Get our free newsletter
A few months ago, the Tree of Life Charter School was only a dream. Now 74 kids are about to live it.
Photographs by Darrow Montgomery
Patricia Williams expected plenty of long days when she decided to open a charter school. Nights like this one, however, she probably wasn’t ready for.
Williams shows up early in a basement room of the Benning Branch Library for one of the first public meetings for the Tree of Life Community Public Charter School. The soon-to-be principal of the school, Williams is joined by her 7-year-old son, Kamau Williams-Hampton, and Willa Jones, Williams’ friend and the future school’s psychologist. It’s April 11, still five months before the school will open its doors, and tonight, Williams hopes to attract some teachers and, especially, students.
The trio set up chairs and assemble an overhead projector. In the back of the room, Williams covers a table with a thick, multicolored cloth decorated with African symbols. She sets out fliers, applications, and a burning stick of incense, which fills the room with a spicy aroma. The room seems the ideal setting for an informative, productive recruiting sessionor some sort of African-inspired ritual ceremony.
Now, if only someone would show up.
At 6:30 p.m., a half-hour after the scheduled start time, all the chairs are still emptywhich annoys young Kamau immensely. His mother has planted him in front of a homework assignment and told him he must be quiet during the meeting. As he glances at the empty room, he’s irritated that he seems to be the only one working and fears he may be sitting still for no good reason.
“Why hasn’t the meeting started yet?” asks Kamau, a round-faced, sly-smiling boy with chin-length dreadlocks.
Williams, partly out of frustration and partly because she can’t fight her teacher’s instincts, tries to turn the question into a moment of instruction.
“Why do you think it hasn’t started?” she asks Kamau.
“Because everyone is late,” he responds, squirming in his chair.
“Let’s hope that’s the reason….Because that means people are coming and they’re just delayed,” says Williams.
At 45, with advanced degrees in education and public administration, and a résumé that includes work as a public-school teacher and government administrator, Williams possesses the experience and wisdom to be a successful leader. She’s also got the energy to put up with a building full of squirmy children and the struggles of starting a charter school in a city that’s still suspicious of the concept.
Every charter-school-building effort is different, but it’s almost always a frantic process. Williams’ experience is, in many ways, emblematic of the rough journey taken by the founders of the 27 existing charter schools in D.C., not to mention the leaders of the five other schools set to open next week.
Publicly funded and tuition-free to all D.C. residents, charter schools are run independently of the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) system. Charter-school founders, like Williams, must submit their plans to one of two chartering boards in town, which approve and then oversee the schools. Although largely unconstrained by the bureaucracy of the larger school system, starting a charter school isn’t hassle-free, as Williams can tell you. At every turn, it seems, the Tree of Life School faces being run off the roadif it ever gets going in the first place.
But Williams is not one to give up. She seems
to have an endless reservoir of energynot to mention high hopesand she approaches nearly every task cheerfully.
Take recruiting, for instance. The school needs to enroll 74 students to meet its plans for the opening semester and to receive its full funding from the D.C. government. So far, however, the roster of potential students is pretty bare. A spring school fair hosted by Friends of Choice in Urban Schools (FOCUS), a local nonprofit that assists charter schools, was underattended; it attracted only about five sets of parents who said they’d consider enrolling their kids at Tree of Life. FOCUS was supposed to send out fliers announcing tonight’s public meeting, but the mailing went out late.
At 7 p.m., the room is still empty, and even Williams has to admit that the evening’s meeting is a bust. “Well, we’ll try again tomorrow, folks,” she says as she packs up the materials. “And if no one shows, then, Mama Willa, we’ll have to go door to door, like the Girl Scouts.”
The way Williams tells it, she didn’t exactly choose teaching for her life’s work. It’s more like teaching chose her.
