Mornings at the summer program at one of the District's newest public charter schools typically began with the principal, Khala Johnson, striding down the aisles between tables in the cafeteria/auditorium/gym commanding the students to get funky. "Give me a beat!" she shouted, her shoulder-length dreadlocks shaking.
The 80 or so fifth-graders obliged, stomping their feet and pounding on the tables. On the fourth beat, the chanting began: "You got to read, baby, read! You got to read, baby, read! 'Cause reading is knowledge and knowledge is power, the power for college and I want it!"
It's called "KIPPnotizing" -- what officials at KIPP DC: AIM Academy say is their way of indoctrinating students into a culture of high expectations.
KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) is a network of free, open-enrollment, college-preparatory public schools in under-resourced communities throughout the country. "We learn in fun ways here," said 10-year-old Leonell Cunningham. "It's better than my last school."
KIPP's introduction this upcoming school year of a second D.C. campus -- on the grounds of Congress Heights United Methodist Church, 421 S. Alabama Ave. SE -- is part of a boom in the District's eight-year-old charter-school movement. This year, 14 charter schools are opening, the most since the law establishing the independently run schools went into effect in 1997. Citywide charter school enrollment is expected to reach 16,000 this fall, up from about 15,000 a year ago.
In an expansion being watched closely around the country, the new charter schools are offering an assortment of education options for parents seeking unique education experiences for their children or alternatives to traditional public schools. The selections include a bilingual immersion school for English-speaking students who want to learn Spanish, and vice versa; a math and science academy run by Howard University; a special education school; several early childhood centers; art schools and one school where students will learn dining room etiquette.
"D.C. charter schools lead the pack in terms of market share," said Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based organization that advocates for charter schools and other reforms nationwide.
"In every way, shape and form, in cities around the country, charter schools are serving students' varied learning styles and customizing services for students who need something different than what is offered" in the traditional public schools, she said. "Children have so many needs. You can't educate all of them well in the same manner."
One customized service is the dual-language program -- the first public Spanish-English language immersion middle school for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders -- the Academia Bilingue de la Comunidad (ABC) is offering in light of the District's growing Latino population.
So far, about half the 150 students are native-English speakers seeking to learn Spanish and the other half are native-Spanish speakers seeking to learn English. The students will be taught language arts and science in English and social studies and math in Spanish.
By exposing themselves to two cultures, "the students will get a wide worldview and will have more marketable skills," said Charles W. Jackson, executive director of the school, which for now is leasing space at National Memorial Baptist Church, 1501 Columbia Rd. NW. "Research shows that students who are in bilingual or dual-language programs actually score better on standardized tests," he said.
The only D.C. public school now offering a dual-language program is Oyster Bilingual Elementary, in Northwest, which has a Spanish-English bilingual curriculum. Jackson said he hopes that Oyster graduates will enroll at ABC and that the two schools can establish partnerships. Already, some Oyster teachers have helped write ABC's curricula, he said
Another need charter school advocates are seeking to address this fall is a lack of special-education facilities in the city. The D.C. public school system has among the highest per-pupil costs in the country, largely attributed to a disproportionate number of special-education students who must be transported to private facilities and public schools outside the city because local schools are unable to accommodate them.
Officials at City Lights School, which offers vocational education to youths with mild mental retardation or emotional/behavior disorders, said they are transforming their private special-education facility into a public charter school. The school plans to double its enrollment to 65 students in the fall.
Founders of a new charter school for elementary students are introducing a program they say will help draw more middle-class students to public education. Hope Community Public Charter School, at Christ Church of Washington, 3855 Massachusetts Ave. NW, will offer a liberal arts curriculum focusing on the classics.
School officials say they aim to instill values, such as a respect for etiquette, into students. At lunch, "We will use plastic utensils and students will be expected to know where the fork goes and the knife goes," said Principal George Sanker. "They will learn that you don't eat until everyone is at the table."
"The rituals and symbols," he said, "give meaning and purpose to the hard work you do. They give a sense of community; they nurture a sense of character."
Despite an attempt to innovate, many charter schools in the city posted lackluster results in reading and math on last spring's Stanford 9 standardized test.
According to results released earlier this month, seven of 16 charter schools under the authority of the Board of Education are listed as "in need of improvement" for failing for two consecutive years to meet adequate yearly progress as required by the federal No Child Left Behind law. Twelve of 31 charter school campuses under the jurisdiction of the D.C. Public Charter School Board were also in that category. The law establishing charter schools required that two entities oversee the chartering process.
More than half the schools in the traditional public school system were in need of improvement under No Child Left Behind.
The data show that "the charter schools are not better than DCPS schools," said Cherita Whiting, board member of the citywide PTA. Whiting said she withdrew her son from Paul Junior High Charter School, where she was a board member, because she was dissatisfied with the school's academics.
"One thing I'll give [the school system]," she said. "They're checking teacher certification. That's not the case in the charter schools."
Still, the original KIPP school in D.C., called KEY (Knowledge Empowers You) Academy, in Southeast, has posted the highest math scores in the city. The school, now in its fourth year, serves 320 fifth-, sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders. Moreover, another study conducted by the Virginia-based Educational Policy Institute showed that students at KEY and at 26 other KIPP schools around the country made significant gains in math and reading, well above those of their low-income counterparts at other public schools.
Yet the new KIPP AIM school, like many other charter schools, is having trouble finding affordable permanent space. The crunch is attributed to the city's real estate boom, which has driven up rents. Like the AIM school, several other charter schools lease space in churches.
The D.C. Board of Education last month approved a plan allowing two of the charter schools under its jurisdiction to lease space in two underused public schools.
While charter school advocates complained that more charter schools should have received approval to "co-locate" in traditional public school buildings, some school board members said charter schools in the future could get access to entire buildings the school system may shed once it completes a comprehensive study of facilities later this year.
In the meantime, officials at KIPP are scouting around for a suitable building to meet their needs, but making do in the short term.
Walls throughout the building are decorated with positive affirmations: "Work Hard," "High Expectations," "There are No Shortcuts."
"We have to be really creative with space. The cafeteria will be used for indoor sports and for our Saturday school when we offer dance and art," said Johnson."We did have to go down on enrollment," she said, "so that we could make sure the kids are comfortable."