Former Democratic Party chairman Robert Strauss and his wife, Helen, said yesterday that they are donating $1 million to the Maya Angelou Public Charter School in the District, believed to be the largest private contribution to any of the District's 31 charter school campuses.

The donation exceeds this year's entire $975,000 budget at Maya Angelou, which opened in fall 1998 to help young people in the justice system and other at-risk teenagers become self-sustaining citizens.

"We just decided we have been blessed and we'd like to make a contribution that would make a difference," said Strauss, a partner in the law firm Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld. He served as ambassador to Moscow under President George Bush, was chairman of the Democratic Party in the 1970s and served as special trade representative in President Jimmy Carter's Cabinet. "And this makes a difference. You just have to look at these kids."

Officials at the school, which enrolls 52 students in grades 9 through 12, said the money will help with the $3 million purchase and renovation of a building on Ninth Street NW. The building, the former Oddfellows Hall, will be used as a comprehensive school and employment center and a dormitory.

"This totally changes the future possibilities for our school and our kids," founder David Domenici said. "Facilities--obtaining and renovating and financing--is the biggest hurdle for public charter schools."

Charter schools, which now enroll about 7,000 students in the District, operate with public funds but outside the normal bureaucracy of the traditional school system. Shirley Monastra, head of the D.C. Public Charter School Resource Center, said the $1 million is believed to be double the largest private donation given to a D.C. charter school since the first ones opened in the city in 1996. She would not say which school received a $500,000 donation.

Maya Angelou, at 13th and V streets NW, is viewed by many educators as one of the most successful charter schools. Students alternate between time in the classroom and internships in the work world. Some live in school-sponsored group homes.

Samantha Crandal, 18, was in the justice system for a year before a judge sent her in 1997 to the See Forever program, which evolved into Maya Angelou. Now she plans to attend college and credits Domenici. "Who knows what would have happened to me?" she said.