Born in Pittsburgh, Williams loved working with children even when she was still one herself. She taught Sunday school as a teenager; when it came time for college, she enrolled in teaching classes with hardly a second thought. She began teaching in Pittsburgh public schools soon after she graduated. Later, she earned a master’s degree in special education and moved to Los Angeles to work with emotionally disturbed children.
In the early ’80s, she was considering a career change and went back to school to study public administration. She worked in the Prince William County government for a few years and then took a spot as an administrator at the Progressive Life Center, a human-services nonprofit in the District. It was challenging work, but not what she wanted to do. So when she heard a radio announcement soliciting charter-school applications in the spring of 1999, she made her move.
“I belong with the children,” says Williams.
It was the process of finding a school for her son that encouraged Williams to think about creating one of her own. She’d been happy with the school Kamau attended for kindergarten: Bethune-Woodson. A program within DCPS, the “African-centered school,” as it was often called, combined academics with a focus on black students’ heritage. Although the school was avidly supported by most of the parents who sent their children there, DCPS officials closed the school only weeks into the fall 1998 semester because the administration couldn’t find adequate space for it.
She next enrolled her son in the Children’s Studio School of the Arts and Architecture, a charter school located at 13th and V Streets NW, and later Bunker Hill Elementary, a regular public school in Northeast D.C. Both were decent schools, Williams says, but neither one provided the sort of broad, family-integrated, ethnically sensitive education she wanted for a son she regularly takes on African-centered tours of countries like Brazil, Jamaica, and Egypt.
When Williams heard the announcement calling for applications, she set out to build her ideal school herself. She attended workshops, sought out interested friends and acquaintances, and submitted an application to the D.C. Public Charter School Board last summer. The board approved the application in February.
The school Williams and her colleagues proposed will provide students with a “family-friendly, full-service” program, according to their application. They plan to start with kindergarten through third-grade students, then eventually expand to include prekindergarten through sixth-grade classes. The curriculum will emphasize reading skills while including less traditional subjectsyoga, African drums, gardeningto create a “holistic” education. Special emphasis will be placed on teaching children about their cultural backgrounds; for many, that will mean a focus on African heritage. School staff will work to connect parents with any outside support services they might need.
To skeptics, the plan might sound like so much New Age gobbledygook, a blueprint for another in a long line of utopian schools where touchy-feely sentiments end up trumping the traditional goals of teaching students to read, write, and do arithmetic.
But Williams, who also goes by her African name, Ngozi, downplays such fears. She says the school will improve the academic skills of all students, especially those performing below grade level. Teachers will place a special focus on reading skills and will work with families to develop individualized learning plans for each student; the attention to family and culture will ensure academic success, says Williams.
“We talk about being culture-centered. Primarily, it’s child-centered,” she says. “Things off of that are really sidebars from the real essence of the school.”
Although the District has been fertile ground for charter schools in the last four years, largely because of frustrations with DCPS and overt congressional involvement, charter schools’ success has not been automatic. Plenty of idealists before Williams crashed and burned before opening day, or within a few months after. Young Technocrats Math and Science Public Laboratory Charter School and Kwame Nkrumah International Public Charter School were some of the first casualties. Nor did the two early African-centered schoolsBethune-Woodson and Marcus Garveylast very long, the latter falling victim to financial mismanagement and the hotheaded temperament of its principal, Mary Anigbo, who assaulted a reporter in December 1996.
But other schools with a mission similar to that of Tree of Life have opened and continue to operate: Roots Public Charter School, Ideal Academy, and the Village Learning Center. And in any event, Williams insists, the track records of other schoolscharter or otherwiseare not relevant. “Another school’s success or failure doesn’t affect my confidence or faith,” she says.
Williams and her colleagues decided to create the Tree of Life School expecting to teach children. But first, they discovered, they had to learn a few lessons themselves. Like how to compete in a new environment, where parents have a variety of charter schools from which to choosewhere starting a school means learning to sell it.
