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Are You Being Served?

How will the hotel and restaurant industry recruit a new generation of public-school graduates? By running its own public school.

Photographs by Darrow Montgomery

This is Lodging Management Program II: first class of the day at the Marriott Hospitality Public Charter High School. Christian Offutt walks in, checks the clock on the wall. She’s not exactly sure what time she was supposed to be here—first period, everybody just kind of wanders in whenever. It’s 9:20 now, though. Which means class has been going on for about 45 minutes. Which means she is late.

But no one’s really here yet anyway. The desks are pushed together in a U shape, and Christian takes a seat at one of the corners, under the gray skylight. There’s a gap of about a foot between the top of the walls and the ceiling, so the sound of kids laughing in the hall floats in. Carolyn Johnson, the teacher, goes out to tell the students to get to class. She comes back with a few strays, and they sit down around the U. There are now five kids, out of 15.

Johnson asks the students to give a number from 1 to 10, along with a word to describe how they feel. One kid says 4 and “tired.” Another: 8 and “optimistic.”

Christian is 16 years old. This is her junior year of high school. She has a pretty, open face, braided hair that falls over her eyes, and two tattoos: a cross on her left upper arm that says “Daddy,” in honor of her late father, and a heart on her right forearm that says “Mom.” Her number is 8. Her word is “enthusiastic,” she says without much enthusiasm.

The sound of other kids chattering still drifts in from the hall. Today, the students are taking turns reading from a section of their textbook titled “A Blueprint for Success: Covey’s Seven Habits.” Covey is Stephen Covey, who has produced numerous best sellers about the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. The habits are Initiative, Creativity, Productivity, Interdependence, Empathy, Synergy, and Consistency. In various outlets, Covey has offered the habits to guide people toward successful careers, families, and emotional conditions. Here, they’re guiding the students to successful entry-level employment. And so “Productivity” explains that if you aren’t “challenged by your first job, it is easy to forget you still must perform it well if you want to receive new responsibilities.”

Habit 4 is Interdependence. The boy who reads the passage has a flat and even voice, and he stumbles over a few words. He tells the students to look for “ways to satisfy the guests, your boss, and your employees….An independent and highly competitive perspective is likely to doom you to failure.” Johnson tells the students they need to know how to be part of a team.

Johnson brings two students up to the front to stage a mock job interview. A soft-spoken boy plays the employer, with a girl seeking a position as a front-desk clerk at his hotel. The girl giggles and isn’t sure what to say. She tells her interviewer that she plans to one day own the imaginary hotel. Johnson says this is a good goal, but not appropriate to voice in that setting.

The teacher also tells the students to try to sound more professional. “On a job interview, you’ve got to speak the king’s English—and speak it well,” she cautions. “You can’t speak the way you speak with your friends. You won’t have a chance.”

At 9:50, class is over. Christian drops her book off on the surplus pile at the front of the room. Johnson reminds the students that their resumes are due on Monday, that they are going to start building portfolios. Christian groans and grabs her bag. The school day has begun.

Christian is one of 145 students enrolled at the Marriott Charter School. In 1996, the District, under pressure from Congress to reform its public schools, authorized the creation of charters, which are meant to be laboratories for experiments in education, largely outside the control of city government and the existing school board. There are now 41 charters in D.C., with various approaches, including a residential school, a hi-tech-focused school, and an Outward Bound school.

Marriott, however, is experimenting with the nature of public education itself, by bringing private industry directly into the classroom. The school was founded in 1999 by the Greater Washington Hospitality Foundation, a coalition of hotel and restaurant chains, which raised $2.26 million in donations from the hospitality industry. The Marriott Corp. put in $1 million, earning naming rights to the school. In its charter application, the foundation explained that its school would aim to “strengthen and expand the work force available to the hospitality industry in the District of Columbia…while providing a four-year academic degree with strong preparation for careers in the fastest growing industry in the country—the hospitality industry.”

The industry has worked with public schools in the past, through programs that promise jobs to students who pass a set of basic courses. But here, the industry is actually running the school. The school is set up like a business: A board of directors, made up largely of industry professionals and businesspeople, oversees a CEO and makes major decisions about the school’s direction. The board chair is Terri Ryan, general manager of the Radisson Barcelo in Dupont Circle.

