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Howard to Put Innovations to the Test

University-Run Middle School Opening in Fall

By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 6, 2005; Page C05

Howard University for the past few years has attempted to spark revival along the Georgia Avenue corridor in the hardscrabble LeDroit Park neighborhood by providing two libraries and attracting townhouses and a Starbucks.

Now the private historically black institution is seeking to help revitalize the D.C. school system by launching a public charter school for middle school students.

Karen E. Barnes, from left, Stella Pla and Yohance C. Maqubela are helping set up Howard University's charter school. In addition to accelerated classes for students, it will serve as a laboratory for teachers to experiment with teaching methods. (Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)

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Called the Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science, the new school will open in the fall, offering accelerated courses including engineering, genetics and environmental and computer studies, officials said.

It also will serve as a laboratory for teachers at traditional public schools, with professional development classes that will encourage them to experiment with new teaching approaches.

Although the Howard charter school is an independent legal entity, it will have access to all of the university's resources, Howard officials said. The university's education professors will help design curriculum, for example, and its students will work as teacher interns. The school plans to hire 11 full- and part-time teachers. The charter school initially will be housed in a four-story building on campus that was formerly the site of the human ecology department.

Officials at the charter school said they agree with recent comments by Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates and governors across the nation about the need to update the outmoded high school design, which is based largely on an agrarian calendar and an Industrial Age model of assembly-line instruction. The same criticism, they said, applies to elementary and middle school education.

Howard's philosophy is "let's innovate -- see what we can do and put it into practice with real-life students and parents," said Hassan Minor Jr., a senior vice president at Howard who is spearheading the charter school.

"I believe once the middle school is up and running, the high school curricula [in the school system] will be ramped up," he added.

Sharing space in a cramped backroom of a brick storefront on Georgia Avenue, the three top administrators for the charter school were scrambling last week to get it ready for the fall opening.

The school will offer an accelerated program in math and reading every day from 7:45 to 8:30 a.m. "We want to take a kid from where he is and, with the interest of the staff, move him to places he never thought he could go," said Stella Pla, the charter school's chief operating officer, who has worked in the D.C. school system as a principal and taught education at Howard.

From 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., students will take their academic courses in a block schedule -- a series of multi-hour chunks that combine two or more subjects into a single lesson. Then from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m., students will have hands-on experiences in robotics, aerospace, music and dance as well as physical education.

Karen E. Barnes, the school's chief academic officer, said the school will incorporate practices deemed by research to work best for adolescent students. Class sizes, she said, will be small -- 20 students at most. Teachers will adapt lessons to the students' individual learning styles -- visual, aural and hands-on.

"Teachers will be trained in student engagement so students can be active in the learning process," said Barnes, who served as a middle school principal in the Baltimore school system.

Minor envisions establishing a nontraditional classroom environment with tables instead of desks; padded swivel chairs on wheels that can be easily grouped together for teamwork, instead of being aligned in rows; and interactive white boards, instead of blackboards.

Moreover, all students will be supplied with laptops and provided Internet access at home.

Minor said Howard will finance the $1.5 million renovation of the school building, using dedicated federal funds.

"The university will own the building," said Yohance C. Maqubela, the school's chief financial officer. "We'll probably pay $1 a year lease."

With rising real estate prices, many charter schools have had difficulty finding affordable space. Howard school officials said they are fortunate to have the arrangement with the university.

Eventually, Minor said, the school plans to construct a building on vacant land overlooking a reservoir at McMillan Park, using dedicated federal funds, corporate gifts and foundation grants to finance the project.

School officials are seeking 120 sixth-graders for the first class. Applications, which will be accepted until March 30, can be downloaded from www.howard.edu/ms2 or obtained from the office at 2731 Georgia Ave. NW. All applicants must be residents of the District.

If more than 120 students apply, the school will hold a lottery April 5.

The school will enroll sixth- and seventh-graders in fall 2006. The following year it will include eighth-graders. The school could enroll up to 500 students.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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