For Monique Matthews and Other Grads, the Charter School Sowed Success
By Natalie Hopkinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 30, 2004; Page C01
It's the eve of her high school graduation and senior Monique Matthews is all goodbyed out.
She is one of the SEED Public Charter School's Class of 2004, the first graduating class, actually, for this six-year-old experiment in public education: a boarding school, with all the privilege and prestige that such a concept implies, right here in the District, right in Southeast Washington.
Monique, chosen by her classmates to give a commencement address, has polished her speech to a high-gloss sheen. She has spent the morning at a salon in Clinton getting her flip done. Her acrylic nails are freshly painted in pastels with sparkles and match her toes. Yes, yes, "I'm ready," she tells the umpteenth person who asks her. Time to get on with life.
Tonight is the SEED Senior Banquet -- one in a whirlwind week of farewells.
The school cafeteria has been transformed. Tuxedoed waiters flutter about serving beef tenderloin and roast chicken in wine sauce between refills of apple cider. The scent of fresh flowers wafts at tables covered with white cloth. Gold "2004" helium balloons wave triumphantly behind the dais where speaker after speaker revels in the night's calculus: 21 high school seniors, 21 graduates, 21 city kids going to college.
"You entrusted your children to an unknown group, embarking on an untested program," says Glen Lewy, one of SEED's early financial backers. "It's important for the families of the graduates to stand up because you are the stars tonight."
"I can't imagine what it took for you to give up your babies," adds Lesley Poole, SEED's director of admissions. "I can't imagine. You let us experiment with your children. For that I say, 'Thank you.' "
Monique's family isn't here. The 17-year-old sits with friends at a table near the back of the room.
As the banquet wraps up, the room slowly clears of her other family: "Da Family," as her old crew from seventh-grade homeroom deemed itself. Among them are her on-again, off-again boyfriend and the hyped-up teacher who nicknamed her M&M for her sweet smile.
She has lived in two worlds these six years. But now, in the waning moments of the evening, Monique is sitting alone at a table, resting her head on a fist. Like others in the room, she's fighting back tears. When Poole comes to console her, she waves her off.
An Idea Takes Root
The premise was pretty simple, maybe obvious: A lot of city kids are living and learning in environments that are failing them. So why not just take them out?
Catch them right out of elementary school and move them into dormitories where you can teach them social and life skills. During the day, immerse them in an intensive college-preparatory curriculum comparable to elite boarding schools. Lavish them with the kind of emotional and financial support usually reserved for rich kids.
Maybe, SEED founders Raj Vinnakota and Eric Adler believed, just maybe those kids will make it to college.
Set aside, for a moment, the multitude of questions that kind of solution raises for communities. (Okay, one: What about everybody else?) For the 21 of the original 40 SEEDs who stuck with the program -- through six years and many temporary campuses before settling on its current multimillion-dollar campus in Southeast Washington -- it worked. And today, there are 305 more students in the pipeline.
The idea turned out to be pretty expensive, $25,000 annually per child. All but $2,000 of that cost is being paid by D.C. taxpayers under charter school legislation (by comparison, the city spends about $10,000 per student in public non-boarding schools). Students must apply through a lottery.
Luckily for SEED, no sooner had it opened in a temporary location in the attic of the Capital Children's Museum in 1998 than media attention and start-up cash began to flow. Oprah Winfrey gave; so did Bill Gates. Eventually, the school ended up raising $24 million.
Through bank loans and donations, SEED transformed the charred former site of the defunct Weatherless Elementary School into an iron-gated, three-building compound with boys' and girls' dormitories, a student center, a gymnasium and a leafy courtyard, all spread across four acres surrounded by federal parkland.
"Most kids, given a shot, will run with it," says Adler, who, along with fellow management consultant-turned-"social entrepreneur" Vinnakota, established the SEED Foundation (Schools for Educational Evolution and Development) in 1997. "These kids, it turns out, can do just as well as other kids. Once you establish that, at that point, there is no moral authority to do anything else but that investment."