Business actively shapes the curriculum, too. Principal Loraine A. Gibbs says that the school takes pains to tie the hospitality industry into every course. In algebra, she says, students might measure the size of a table to determine how many people could be seated there. In history, they might do a lesson on the origins of food. In biology, they discuss food-borne diseases. In French, they go over words that appear on restaurant menus.

Marriott recruits students through a direct-mail campaign aimed at low-income families with children in middle school, then steers its pupils toward entry-level jobs in the nation’s high-end hotel and restaurant chains. “Kids at these schools are set up to be fairly cheap workers,” says Emily Heath, senior program director at the California-based nonprofit Center for Commercial Free Public Education. “You don’t see students from wealthy families going to a school like Marriott. If Marriott really cared about the education of D.C. kids, they’d give money to the public schools—not capitalize on the availability of students.”

But school administrators, while acknowledging that the industry stands to gain from the charter’s work, say their aims are altruistic, not self-serving. “We have to direct these kids’ paths,” Gibbs says. “A lot of these kids come from circumstances that are not positive. If they go to a regular public school, they can graduate with no marketable skill. And God forbid something happens—a parent dies tomorrow. If they go here, they have the skills they need to survive.”

“This school is for the hospitality industry wanting to give back to the community,” says school CEO Laurence Payne. “We’re pushing kids towards an industry that has endless possibilities. For an urban kid to have that exposure, I think that’s great.”

Leaving Lodging Management, Christian heads for Algebra II. The Marriott Charter School occupies the building that formerly housed the Stables Arts Center, in the business district just south of the MCI Center. Classrooms are on the third, fourth, and sixth floors; the other levels are occupied by city offices. The space wasn’t designed to be a school, and it shows: Classrooms are too large or small for their current roles, and the white-painted hallways on the upper floors look like office hallways, even with lockers lining them.

The sixth-floor halls, where Christian’s first-period class was, are high-ceilinged and narrow. Because of an old basketball injury, Christian has an elevator pass, so she rides down two floors while her fellow students trudge up and down the staircase.

The algebra classroom has few marks of the hospitality industry in it. A poster is taped to the wall showing three smiling restaurant and hotel workers of various races, accompanied by figures representing their salaries. Other than that, the class could be anywhere. The room is full, but there are only 17 kids here, a small number by D.C. public-school standards. The teacher, Gerald Saunders, gives Christian and the other students graph paper and books, and he begins going over how to plot points on a graph.

It’s not difficult material, and Christian flies through it. But her work is careless; she crouches over her paper, feverishly draws a graph and plots points onto it, and then gets up and wanders out into the hall. Part of the problem is that many of the other students are struggling, and Saunders—who peppers his lectures with asides about topics such as the overwhelming pretentiousness of the Eastern Seaboard—spends most of the hour-and-15-minute period repeatedly going over the concept. Christian goes back to her seat, fidgets, and plows through some more work. Then she gets up and wanders off again, toward the voices in the hall. There isn’t much reason for her to stay in her seat.

Toward the end of class, Saunders hands out permission slips for tomorrow’s field trip, a college fair to be held at the ESPN Zone restaurant a few blocks away. Christian grabs hers, and, like most of the students, fills it out herself, forging her mother’s signature. She then gives the slip back to the teacher and goes on her way.

The administrators at Marriott love to talk about the small size of their school, and with good reason: Unlike their counterparts at large D.C. public schools, teachers here can lavish quite a bit of individualized attention on their students. And much of that attention, despite the industry focus, is concerned with getting the kids to go to college. This year’s seniors will be the first class to graduate from Marriott, and board chair Ryan estimates that 50 percent of them will go on to pursue a higher degree. Principal Gibbs puts the figure closer to 90 percent. Among the college-bound students, both say, there are quite a few kids who will end up with school-sponsored scholarships to culinary institutions.

“I’ve wanted to be a chef ever since I was a little kid,” says Jacques Cofer, a poised 16-year-old who is preparing to graduate in June and is applying to culinary-arts schools. “I still do. I came here because I wanted to—I needed the experience. The school has showed me how to market different things and helped me in getting an internship.”

