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.