Reasons to cheer at Anacostia High

Friday, June 11, 2010

ANACOSTIA HIGH School will be much in the news Friday, as first lady Michelle Obama is scheduled to address the graduating class. The bigger news, though, is the work underway to transform this long-troubled D.C. high school. A unique partnership between the D.C. public school system and a charter organization is beginning to show signs of progress.

"They didn't care, so I didn't care," one senior recently told us. She was describing the school leadership and teaching staff before Friendship Public Charter Schools, at the behest of Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, this year took responsibility for academic instruction. The young woman, one of 16 Anacostia students selected for a scholarship program, recalled how she would regularly skip school and, when she did show up for class, would not think twice about acting up. That kind of behavior was hardly unusual at what was widely seen as the city's worst high school, with its reputation for violence and record of dismal academic performance. Nearly half its students failed to graduate. Repeated efforts to turn the school around floundered, with four principals cycling through in four years.

Unable to meet federal guidelines, the school legally had to be restructured. Ms. Rhee selected Friendship, largely because of its successful record of educating children in Ward 8. A short walk from Anacostia is the Friendship Collegiate Public Charter High School, from which 94 percent of students graduate; 100 percent of those are accepted into college. Friendship had all Anacostia teachers and employees reapply for their jobs; 85 percent were let go, and energetic new staff members were hired. The school was organized into smaller programs and renamed the Academies at Anacostia. Today the halls are orderly, a new uniform policy is enforced, attendance is up and suspensions are down. Where once teachers thought nothing of students asleep at their desks, there is now an insistence on paying attention.

Real change, though, doesn't happen overnight, or even in one year. Academic performance is still unsatisfactory, and it remains to be seen whether Friendship will meet its targets for attendance and graduation. Still, there is no doubt that Anacostia is finally off to good start. Its students on Friday will have more to cheer than Mrs. Obama.

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