Administrators acknowledge that they still wrestle with improving SAT scores and student retention, but they're making the case for that moral authority through the kids who have graduated. Their students are heading to institutions that include Princeton and Georgetown, Howard and Ohio Wesleyan, Virginia State and the Art Institute of Washington.
Students such as "Ms. Monique Matthews," says Poole, who has become a mentor and friend to Monique, who turned 18 last week. "That's my poster child."
Monique, one of 10 children, came to SEED as a 12-year-old living in public housing. At SEED she was a cheerleader and active in student government, the kind of achiever who got accepted by the five colleges to which she applied. Of those, she chose Charleston Southern University.
Monique doesn't know about being a "poster child," but she does know about gratitude and duty, so in the last hectic days of school, with all the packing and the goodbyes, she agrees to share that week with a reporter. The kids at SEED are used to the media attention. And in a way, it seems, they know the up-from-the-street script: the "inner-city kid makes it against the odds" story.
Monique knows it, too, except she's not all that interested in playing the obligatory role.
"No, I'm not poor. I don't come from a broken-down home," she says. She was never "at-risk" -- whatever that means. She doesn't need to be rescued, especially from a family and community she loves. She is just a girl who has always wanted to go to college. And, she says, "I wasn't going to let anyone get in my way."
On the Move
Monique Matthews is perched on a twin bed across from her stuffed animal collection in her room in her family's Anacostia rowhouse. Piles of laundry and detritus from her last, frantic days at SEED are scattered about.
"That was my 14th birthday," she says, pointing at a framed photo in which she strikes a flirty pose in a two-piece swimsuit, the Aegean Sea splashing behind her during a class trip to Athens.
She points to another photo of the crumbling remains of the Acropolis, "the highest point in Athens. If you worked there, you could see the whole city."
Two of her sisters, Kayla, 7, and Keyana, 9, have just come home from Savoy Elementary. They bounce up the stairs past Kevin, 15, and Calvin, 19, who are watching the Mekhi Phifer movie "Paid in Full." The giggling girls skip into Monique's bedroom to show off certificates for the honor roll and good citizenship. She beams, and goads them into showing their art portfolios to a visitor. "We always used to play teacher," Monique explains as they leave her room.
This has been home since September, when the family left another rowhouse in the Eckington section of Northeast Washington. Their old landlord stopped accepting their housing voucher to cash in on the neighborhood's hot housing market. Before that, the family lived in Southeast's Frederick Douglass public housing complex, which they had to leave to make room for new mixed-income housing being constructed under a federal program called HOPE VI.
And before that, for most of the 1990s, the family lived in the last place Monique's mother wanted to be. "Anywhere but Potomac Gardens," Greer Matthews recalls pleading to counselors at the Atlantic Street Shelter, where they'd lived for more than a year. But the city was closing the shelter, so Matthews agreed to move into the three-bedroom walk-up in Southeast.
"It was terrible," says the 41-year-old stay-at-home mom. "Open-air drug markets. Then the Muslims came" -- Nation of Islam-affiliated security guards. "Then they fought the Muslims, too."
Monique's dad, Calvin Holton, 39, who works at a furniture company, says cryptically: "It was a period of my life when things were rough for me. I did what I had to do. I made sure they ate."
They have been together off and on for years, and Holton splits his time, living at the house in Anacostia and at his dad's. Still, he and Greer try to work as a team in raising their nine kids, ages 8 to 19. All except for Monique attended regular D.C. public schools this past school year. (Greer Matthews also has a 23-year-old son from a previous relationship who is a Montgomery County bus driver.)
Monique's mother didn't finish high school, and her father has a GED. "She saw us struggle, just making it day-by-day," her mother says, puffing on a Newport in her living room.
Holton takes a pull from her cigarette. Monique's "going to strive so she can do better," he says.
She was always their "good girl," the one who did as she was told, who mostly stayed inside, her head buried in a book. She was the one chronicling their lives through sketches and a homemade journal that she called her "Thinking Book." The one always drawing globes.
