Jay Mathews: Some D.C. Eighth-Graders Can Stay at Middle School for Ninth Grade

By Jay Mathews
Monday, March 30, 2009

Christian Carter's conversation with his mother began last fall just before dinner. The eighth-grader said he didn't like any of next year's D.C. high school choices. The places were too scary or too disorganized, he said. He wanted to stay at Shaw Middle School, a former educational disaster area suddenly doing well. Other classmates had similar chats with their parents, their principal and eventually the chancellor of the city schools.

Now, to the astonishment of nearly every adult involved, class president Christian and his friends have become, as far as historians can determine, the first eighth-graders ever to lobby successfully for a ninth grade at their middle school so they could have an extra year to prepare for the jarring realities of urban high school.

Shelontae Carter, Christian's mother, said he and his co-conspirators, Trevon Brown, Daamontae Brown, Ronald Bryant, Marc Jones, Davaughn Taylor and Velinzo Williams-Hines, were spoiled. They ought to grow up, she said, and adjust to ninth grade in a high school just as she did. Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee was startled to find the seven boys from Shaw in her conference room, wearing suits and ties and armed with data. She is still not quite sure how they pulled it off.

In the end, it was impossible to say no to children who were telling her that D.C. educators had done such a good job bringing high standards and creative teaching back to Shaw that they wanted to get more of it before moving on. "It's maybe not the right decision for the system," said Rhee, who had to make many last-minute adjustments, "but it is the right decision for those kids." She said this would be only for Shaw eighth-graders who wanted to stay, and only this once, unless of course some other group of future K Street lawyers shows up at her office with an argument she can't resist.

If one looked for an adult perpetrator in this scheme, the most likely suspect would be Brian Betts, 42, the energetic principal whom Rhee stole from Montgomery County to lead what is formally known as Shaw Middle School at Garnet-Patterson. It is an amalgam of two D.C. middle schools so low-performing that they had to be completely reorganized. The school is temporarily housed at the Garnet-Patterson campus until the Shaw campus is renovated. I have been following its progress in a series of columns and have heard many parents and students praise Betts, but they and he insist that adding a ninth grade was entirely the students' idea.

At least 90 Shaw eighth-graders have signed up for the new ninth grade. Many said their months at the new Shaw have changed them. Ahmad Edmonds, a 5-foot-8 power forward on the basketball team, was once an indifferent student, but he has jumped from below basic, the bottom rung on D.C. achievement tests, to proficient in reading. He had the second-highest scores in his reading class. He dreams of going to DeMatha, the Hyattsville private school, or the D.C. science magnet McKinley Tech, but he has signed up for ninth grade at Shaw because "I want to see my teachers again and do better so I can get ready for high school."

His mother, Cynthia Edmonds, said that is fine. "He is more focused, and he is learning a lot more," she said. Tawanna Henderson said the same about her granddaughter, Dayanira "Day-Day" Hough. Last year, the vibrant Day-Day was often in trouble and got below-average grades. This year, her grades and scores are way up. "She has made a 180-degree turn," Henderson said. She still wants to go to Duke Ellington High this fall, but Shaw is her second choice.

There is little data yet on how much the students have improved. Betts offers encouraging preliminary data, but the real numbers won't be released until the ninth-grade experiment has begun.

By letting 90 students remain with Betts for one more year, Rhee is acknowledging that some of the high schools they might attend still need work. "I wasn't in a situation where I could look these kids in the eyes and say, 'I have a really good option for all of you to go to high school' " next year, Rhee said. But she said the schools that would most likely take them, such as Cardozo, Dunbar and Roosevelt, were improving and would be ready for them as 10th-graders. Carter, Christian's mother, already has two children at Dunbar. She praised its engineering program and athletics opportunities.

"I am really loving Shaw," Carter said, "and I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that my son loves it there." But she is reserving judgment on the ninth-grade-in-middle-school venture. "I will have to see how it goes," she said.

In the meantime, she hides her pride with teasing. "Oh, my goodness," she told her son. "You are a Shaw addict."

E-mail: mathewsj@washpost.com

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