A Bridge to a Charter School

By Justin Blum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 25, 2004

There are few programs for troubled students in the District's public school system, and money for new ones is scarce. So administrators are turning to an unlikely ally for help: a public charter school.

This fall, the Maya Angelou Public Charter School will be allowed to open a new campus in a D.C. school building. Counselors will also recommend the program to parents of some troubled students, an acknowledgement that the charter can provide a better opportunity.

In reaching out to Maya Angelou, school administrators are attempting to create a new relationship with charter schools, which they have often viewed as their adversaries. Interim Superintendent Elfreda W. Massie said she is talking to officials of three other charter schools about working with other students, including those who need special education or bilingual programs.

"We wanted to prove that all these schools chartered in D.C. are public schools," said Steven G. Seleznow, the school system's former chief of staff who helped negotiate the agreement with the Maya Angelou charter school. "We don't have to fight with the charter down the street. Maybe if we started to talk to them and they started to talk with us, maybe we could do things together."

In exchange for using the building, Maya Angelou will pay D.C. public schools $250 per student the first year and $500 per student in subsequent years. The charter school's costs will be significantly lower than if it sought its own facility.

Students at Maya Angelou will be able to participate in school system athletics, which charter students cannot do now. Most of the students will be drawn from schools in wards 7 and 8; counselors will recommend those who frequently skip classes, have been arrested or have other problems. Under the law, the school system cannot require students to attend a charter.

The program would start with 75 students in grades 9 and 10 and later expand through 12th grade, including as many as 165 students. Like the program at the existing campus, students would attend small classes and would be in school for 10 hours a day four days a week and a fifth shorter day; the school also offers an extended school year.

Charter schools receive public funding based on their enrollment but operate independent of school system control. Even though it will be housed in a school system building where other programs are underway -- Evans Middle School in far Northeast -- Maya Angelou will retain control over its curriculum, hiring and other operations.

The number of charter schools in the District, and nationally, has been increasing. Charters educate nearly 18 percent of the children enrolled in public schools in the city.

School board member Julie Mikuta (District 1) and others said that helping successful charter schools expand and offer programs to more students ultimately benefits the city. In the past, some school administrators expressed concern that the increasing popularity of charter schools would mean less funding for the school system because both sets of schools are funded based on enrollment. The school system has not previously officially sanctioned recommending that students attend a charter school.

There has been collaboration between traditional and charter schools in other cities, including Milwaukee, Los Angeles and Wilmington, Del.

"What we're seeing now is a recognition that the District itself cannot handle . . . everything it needs to do by itself in a centralized way," said Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based group that supports charter schools.

David Domenici, co-founder of Maya Angelou, said that students will benefit from the agreement because the school will be able to recruit students from D.C. schools before they drop out. Many students now at Maya Angelou, whose campus is in the Shaw neighborhood of Northwest, had dropped out of public schools.

"We wanted to find a way to be part of a group of people to bridge some gaps between public charter schools and D.C. public schools," Domenici said.

The District school board endorsed the agreement with Maya Angelou last week. Some school board members said that current alternative high school programs -- the Moore Academy and Choice Academy -- are inadequate to meet demand and are of substandard quality. School board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz referred to the Choice Academy's high school program as a "holding cell."

Negotiations with Maya Angelou began during the administration of former D.C. school superintendent Paul L. Vance. The charter school must obtain approval from its oversight body, the D.C. Public Charter School Board, to open the new campus.

School board members praised Maya Angelou's programs and noted that it raises significant amounts of private money.

Ronnell Howard, a student at the existing campus of Maya Angelou, said he did not take his future seriously before starting at the charter school. At his old school, Evans Middle, he received all F's. At Maya Angelou, which Howard has attended for three years, he received his first A and B and is now reading at grade level.

"I feel comfortable learning there," said Howard, 17. "My teachers help me and stay involved in my life."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company