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The Future of D.C. Public Schools: Traditional or Charter Education?

Free to control its budget and curriculum, the school follows an instructional model that organizes academic subjects around a broad theme each semester. Students studying the Chesapeake Bay, for example, might analyze water samples in science and read about the bay's history. When the semester ends, the students make a presentation to parents, who are strongly encouraged to attend and applaud their children.

That's what Koker was doing on a sunny afternoon near the end of the school year: waiting for Sierra, 6, to join other first- and second-graders in an oral report on the life cycle of bugs. Although the school produces excellent test scores, Koker said, she most appreciates the warmth and energy of the staff.

"Every day, I ask Sierra, 'Did you have a good day?' And she says, 'No, Mommy. I had a wonderful day,' " Koker said. "It puts one at ease as a parent."

About half of Capital City's students are black, a quarter are white and a quarter are Latino. Just over half come from low-income families, making it far more diverse than most traditional and charter schools, both of which are predominantly black and poor.

When Capital City opened, "there were no white students at all in charter schools. We were really worried we would be accused of creating a white school," said Anne Herr, one of Capital City's founders. But diversity has been a selling point among parents of all races, who praise the school as a model of integration.

"I've watched neighbors and friends say, 'I'm leaving Washington because of the schools,' " Herr said. "Now I think there are people who are coming to the city or staying in the city because they're happy with the school their child's in."

Some Excellent, Some Incompetent

The District's charters were approved by a Republican Congress in April 1996 over the objections of many school officials. Viewed as a politically palatable alternative to private-school vouchers, the legislation won bipartisan support, and President Bill Clinton signed it.

But the first year was not auspicious. Just two charters opened with a total of 160 students. One of those quickly made headlines when Mary A.T. Anigbo, principal of Marcus Garvey Public Charter School, was accused of assaulting a news reporter she had ordered out of the school. Marcus Garvey eventually closed amid allegations of financial mismanagement.

In the past 10 years, 12 D.C. charter schools have closed. Charter advocates say that is not a sign of failure but a willingness to end experiments that aren't working, a stark contrast to the bureaucratic barriers that make it difficult to address problems in traditional urban schools.

"We bury our dead," said Malcolm Peabody, founder of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, a D.C. charter advocacy group.

After the 1997 appointment of an independent chartering authority, the movement began to take off. Charter advocates and their critics have since bickered over how best to measure performance, a task complicated by the wide variation among schools and a lack of extensive test data.

Looking at test results from the 2004-05 school year, the Progressive Policy Institute found that 54 percent of D.C. charter school students were reported as proficient in math, compared with 44 percent of students in traditional schools. Charter students also did better than their counterparts in reading.


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