In D.C. charter schools, a wide variety of challenges

December 22, 2011

At D.C. Prep Edgewood Middle School, one of the city’s top-ranked charter schools, showing up without a belt as part of your uniform gets you a half-hour detention at the end of the day. So does getting to your seat a minute late, at 8:01 a.m.

“We want to show them we’re serious about everything we do,” said the school’s principal, Cassie Meltzer Pergament.

At Maya Angelou Evans Middle School, near the bottom of the charter rankings, the staff labors each morning to get students through the doors. If one arrives in the burgundy and khaki uniform without a belt, principal La’Mont Geddis said, “I’ll give him a belt.”

These two schools illuminate the wide variations in performance and academic challenges within a sector of schools that could claim a majority of the D.C. public education market in a few years. Charter schools, independently operated but taxpayer-funded, serve 41 percent of the city’s 78,000 public students, up from 5 percent in 1998.

D.C. public schools, the city-run system, has shown more progress overall than charter schools on citywide tests over five years. But in 2011, the charter sector posted greater annual gains on the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System. Charter schools also topped DCPS in reading and math scores of African American students — with a margin especially wide in eighth grade — on the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress.

“We are on the cusp of charters being in a position to truly meet the needs of all students in Washington,” said Darren Woodruff, a member of the D.C. Public Charter School Board.

The board, which authorizes and revokes charters, on Dec. 6 unveiled a three-tier school performance ranking based on test score growth and other factors. D.C. Prep Edgewood Middle placed in the first tier, Maya Angelou Evans Middle in the third. Behind the rankings is a more complicated story about the background of the students and the distinctly different roles the schools play in the city.

Ritual and regimen

“Mark down a responsible ‘S,’ Tyrique,” fourth-grade reading teacher Julia King said one December day at D.C. Prep. “Thank you for helping him.”

Each day, the school’s 251 “D.C. Preppies,” as they are called, make entries on a yellow “prep note,” a running account of their classroom behavior. “S” stands for “working appropriately with others.” There are 26 behavior categories, one for each letter in the alphabet, from A (“caring for other’s property) to I (“staying on task”) to V (“advocating for oneself”). It has to be returned each day with a parent’s signature.

That is just one piece of the ritual and regimentation at the school, on Edgewood Street NE, for grades four through eight. Students are exhorted to “prep up” in the learner’s position: “Back straight up, feet on the floor, hands on your desk, eyes on the speaker.”

They seem to embrace the approach. Seventh-grader Nicholas Denney described his experience a few blocks away at Shaed Elementary, a traditional D.C. school that closed.

“They didn’t have any rules. The teacher used to sleep. Too many fights. Too much chaos,” he said.

It’s difficult to argue with D.C. Prep’s results. At a school where most students come from low-income homes, eighth-graders showed 100 percent proficiency in reading and math on this year’s city tests. Middle-grade pass rates were 85 percent in reading and 95 percent in math. Those numbers put D.C. Prep in the same league with the school system’s top-achieving Alice Deal Middle School in Northwest.

D.C. Prep follows practices common in successful charters. Most school days are 90 minutes longer than in DCPS. Teachers work a minimum 60-hour week, remaining available by phone until 8 p.m. to take calls from students and parents about homework.

There is a two-week staff orientation in August (DCPS does four days) and six professional development days per year (DCPS has four). Every component of teaching is analyzed. Pedagogy is heavily influenced by Doug Lemov, author of “Teach Like a Champion,” a book that stresses effective classroom management.

One technique is “cold calling”: asking students for an answer even if they haven’t raised their hands. Another is “no opt out.” In this case, if a student says he doesn’t know the answer to a question, the teacher turns to a classmate and repeats the query. If the other student responds correctly, the teacher poses the question again to the original student.

D.C. Prep officials said their most powerful tool is the “prep session” — twice-daily classes tailored to specific needs of each student below grade level.

One morning, eighth-grade math teacher Allison Lashley was working with a student who could easily graph linear equations from scratch but was having trouble matching equations to graphs already drawn.