She was only 4 when she joined the cheerleading squad at Benning-Stoddert Recreation Center, and met the squad's coach, Celethia Berry. "She'd be like a little lady, coming on her own," recalls Berry, 37, who was also a teacher's aide at Monique's elementary school. "I knew she was trying to be on her own, but she needed someone. So I grabbed her up."
Berry became Monique's self-appointed godmother, buying her books, participating with her in Girl Scouts and taking her on cheerleading and dance exhibitions throughout the region. By age 9, Monique asked Berry if she could live with her.
Life in Potomac Gardens was getting to her.
"You know how sometimes you get tired of the same stuff happening all the time?" Monique remembers. "A fight every day. I like quiet. I like to be by myself. There was always an interruption. People outside for no reason at all."
Since Monique had been spending so much time with Berry, it made sense that she live with her, Greer Matthews says. "I guess maybe to get out of the neighborhood for a while," she adds.
Monique lived with Berry and her mother in Fort Meade for two years, until she missed her family so much that she wanted to go home. Soon after she moved back, though, Monique came bursting through the door one afternoon with news of an opportunity: someone had visited John Tyler Elementary to talk about a free college-prep boarding school.
No Place Like Home
They started that first school year in the attic of the Capital Children's Museum with two big makeshift rooms that served as boys' and girls' dorms. They ate catered food on trays amid stacks of dusty books.
Later, they would live on the campus of Trinity College, take classes in a building on H Street, and later still climb eight flights of stairs each day at an office building downtown. Monique was one of three students who'd come to SEED from Tyler Elementary. Another was her best friend, Kim Harrod. The two had known each other since they were 4. Now they were on an adventure together that at first, Kim says, felt like "I was on vacation."
But the moving around from site to site was hard.
Each weekend the students went home to their families. For Monique, getting back to school each Sunday was sometimes difficult, especially when her father's car wasn't working. Between family and classmates pitching in, though, she made it through the year -- and she thrived. Her peers elected her as SEED's first female student of the year. Jaron Bell was elected as the first male student of the year.
Maybe that was providence.
"When I first saw Monique, I thought she was beautiful," says 17-year-old Jaron, who is tall with shoulder-length dreadlocks. "I had a crush on her for a long time."
They started hanging out, he says. Monique made him a better student. "She kept me focused in class and out of class." But he wanted more. He gave her flowers "just 'cause it's Wednesday," cleaned out her school locker and took Monique and her younger sisters out to feed ducks. Soon after Kim, who was Monique's roommate, left SEED in 10th grade, they made it official. "It was that charm," Jaron says, jokingly, about himself. "That boy had charm."
There was the charm, yes. But there was also a serious void left when Kim decided to leave SEED soon after Sept. 11, 2001. Monique and Kim had been inseparable since they were preschoolers living in Potomac Gardens. Monique was disappointed but understood the frustrations. Campuses, food service, uniforms, everything was constantly changing.
"She said she was tired," Monique says of Kim. "I was, like, 'I'm tired, too.' Everyone was tired of the rules that were constantly being changed. We understood that the school was new, that it had to make a foundation for itself. It just got tiring."
The difficulties drew the remaining staff and students closer. Monique became tight with Poole, a 40-year-old Californian who'd left a job managing the construction of Nordstrom's department stores to become a founding faculty member of SEED.
"I just, like, clung to her," Monique says of Poole. "She made it a lot easier. I always had somebody to talk to, to comfort me. She always seemed to be a mother to everyone."
Monique went from hanging out in Poole's office between classes to the two of them shopping together, getting their hair done together, and Monique earning extra money running errands for Poole. They've also had long debates about why SEED had become necessary.
"I know the neighborhoods we come from aren't perfect," Monique says. But the media, the school and the foundation act "like we would be nothing without SEED, and I just don't think that's fair."
Poole says that by pointing out the obstacles to success in those communities, they are celebrating the students' strength. But, she adds, she understands some of the students' feelings about where they come from. "It's what's made them strong," Pool says of their communities. "It's made them resilient. It's the fiber of who they are. . . . The boarding experience does put them in conflict with themselves."