Jacques is the kind of student who would look great in next year’s brochure: a smart, directed success who plans on getting a postsecondary degree, using a Marriott scholarship, before entering the workforce. But he, like Christian, says that he is frustrated by a curriculum that rarely forces him to push himself.

“The academic side of this school is not as challenging as it should be,” Jacques says. “The teachers are involved with students, but the work they give us is below average. I’m getting sixth-grade work—it’s not even funny. Most of the students here just don’t push themselves hard enough, and the teachers don’t push us, either. The hospitality stuff has been good, but I thought I would get a better education.”

“There are some students here that take it upon themselves to learn something,” history teacher Korey Brown says, “and I can’t wait until they get into college. It’ll be the first time they are going to be really open to knowledge.”

The school is struggling academically, even by D.C. standards. In 2001, a whopping 91.7 percent of students scored at “Below Basic” levels in math on the Stanford 9, a national diagnostic test. In the D.C. public schools, the figure was 72 percent among 10th- and 11th-graders, and 52 percent among ninth-graders. More than half the Marriott students were also deemed Below Basic in reading; District public-school students fared better at every grade level.

The D.C. Public Charter School Board is a very forgiving authority; only one of the 19 charter schools under its jurisdiction has ever been placed on probation. In its annual performance review of Marriott, however, it wrote that the school’s academic performance needed “urgent attention.” Every school is required to have an “accountability plan,” according to Tamara Lumpkin, manager of school development at the Public Charter School Board, but Marriott is “way past due” in turning in its plan.

“Last year was the school’s second year,” Lumpkin says. “We try to look at the evolution from the first to second year as an indication of growth.” At Marriott, reading scores improved slightly between the two years, but math scores declined. Charter schools’ performances are supposed to be evaluated over a five-year span. “This year could be very telling,” Lumpkin says. “If things are messed up after this year, they really have to buckle down, because there won’t be that much time left.”

Gibbs, who has begun instituting changes, promises improvement and points out that

81 percent of her students passed last semester. She is also investing a significant amount of time and money in preparing students to do well on the standardized tests. Gibbs has equipped teachers with test-prep books and instructed them to structure their lessons around that material, especially in the days leading up to the tests. Although such measures may help Marriott get the charter board off its back, they won’t change the academic environment—or do much for students like Jacques. “My parents always taught me that education is the way to go,” he says. “I just thought that side of things would be better here.”

Christian is back upstairs in Johnson’s room for her third-period class, ProStart 1, “A School to Career Program.” She grabs a book—it’s called Becoming a Foodservice Professional—and slumps down in her spot. The kids put their playing cards and headphones away and settle into today’s lesson, a tutorial on how to guide guests through a menu.

“Suggestive selling is a cost-effective way to promote an operation’s products and services,” a girl reads aloud. “It starts with the way servers take orders. Instead of asking, ‘Would you like an appetizer?’ ask ‘Can I bring you an order of our fresh mozzarella with sliced tomatoes and fresh basil? It’s delicious, and it won’t fill you up before your meal.’” Johnson affirms that that does indeed sound better.

The students read on, one at a time.

“A friendly hello or goodbye,” says a boy wearing a football jersey, “will make [the guest] feel welcome and eager to return.”

The girl next to him reads another passage: “Make items sound appetizing,” she says, “using words like sweet, juicy, mouth-watering, and rich.”

“Another aspect of selective selling,” the next kid reads, “is using the organization’s promotional plans or daily specials to ensure guest satisfaction, and increase check totals.”

Johnson asks the students do suggestive sells of dishes they have eaten or made themselves. After a few of her peers give it a shot, Christian volunteers. “My lasagna is so good, everybody should try it,” she says. “It has USDA-approved ground beef from Safeway.” She pauses. “It’s got American cheese, cheddar cheese, Swiss cheese, all different kinds of cheese.” Johnson thanks her.

The next section is “Handling Customer Complaints.” The kids read.

“Don’t try to prove,” one student says, “that you are right and the customer is wrong.”

“Accept responsibility for solving the problem,” says another. “Apologize sincerely for any inconvenience.”

Johnson decides she wants to get the reporter involved, asking me to read a passage. The kids look up expectantly. I try to keep my voice even: “Servers should always carry a hand towel, matches, corkscrew, change, a pen, and order pad.” I feel ridiculous. But the kids aren’t fazed. They look back down and wait patiently for their turns.