“I know you’re a rock star at graphing,” said Lashley, trying to build the student’s confidence.

John Becker, a fourth-grade math teacher, said he often finds that children who come to D.C. Prep from regular public schools are several years behind grade level. They are, he said, “severely undereducated.”

Some critics suspect that strong charter schools burnish their statistics by pushing out kids with serious academic or behavioral issues, many of whom return to traditional public schools.

Ibby Jeppson, D.C. Prep’s director of resource development, said seven students have withdrawn this school year. Two left because of logistical or transportation issues and five for what Jeppson called “cultural fit or discipline,” meaning that parents became frustrated with school rules. She said no one was asked to leave.

‘A harder way to go’

D.C. Prep had fewer seats available this school year than families who wanted to enroll. Forty-four students were chosen by lottery from 131 applicants to enter fourth and fifth grades.

Maya Angelou didn’t need a lottery.

Other differences: 95 percent of Maya Angelou’s 220 students in grades six to eight are from low-income homes, compared with 76 percent at D.C. Prep. Twenty-six percent at Maya Angelou require special education because of disabilities; the share at D.C. Prep is 16 percent. (On average, 11 percent of D.C. charter students receive special education. The rate in DCPS is 18 percent.)

“They’re the same kids, but our students have had a harder way to go,” said Geddis, the Maya Angelou principal.

Nearly 30 percent of Maya Angelou students have repeated a grade, and school officials say they frequently receive requests from other charters to take on their most troubled kids. The school, in the old Evans Junior High campus on East Capitol Street NE, also takes students from the D.C. juvenile justice system.

On this year’s city tests, 23 percent of Maya Angelou students were proficient or better in reading and 41 percent in math. Rates of growth in scores were also poor. The 76 percent re-enrollment rate was 14 points below a target established by the charter board.

Other charter schools with “alternative” missions also landed in the charter board’s third tier. Maya Angelou officials called the ranking unfair.

“We think it is essential that [the ranking system] does not discourage schools from working with the city’s most at-risk students,” said Lucretia Murphy, executive director of the See Forever Foundation, which operates Maya Angelou. “At present, we think a number of the measures do exactly that.”

Woodruff said the board is considering alternative rankings for schools with high at-risk populations.

One striking aspect of a visit to Maya Angelou is the presence of African American men, often scarce on other school staffs. Here it’s considered essential to help engage male students. A description of the “prep notes” and D.C. Prep’s rule of detention for not wearing a belt elicited laughter from a group of Maya Angelou teachers and administrators.

“Just to get them into the classroom is an accomplishment of sorts,” said reading coach Luther Sewell.

The academic program is infused with attempts to heal psychological wounds students carry through the doors. That means less of Doug Lemov and more of a social-emotional learning model pioneered by the University of Illinois. That model focuses on helping students learn to manage emotions, resolve conflicts and make ethical choices.

Maya Angelou’s day, like D.C. Prep’s, includes extra reading and math sessions to help students catch up. But the struggle here seems more acute.

In one morning class, Antoinette Brock works with sixth- and seventh-graders who read on fourth-grade level. They’d finished “A Raisin in the Sun” and were watching a scene from a video version of the Lorraine Hansberry play that deals, in part, with a black family’s plans to move into a white neighborhood. In the scene, a seemingly benign man from the white neighborhood association visits the Younger family and, after much hesi­ta­tion, offers it money to stay away.

“What does ‘beating around the bush’ mean?” the teacher asks. There is silence.

“What about ‘sugarcoating’?” Again, no response.

Nick Michalopoulos, who teaches English at a Maya Angelou charter high school at the same location, said students often need a confidence boost. He said he challenges them: “Why can the kids in Northwest read ‘Othello’ and you think you can’t?”

Sewell, the reading coach, said too many public schools that serve disadvantaged students operate from a fear of failure.

“There is no fear of anything here,” he said. “There is only the fear of not trying.”

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.
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