On a Saturday in March, Williams, Jones, and another founder, Baiyina Abadey, turn up at the offices of the D.C. Public Charter School Resource Center, located on the 1100 block of 15th Street NW, for one of their first lessons in charter-school marketing.
They’ve tapped Kevin Andrews for a private tutorial. Andrews is the headmaster for the Boston-based Neighborhood House Charter School, which opened in 1995 with 51 students and now has 200 kids in prekindergarten through eighth grade. It’s a successful start, by most accounts, and Anderson is frank about what got himand his schoolthis far.
Lesson 1: Rhetoric. There are plenty of suspicions out there about charter schools, Andrews says, so organizers have to be especially careful about the words they use. “Stay away from that word’alternative,’” says Andrews. “Use ‘public’ or ‘independent.’…’Alternative’ says, ‘Oh, this is a school for black kids who can’t learn in a regular setting.’”
Williams and her colleagues nod.
Lesson 2: Everything else. A felt-tipped marker in hand, Andrews approaches a white board to write out details. He asks Williams, who will serve as both executive director and principal of the school, how much contact she plans to have with board members before and during the school year.
Like a first-row student who’s sure she knows all the answers, Williams responds enthusiastically that whatever she knows, she relays to the board. She’s recently broken the wrist on her right arm, she explains, but that hasn’t stopped her from keeping in touch with the board via e-mail. “I’ve got one hand, two fingers, and a thumb, and I’m e-mailing them everything,” Williams says.
It sounds good, but it’s not the answer Andrews is looking for. “I don’t tell them anything I don’t have the answer to,” he explains. “I don’t want them to get mixed up in the details.”
He also warns against staff serving as both school employees and board membersprecisely what Jones, who will have positions as the school’s psychologist and a member of the board, is planning to do. “There has to be a division between the policymakers and the staff,” he says. “I believe there needs to be a hierarchy. Sometimes we believe we want to all be holding hands and making decisions together. It gets all mucked up, and you don’t want to muck it up.”
Williams tells Andrews that Tree of Life’s founders are looking for additional board members to join the four already on the interim board. (Williams serves as a fifth board member but will step down to serve as principal when school starts.) She hopes to find candidates with expertise in fields like law and real estate. The board also needs another parent and a “community person.”
Good enough, but again, not everything Andrews wants to hear. “You need some people on the board with money,” he says bluntly. “If you need to write a $10,000 check, you need to have someone on your board who can write a $10,000 check.”
Williams, Jones, and Abadey listen quietly. They have so much to learn. Andrews promises them it will get easier with time, as long as they continue to work diligently. And then he says something that surprises all of them:
“I heard this great message on Oprah,” he says. A busy professional, Andrews scarcely seems the type to watch daytime TV.
“How do you have time to watch Oprah?” Williams asks.
Andrews ignores the question. “She was doing an interview with Julia Roberts and she asked [Roberts], ‘Do you consider yourself lucky?’ And she said, ‘Yes, I’m really lucky.’ And Oprah said, ‘I don’t believe in luck. I believe in opportunity and preparation.’ I heard that and I said, ‘Dag, she’s right.’”
Add Oprah to the charter-school-launch checklist.
On another Saturday afternoon, this one in April, representatives from 30 charter schools turn out for the third annual job fair hosted by the D.C. Public Charter School Resource Center. Looking for new teachers and administrators, they set up an odd collection of booths in the Burr Gymnasium at Howard University. Many of the displays consist of little more than a table and a couple of fliers. But some school reps go the extra step to differentiate their schools and missions, so they decorate their booths with montages of photos or explanatory pamphlets.
The table for the Carlos Rosario International Career Center and Public Charter School, for instance, is covered with fliers and pamphlets in many different languages, to reflect the school’s focus on multilingual education. At the table for Edison Schools, a private company that manages public schools across the country, a sharply dressed woman who could easily pass for a business exec (and she may be one) passes out professional-looking publicity packets.