Despite her training, Christian doesn’t want to be a food server. She doesn’t want to be a chef, maitre d’, housekeeper, clerk, steward, food-service manager, pantry supervisor, personnel director, or anything else in hospitality. She wants to be a forensic psychologist. Or, barring that, an emergency medical technician.

But not, she repeats, a hospitality worker. She plans on transferring to a regular public school, Woodson or Dunbar, for her senior year, because she thinks one of them would be of more help in reaching her goals than Marriott.

“When I was younger I had this fascination with crime. I always wanted to go to the morgue,” she says. “Then my father died, and I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. But I’ve started coming back to it. Now I know what I want to do.”

At the ESPN Zone college fair, Christian reports, she went from table to table, looking for a program with forensic psychology. Many of the representatives, she says, told her she was foolish to pigeonhole herself so soon. They argued she wasn’t ready to be so determined about her future. One woman told Christian that she probably couldn’t be a forensic psychologist, but if she really wanted to be an EMT, she might be able to do so in a hotel.

Finally she found what she was looking for. “I’m gonna go to [Prince George’s] Community College,” Christian says. “P.G.’s close, and the woman at the career fair told me they’ve got forensic psychology. It’s perfect.”

At Marriott, students are presumed to have made the decision to embrace hospitality when they arrive, in the ninth or 10th grade, some as young as 13. Yet college reps counsel students not to try to plan their futures too carefully—they might, after all, change their minds. Many college students change their majors well into their sophomore year. Is it reasonable to expect a child just entering her teens to make a decision about her future?

“A kid at 14 years old is qualified to say ‘I’m interested—help me look at what this school has to offer,’” Payne says. “We try to expose them to the possibilities of what they can do in hospitality.”

Gibbs goes further. “You wouldn’t put your life in the hands of a 15-year-old and let them determine your future,” she says. “So we help them. We’re the experts, after all. Who better to direct their paths?”

In the traditional framework, of course, the answer is the student, with help from teachers, parents, and friends. But Marriott streamlines the process—and puts itself, instead of the child, at the center of the decision. Once a student has committed to a school such as Marriott, the elective portion of the educational experience fades. Instead of ceramics or music, the student takes ProStart 1.

As Marriott sees it, not all students have the luxury to grope in the dark ’til they find subjects that excite their passion. Marriott helps kids get jobs they might not have a chance at coming out of D.C. public schools, and all the art-history courses in the world won’t change that.

“The day of the large urban school, where kids are unfocused and classes are huge, is over,” says Payne. “Those impersonal schools are dying out. The wave of the future is having a focus—public schools that help students get involved in something. This is a model that could be replicated—and should be.”

Christian’s English teacher won’t allow me to sit in on her class, so I go down to the fine-arts room, where hospitality and academics flow together almost seamlessly. Teacher Michelle Smith has her students working on a project to create a colorful table setting. They use construction paper to shape flowers and tablecloths, and put a centerpiece in the middle of each desk. Students also make menus, and, when they are ready, the faculty and staff are supposed to come in and pretend to be customers, so that the students can practice serving them.

“I mess with the kids,” Smith says. “I’ll say something like ‘This meat is nasty’ to see what they’ll do.”

Marriott students, unfortunately, have to use their imagination when it comes to serving food. A state-of-the-art training kitchen, which was supposed to be a central feature of the school, has yet to be built, despite promises from administrators.

The make-believe menus the students create are handwritten, and some are quite complete. Many feature sophisticated dishes and multiple course listings: lobster bisque or fried red snapper, with flan or chocolate mousse for dessert. The menus inform guests that soda refills are complimentary. If you didn’t know better, you might think they were the work of kids who had often stayed in fine hotels.

Smith, like many of her fellow teachers, was drawn by the size and uniqueness of the school, a place, she says, where she “could expand [her] creativity with the kids.”

But many of the teachers are now unhappy, frustrated by the lack of motivation of some of their students and tension with the administration. The situation is not helped by the fact that, according to Gibbs, many of the teachers lack the training necessary to deal with the complexities of urban public education.

And there’s one more problem: The school is structured so that its governing body, the board, has little sense of how to deal with

the students.