All of this, Poole believes, is great preparation for college.
"I know the experiences that lie ahead are going to challenge them," she says. "It will challenge what they believe . . . where they want to live. Do they really want to come back to D.C.? It's life. It happens."
Catching Up With Kim
At leafy Fort Dupont Park in Southeast Washington, Monique sits at a crowded picnic table covered with mounds of crabs and wooden mallets for SEED's Senior Crab Feast.
Suddenly water splashes their table with a thud. It's Jaron helping to get a water fight going. "It's on like Donkey Kong!" one senior screams, before racing across the field to retaliate. Soon no one is spared -- students, administrators, family members. Everyone is soaked.
Jaron, who is headed off to study broadcasting, escorted Monique to the senior prom a few weeks ago. They'll be one state away when she goes to school in Charleston and he goes to North Carolina A&T. "If our paths meet again, I'll leave that in God's hands," he says.
Monique has brought Kim to the crab feast. "It's nice to see how everybody looks so much older now," Kim says.
After leaving SEED, Kim learned she has multiple sclerosis, and she has bounced around to several high schools. She discovered a love for cosmetology at the vocational Phelps Career Senior High School until it was merged with Spingarn High. After the merger, Kim was suspended for bringing a knife to school for what her mother describes as protection from a girl crew who jumped one of her friends. This semester she fell just short of graduating from Coolidge High. She did, however, ace the entrance exam to Dudley's Beauty College in Northeast, and cheerily reports, between bites of crab, that she just started taking classes there.
When Poole spots Kim, she makes a beeline to the table to hug the former SEED student. Over the years, Poole watched nearly half of the original 40 kids leave the program. Some missed home. Some found other schools that suited them better. Others came back from the summer pregnant or with girlfriends back home. Kim's seventh-grade school portrait still hangs in Poole's office as a reminder of those students lost along the way.
Onward and . . .
A string ensemble strums the Chaconne from "Acis et Galatee" as the inaugural graduating class of SEED Public Charter School marches through the Adler-Vinnakota Student Center, boys in maroon caps and gowns and girls in white.
"Momo!" Greer Matthews cries out to the procession, as Calvin Holton snaps photos beside his father, John McConnell, and daughters Mona, Kayla and Keyana.
"I'm gonna cry," warns aunt Raina McDowell.
Godmother and cheerleading coach Celethia Berry has a video camera, and brandishes a tattoo of her first mascot, the Panther of Weatherless Elementary, which was once located on SEED's grounds. Berry waves to the senior procession like a beauty pageant finalist. Monique, spotting them, grins and twists a cupped hand back and forth.
Dick Jung, SEED's head of school, introduces the senior commentary portion of the June 19 commencement, to be given by Monique Matthews. "Monique has a knack for seizing life's offerings," Jung says. "Monique will move mountains, believe me, because she knows when to say yes."
Monique, her silver "M" pendant flashing at her neck, saunters over to the podium, and thanks all the appropriate people and smiles at the crowd. Mona, 12, will be attending SEED in the fall.
"One thing I have learned about boarding schools is that you never really unpack," Monique says to the crowd. "You can almost compare our journey to a cross-country bus trip.
"At 12 years old, our parents took us via trains, buses, cars and even by foot, to the first SEED School lottery in 1998. They were unaware of the journey but were still willing to take the risk. And to our parents, for that leap of faith, we thank you."
Flashing a smile, she goes on to describe all the stops on the journey: from "the Attic" at Capitol Children's Museum to international ports of call such as Greece and Costa Rica.
"As we were on the move, some passengers wanted their trip to come to an end, so they decided to get off the bus," she says. ". . . The drivers changed. The tour guides changed. And sometimes," she pauses here for effect, "we had to check our boarding passes to make sure we were on the right trip."
Her classmates laugh with recognition.
"And now six years later, we are able to make that same leap of faith our parents did in 1998. We are able to continue our journey in education and more interesting stops to come. And to the Class of 2004, I would like to tell you to not be afraid to board another mode of transportation. Just keep moving."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company