Losing Their Anchor
Residential Charter School for Teen Mothers Will Close Its Doors in Northeast in June

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 15, 2009

M any of them are from schools where they felt taunted, stressed, overwhelmed by the thicket of challenges that come with being both a high school student and a new mother.

For Tequila Green, 18, MEI Futures Academy was a haven, a one-of-a-kind D.C. residential charter school where she could wake up with her 2-year-old daughter in a dorm-style room, have breakfast in the cafeteria and drop her at the on-site nursery before her first class of the day.

"I thought this was a good place," Green said. "We're around other girls that are going through the same things we're going through."

But a vision that once seemed so promising will flicker out next month. The D.C. Public Charter School Board, citing persistent academic and operating problems, revoked MEI's charter at its April meeting. The school, housed in the former Masonic and Eastern Star nursing home on New Hampshire Avenue NE, will close in June.

"The idea was wonderful. I wish very much it had succeeded," said board member Dora Marcus. It was the second time this year that a charter school created for a high-need, hard-to-reach student population has collapsed. City Lights, which served about 75 students with serious emotional and learning disabilities, relinquished its charter and closed in February.

The board, responsible for overseeing the District's 59 publicly funded and independently operated schools, had revoked only three other charters since its inception in 1996. All three -- Southeast Academy, New School for Enterprise and Development and Sasha Bruce -- had financial, academic or management issues but remained open for at least five years. (Four other schools, including City Lights, chose to give up their charters rather than go through the revocation process). MEI has been open for just two years.

As with City Lights, the reasons for its demise are in dispute.

Executive director Aminiyah Muhammad-M'Backe said the school needed more time to reach students who had in many cases dropped off the social grid, leaving school and moving in and out of the judicial system.

"This population is hard," said Muhammad-M'Backe. "People don't want to talk about teenage mothers who are oppositional, defiant, not ashamed of having had babies. They are not on anyone's statistical page. Everyone wants great data. They don't give you the outcome data you want in short order."

Staff members contend that the school has made significant strides and that the board's revocation was unfairly abrupt compared with the forbearance extended to other struggling schools.

"It was on its way, starting to flip, you know? Flip in the right direction," said guidance counselor Cheryl Reinhardt. "This should have been saved."

According to outside audits, interviews and staff reports, MEI lacked a coherent curriculum for its 50 students, with just two on track to graduate this spring. Last year, not one of the 15 10th-graders who took the DC-CAS standardized test achieved proficiency in reading or math.

Muhammad-M'Backe said those scores are not surprising, given that most students entered the school reading on a third- to fifth-grade level.

To reform the academic program, the school hired Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound, a national educational consulting firm that specializes in serving nontraditional student groups by emphasizing hands-on learning in out-of-school settings. But Gladys Graham, the firm's regional director, said constant teacher and administrative turnover made it difficult to put the program into effect.

"The school is not in a place where we could implement the design," she said.

Truancy was chronic, regulators said, running at 50 percent or more during the first quarter of this school year. During a recent unannounced visit, 17 of the school's 31 remaining students -- enrollment has dipped since the closing notice -- were absent.

The truancy has to be viewed in a different context from that of other schools, Muhammad-M'Backe said, because most of it was triggered not by the girls but by their infants, who had to be treated at home or in a hospital for ailments such as chronic asthma and stomach flu.

The school lacked a full-time nurse on site, which meant that adolescents were sometimes giving medicine to their infants without supervision.

Other circumstances at the school suggested poor judgment, such as its attempt to raise money by marketing itself as a bed-and-breakfast during inauguration week. Although an ad appeared online, the idea was considered but never pursued.

One of the most serious issues was MEI's special education program. An inspection of the individual education plans (IEPs) required by federal law for each student showed that they were identical, with only the names changed.

"There are certain failures that are nonnegotiable deal-breakers, such as failing to serve special education students," said board spokeswoman Audrey Williams.

Even students who lament the closing of the school said it went through a rocky first year in 2007-08, with textbook shortages and holes in the curriculum.

"A lot of things weren't in place when we came in," said Charlene Stackhouse, 18, whose 14-month-old daughter, Shaliyah, stays in the nursery while she is in class.

Several students lost their food stamps or other public assistance because they lived at the school, making it difficult for them to afford diapers, formula and other necessities. Muhammad-M'Backe said no one did without, even if it meant frequent 1 a.m. trips to the CVS. Others grew restless with the long hours of school and child care under one roof and became day students.

MEI's young mothers are still figuring out their next moves. The D.C. public schools offer programs at Roosevelt and Ballou high schools, where the students can attend evening classes to work toward a diploma. Anacostia and Cardozo high schools host the New Heights program, which supports teen parents.

Jasmine Ford, a 17-year-old with a 16-month-old son, Issac, will probably try another charter school, possibly Maya Angelou, but is reluctant to leave behind the supportive atmosphere at MEI. "I see a real improvement in my child," she said.

Muhammad-M'Backe said that MEI's students are too easily forgotten and that the idea of a residential school deserves another try.

"I think it has worked," she said. "I think it's just different. Our society has a history of taking different to mean not successful."

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