“The members of the board, for the most part—they’re not educators,” says Dean of Career and Student Services Jo-Anne Hurlston. “They think of children as little workers. They’re just children. We have to get some education into them….We never see the board members on campus, talking to the students. It’s frustrating to have them making the decisions that affect the future of the school.”

“We meet at the school every other month,” says Ryan, the board chair. “It’s usually at 4 in the afternoon, so the kids are usually gone for the day. But we do a meet-and-greet with the staff. The board is the vision of the school.” Like a corporate entity, the board demands accountability: Following last year’s poor test performance, it added the CEO position and installed Gibbs as principal in a move designed to enhance performance.

But both students and teachers are having trouble coming to grips with the way the school is structured.

“We’re struggling,” says Smith. “A lot of these kids feel like the administration doesn’t care about them. They’re losing faith in

the school.”

Despite its best efforts, the hospitality industry has not been able to get a lot of kids to aspire to become hospitality workers. In the school’s charter application, the Greater Washington Hospitality Foundation cited a survey of 2 million high school juniors ranking their preferred career choices. Hotel management, the choice from the hospitality field, came in a distant last, behind options such as travel/tourism and “art.” The idea, the board reported, “that hospitality industry jobs consist primarily of minimum-wage ‘burger-flippers’ is popular among the mainstream media.” Service, it seems, needs a PR boost.

Which might be what the Marriott Charter School is ultimately about. The potential benefit of having some slightly better-trained young people entering the workforce, while not insignificant, is not going to have a huge impact on the industry. Promoting the idea of hospitality to young people, though, is another matter entirely. With the school, the industry is attempting to reposition itself as a career path of first resort.

“The jobs of the future are in the service industry,” says Payne. “It’s the fastest-growing field in the country. People need to quit thinking about service as a negative thing. This is not a school for a ready-made workforce for children of color to be entry-level workers. The hospitality industry is about as broad is it can be. The issue here is how to expose high school students to that.”

Payne has turned down offers from soft-drink manufacturers who wanted to become the school’s official beverage supplier. He says he hates the notion of advertisers infiltrating the school and cluttering students’ minds. But his reticence to open his doors to advertisers also serves the marketing component of the school. The classrooms are plastered with posters advertising the benefits of the hospitality industry, and the school has its corporate sponsors. There’s no reason to dilute the message.

“The No. 1 priority of the school is to create excitement about the hospitality industry,” Ryan says, “and with that is the goal of providing a superior academic background for the kids. It’s a win-win thing.”

Christian looks tired as she walks into her last class of the day, World History with Brown, but she perks up quickly. Brown, a young, dynamic teacher wearing an orange shirt with a tie, is talking about Buddhism as part of a lesson on world religions. In his classroom, hospitality is truly out of the picture. Posters depict historical innovators and images of Cuba. The room is stacked with books on Africa, videotapes about civil rights, and odd little figurines.

The whole place feels steeped in learning, and the students—some of whom have been reading mechanically from their hospitality books just a few minutes earlier—respond. They ask questions and talk over each other, trying to make points. They discuss karma, the four noble truths, and the idea of giving up all of their possessions. And they take it all seriously. The only problem is that Brown keeps getting interrupted by the intercom, which derails the class every five minutes or so. At one point, he is called out into the hall by

an administrator.

“How much you wanna bet,” one student says, “that someone important is on their way up here and they want us to freshen up?”

Brown returns. Christian tells him her thoughts on the Buddhist idea of suffering. The other students respond passionately. They make points about life, religion, and what it means to be a good human being. Most are too interested in the discussion to heed Brown’s suggestion that they raise their hands before speaking. They just want to be heard.

There’s nothing pragmatic about the scene. The students are not enduring their studies, as necessary preparation for a future of slight disappointments. The bargain of the industry school—stability in exchange for dispensing with illusions—has been suspended for the moment.

Christian reaches into her bag and pulls out a study sheet that Brown supplied a few classes ago to help the students prepare for an upcoming test. She’s been shouting out answers to Brown’s review questions, and she seems to already know what is covered on the sheet. But this is too important to screw up. She scribbles “STUDY HARD” across the top of the paper and stuffs it back in her notebook. Then she looks up, turns her attention toward the teacher, and calls out the next answer. CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.