Williams has covered the table for Tree of Life with the same thick African-style cloth she’s used at other meetings, as well as pamphlets, applications, and a box full of “affirmations,” as she calls themfortune-cookie-like bits of paper with inspiring messages printed on them. There’s also a rock that Kamau painted with African symbols. “So we have his energy here with us,” says Williams.
She’s joined by Jones and Cheryll Boone, each elaborately clothed in a long, bright, African-style dress. Jones wears a multicolored scarf around her head. Williams has been up since 5:30 a.m. to prepare for the day, and she worries that she looks a little tired, so she applies a thin coat of pink lipstick.
Really, though, the group doesn’t seem too worried about finding recruits here. They’ve already filled most of the upper-level administrative spots with school founders and other friends or acquaintances. Aside from Williams and Jones, Boone has been tapped to serve as the school’s educational facilitator, which means she’ll oversee and assist the teachers. They’ve also lined up a business manager and a parent/community resources coordinator, both part-time.
Beyond that, they need to hire only four teachers, two teacher’s assistants, one office assistant, and one part-time tutor. Charter-school laws do not require that the teachers be certified, although Williams would prefer to hire only those who do have their teaching credentials.
But it’s only April, and they’ve got plenty of time to find good people. To judge by some of the candidates who stop by the booth, however, they may have a more difficult time finding the right people than they anticipate.
A couple of teachers from Garrison Elementary School amble by the table and pick up some pamphlets but don’t bother to read them before asking Williams to make a pitch. It’s not exactly the approach you’d expect from job-hunters seeking to impress a potential employer.
Williams gives them a slight reprimand, noting that they haven’t read the packet she’s provided. “So you want me to use my energy?” she asks, not quite hiding her annoyance.
“No, I just want you to sell the school,” says one of them.
A man in a light tan suit pulls a chair up to the table and begins speaking in a strange, conspiratorial whisper. He says he’s a former Prince George’s County teacher and currently a social worker at the Oak Hill Youth Center. For some reason, he keeps glancing over his shoulder.
“I’ve always been good with young folk,” he whispers. “I don’t know. I think the Lord just gave me a gift.”
Williams, sensing that the man would not be a good fit, suggests that he try another charter school that serves teenagers, many of whom have been in trouble with the law: “Just looking at your experience, that might be what you’re looking for.” He thanks her and heads off.
An hour and some dozen half-interested applicants later, a tall young woman with a soft voice appears at the table and starts asking thoughtful questions. Her name is Shamelle Matthews, and she’s a recent Howard graduate. She’s also a former student of Jones, who has taught some classes at the university. She has been a volunteer as well at a Howard program for at-risk kids, one of the partners of the Tree of Life School.
“I’ve done a lot of work with African-American children,” says Matthews.
“That’s a big plus,” Williams answers.
When Matthews tells them she wants to learn more about designing a curriculum tailored to black children, Williams brightens even further. She takes a copy of Matthews’ résumé. “We’ll probably call you back,” she tells the young woman.
After she goes, Williams, Jones, and Boone look excitedly at each other. “You get those one or two people who make it worth sitting here for five hours,” Williams says.
If Williams and the other Tree of Life founders really hope to provide comprehensive services for all the families enrolled at the school, they’re going to have their work cut out for them, given the diverse needs of a handful of families that turn out for a meeting on a June evening.
They’ve come for “family interviews,” as school staffers call them. Williams and Jones conduct the interviews in a room on the second floor of the Capital Children’s Museum, located at Third and H Streets NE, where they’ve rented space for the school. The room is called the Mexican Conference Room, because it’s positioned right off the segment of the museum that’s been decorated to look like different parts of Mexico. Outside, there’s a miniature version of what’s supposed to be an ancient temple as well as a sandbox that represents a Mexican beach.
A young couple who plan to enroll two children in the school are the first interview of the evening. Jones reads over a survey they completed that asks about other needs the family may have. The young father has responded: “Housing.”
