. But I know that when I leave this building, I'm walking past my principal's office who's in her office talking to another student and there's another teacher still in their office, so it happens often," Harris said.

That kind of dedication and personalized instruction has paid off: tenth graders at SEED score 40 percent higher in reading and 34 percent higher in math compared to other minority students in their area.

But SEED isn't just about academics. There's a "life skills" curriculum taught in the evenings.

Students learn social skills, like self-discipline and etiquette.

Administrator Lesley Poole has been at SEED from the start. "No one has pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps? Right? Like everyone has a story about somebody who helped them," she told Pitts.

"And you're lettin' them hold onto your bootstraps and you're helpin' to pull 'em up?" Pitts asked.

"I'm giving them everything I have," she replied.

You get the sense SEED is more of a calling than a job for people like Poole. They don't simply have to raise a kids' test scores - they have to change their values.

"I think the average middle school student comes into SEED and says 'I have to do two hours of homework? Really? I have to tuck my shirt in all the time? Really? I have to go to bed at 9:00 at night? I need to get eight hours sleep? Does it really take all of that just to be successful in school?' It takes all that," Poole explained.

Middle schoolers Frances Blackmon and Melvin Brown have learned that. They're both in the seventh grade.

When Pitts asked if they're happy that they decided to come to SEED, both simultaneously replied, "Yes."

"Do you think that you'll stay here till you graduate?" Pitts asked.

"Yes," they simultaneously replied.

And they said they're certain of that.

Asked why they're so certain, Frances told Pitts, "'Cause I know this is where I wanna be, and this is where my future's gonna start."

And they were okay with the long hours. "I'm getting more education into my brain," Melvin said.

"When you're in class, and you're on a system, the teachers'll take time out after school and during school to help, try to help you. And they show compassion for you," Frances added.

They had no doubt they'd be successful.

What does success look like?

"You're always supposed to believe in yourself," Melvin said.

"What I think success is kinda what you're like. You're smart, intelligent. You're a nice reporter. You dress nice. Your shoes are pretty. And it is that knowin' that you're gonna be something in life," Frances said.

"You gonna make it?" Pitts asked.

"Yes!" she replied.

And then there are students like 17-year-old sophomore Rojay Ball, who may not make it.

He came to SEED to escape his old neighborhood where guns and gang violence are common. Last year, in one turf battle Rojay was shot in the leg; weeks later, he was shot at again.

But at SEED he says he feels safe. "When I come here I feel as though I can just be laidback without worryin' about nobody havin' to attack me or say somethin' wrong to me," he said.

At SEED, Rojay's an athlete. He's a B student. Teachers say he's not a trouble maker. Yet his loyalty to his old neighborhood and his old friends runs deep.

Rojay told Pitts he has about ten close friends in the neighborhood, but that probably none of them are going to go to college.

"A lotta people in your life feel like you're on the fence...that you could go this way and be successful, go to college, or you could go this way, and end up someplace else. Do you feel that at all?" Pitts asked.

"Well, I always feel as though, like I'm gonna graduate from college when I come to SEED, I'm in this world where as though I'm comfortable enough to focus in class, do my homework everyday like, and I'm prepared for college. But I'm just tryin' to escape that world, like, my outside world. But it's somethin' that's right, that's just holdin' me up, holdin' me back," he said.

"Can't let it go?" Pitts asked.

"I just can't," he replied.

When Pitts asked administrator Lesley Poole whether she thought Rojay would graduate, she enthusiastically replied, "Oh, I do! Oh come on, I do!"

And she believes he will go to college.

Asked what makes her think Rojay can be successful, considering the violence he has experienced first-hand, Poole said, "I don't think it's in me to not think they can be successful. He has some capacity building in front of him. But Rojay still has hope and he still has potential and so I just assume not give up on him until he makes it and he can believe for himself."

"That's part of the success formula here, getting these kids to believe in themselves as much as you believe in them?" Pitts asked.

"We set high expectations. I think we push our students until they can own that, and they begin to set expectations for themselves," she replied.

But some don't: SEED loses 11 to 12 percent of their students every year.

"The reality is you can't save everybody," Pitts said.

"We're not gonna give up on any child. We are gonna work to create an environment where every single child can succeed. In the end, have there been and will there be some children for whom the clock just runs out on us. Sure, it happens. We'll never accept it. We will always work to make that not happen," Adler replied.

SEED's commitment to its students has brought them attention. President Obama, who is looking for ways to improve inner-city schools, visited last year.

"This school is a true success story. A place where for four of the last five years, every graduate from the SEED school was admitted to college - every graduate," the president noted in a speech.

This year's class is on track to do the same. With success like that, Vinnakota and Adler believe there should be a SEED school in every major urban area.

They opened a second boarding school in Baltimore two years ago. And they're planning to open a third in Cincinnati.

The funding comes from a mixture of private donors who pay for start-up costs including building the schools, and then government money pays for most of the operating costs.

At every school the goal is the same - going to college.

When Pitts asked proud grads if they're the first member of their family to go to college, most raised their hand.

"In a single generation, families can not only produce a high school graduate, but a college graduate, and that changes a family forever. And that's why we do what we do," Adler said.

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Students Say Learning Arabic Helps Them Confront Middle East Stereotypes

WAMU 88.5 (NPR)
Students Say Learning Arabic Helps Them Confront Middle East Stereotypes
By Kavitha Cardoza
Thursday, May 27, 2010

To listen to the audio clip, click HERE.

Approximately 75 students at Washington Latin Public Charter School in Northwest D.C. are learning Arabic and they say the language has helped them confront stereotypes about Middle easten cultures.

14-year-old Guy Wilson is learning Arabic as part of an after-school program funded with $150,000 from the non-profit Qatar Foundation International. Apart from visits to museums and tasting different food, the class also got to travel to Doha, the capital of Qatar, for free.

Wilson says when students who weren't in the class heard about the trip, "They would tell me I'd get blown up by a suicide bomber," he says. But afterwards, "They were pretty jealous!"

Another student Erica Perry says she was shocked.

"You think you'll see a lot of camels, all desert. When we got there there were streets, high-rise buildings. It was like New York!," says Perry.

When Perry found out the boys and girls didn't socialize she was curious, prompting that all-important question for teenagers around the world, "How do you have boyfriends and stuff?," she asks.

But once the students were on Facebook together, "I noticed that on all their walls they were chatting. So they were using the internet to talk to each other," says Wilson.

A study funded by the U.S. Department of Education shows the demand for Arabic and Chinese classes across the country has increased in recent years, even as the demand for French and German has decreased.

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