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Boarding Schools Nurture Low-Income Students

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 21, 2004; Page A08

Lynnette Blackmon liked the small classes and energetic teachers at Maya Angelou Public Charter School in the District, but she was often hours late. "I had a big tardy issue," said the tall, slender 17-year-old.

Most schools try to persuade students to get out of bed in the morning by lowering their grades or giving them detention when they don't, but Maya Angelou is one of a small but growing number of schools that have a different approach to the problem. They invite teenagers who need extra help to live in school quarters.

Maya Angelou residential students study together at night. The school is one of a few D.C. institutions offering the advantages and support of boarding schools to low-income students. (John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)

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Last year, Lynnette moved into a well-kept brick rowhouse on 13th Street NW -- one of three rented homes, each staffed with an adult resident supervisor, in which her school houses 15 of its 110 students. Not only did she stop being late, she said, but her grades rose, and she began to shed a crippling shyness.

Living with four other girls, she said, "forced me to interact with people."

A generation ago, American boarding schools were generally of two kinds: private institutions for the college-bound children of the wealthy, or state-supported facilities for children under court supervision.

But now a few private schools and charter schools, which are independent public schools exempt from ordinary rules and procedures, have set themselves up as boarding schools for low-income students who want many of the advantages and the support given to bankers' and lawyers' children at Groton and St. Mark's.

"At the residence, they make sure you do your homework," said Blackmon's friend and housemate Ingrid Nunez, 16. The students are in bed by 11 p.m., they said, and up in time to catch the Metro to school, a mile from the boarding home.

"Local philanthropists, educators, judges, clergy and others around the country are starting local residential schools rather than just despair of the conditions so many youth live in, and fail in," said Heidi Goldsmith, founder and executive director of the Washington-based Coalition for Residential Education. There are only about 30 such schools, public and private, in the country, but more are planned, she said.

Some experts think the idea makes sense. "Boarding schools can nurture a shared commitment to disciplined study and achievement," said Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California-Berkeley. "It builds a tighter community of learners, among dedicated teachers and students who gain a new sense of confidence. Rich parents who have sent their kids to boarding schools have understood this for centuries."

The movement toward boarding schools for low-income students has made some of its greatest strides in the District, where both Maya Angelou and the SEED Public Charter School receive an extra $14,000 in federal tax dollars each year for every student who lives on their premises.

SEED, a seventh- to 12th-grade school, has all 300 of its students living on a new campus in a low-income section of Southeast Washington, its dormitories as shiny and well-equipped as any New England prep school. The school's founders, Eric Adler and Rajiv Vinnakota, said they realized that the school would not work without government aid, so while raising millions in private funds to build the dormitories, they helped persuade Congress to add a boarding stipend to the D.C. school funding law.

The money is not limited to charter schools. "If Anacostia High School wanted to start a residential program, they could use the money," Adler said.

No other state or city provides such money, and that has led some schools to fail. A charter school in Massachusetts and one in New Jersey opened six years ago with residence programs like SEED's, but both schools have since closed.

"The residential components are the most expensive part of the total program," Goldsmith said. "If the youths are not wards of the state, bringing with them [federal] funds, then either the state, the locality or private funds must be raised."

Goldsmith's coalition includes public and private schools, some with histories dating to the late 19th century, and some as new as SEED and Maya Angelou.

Among those boarding schools most focused on teaching students from low-income neighborhoods are Girard College, a first- through 12th-grade school in Philadelphia; Happy Hill Farm Academy/Home in Granbury, Tex.; Milton Hershey School in Hershey, Pa.; and Bethesda Home for Boys in Savannah, Ga.

Allison Boisvert, spokeswoman for Covenant Academy of Minnesota, a seventh- to 12th-grade school run by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, said: "When children grow up in poverty and their parents grew up in poverty, they simply do not have the same access to anything, let alone education and understanding the rules of the dominant society. It then becomes our job to help children to be better prepared for a world that for the most part has left their parents behind."

Educators say many students thrive under 24-hour supervision. Maya Angelou co-founder David Domenici cited several alumni who were close to dropping out of high school but are now in college. But no test data so far show how such schools compare with others academically.

More than 70 percent of Maya Angelou graduates have gone to college in recent years. All 21 graduating seniors at SEED this year went on to four-year schools, and its average SAT score was significantly higher than neighboring regular schools. But on the achievement tests given to all D.C. students, the SEED and Maya Angelou results, like those of other city schools, are not very good.

The schools' students also struggle with the gap between the academic intensity of their school routines and the more relaxed rules they find when they go home on weekends to their families. Fuller said traditional prep schools have a similar problem, "since their students often come to see the insular world of ideas and knowledge as cut off from the problems and challenges facing real people back home."

Quentin Graham, the clinical psychologist on the Maya Angelou staff, said part of his job is to deal with this "clash with the premature independence that they have managed to establish outside the school."

He does it by talking often to students about all the rules they face, both in class and at the school residence. "There are very few people," he tells them, "who are able to operate successfully without following some rules."

Blackmon said the lesson makes sense to her.

"I like it here a lot," she said.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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