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.