“As in affordable housing?” Jones asks.
“Anything,” says the father.
Another couple, the Taylors, come second. They plan to enroll their 6-year-old grandson in the second grade at Tree of Life. He’s had trouble with his reading at J.O. Wilson Elementary, says Ruthie Taylor, a small woman wearing a Sunday-best straw hat.
The next family is a no-showwhich gives Williams and Jones a little downtime. It’s not really a welcome break, however, because the two regard every potential family that might enroll a student as absolutely critical.
Originally, these family interviews were intended to review applicants so that school staff could ensure they were dedicated to the school model. Williams planned to have all the interviews done by the end of May. Expecting that there would be more applicants than places, she planned to have a lottery in June to determine which families could actually enroll their children.
But now, with only three months to go before school starts and only 26 families who have even submitted applications, Williams can’t afford to be so choosy. The school gets $6,014 in government funds for each enrolled child. Half of the school’s $800,000 budget depends on its achieving full enrollment. With late mailings and underattended public meetings, Williams and Jones have had to beef up other recruiting measures, such as radio and newspaper advertisements and fliers distributed at local libraries. They’re no longer joking about going door to door to spread the word about their school.
That’s why applicants such as Linda Roe are so critical. The next scheduled interview for the evening, Roe is considering enrolling her 5-year-old daughter, Mariama Roe, in kindergarten at the school. She’s also a friend of Jones’ and a potential board member. But all of that hasn’t quite sold her on the Tree of Life.
After talking briefly with Mariama, Jones and Williams ask Roe what she’s looking for in a school. Roe replies that her daughter is doing well now at Shepherd Elementary, but that she is looking for a school that uses different forms of discipline besides the threat of sending students to the principal’s office. She’d also like smaller class sizes, and she’d prefer that Mariama have a male teacher, because her father isn’t around.
“She has a hard time dealing with that,” Roe explains.
Despite her sincere interest in the Tree of Life, Roe starts a lot of sentences with phrases like “If we decide to come to the school…”
Williams does not fail to notice. “It sounds like you’re undecided,” she says. “There must be something keeping you [at Shepherd].”
Roe reveals that there is. She says Shepherd offers day-care programs before and after school, which she needs for Mariama, because she works full time as a mental-health specialist.
Experience, and now a bit of desperation, have expanded Williams’ sales pitch. She tries to reel in the reluctant mother. “We will have before- and after-care. Eighty percent of parents say they need it. We have to.”
“Does that remove your reservation?” asks Jones.
“Mm-hmm,” says Roe, nodding slightly. But you get the feeling she’s still undecided.
The first look at the space that will become the Tree of Life School comes on an afternoon in late July. It’s not exactly love at first sight.
“This stinks,” says Kamau as he, his mother, and some school staff shuffle off the elevator onto the fifth floor of one of the buildings in the Capital Children’s Museum complex. Kamau is talking about the musty smell stirred up by the staff members from the Schools for Educational Evolution and Development, otherwise known as SEED Public Charter School, which previously occupied the space; they’re still packing boxes to move out. The heat seeps through the windows in the un-air-conditioned rooms, adding to the sweaty smell of bodies in motion.
Kamau’s right about the smell. And there are a couple of other things about the space that are pretty unpleasant, too.
The building is old, for one. Built in the late 1800s, the Children’s Museum served as a convent and home for the elderly before it was turned into a museum in 1979. The edifice that will house Tree of Life shows its age, as well as the wear and tear from being home to the 70 students who attended SEED, a boarding school, which is moving to a larger new location.
Paint crumbles from some of the walls, and water damage is evident around some of the windowsills. Wood and tile floors are scuffed and torn in spots. A near-perfect outline of an iron is singed into one of the dull brown carpets in a room that served as a dormitory for seventh-grade girls. Some of the window frames are held together by sloppily applied duct tape.
Although it’s an interesting space, with incredible views of the city, the slanted roofs and low ceilings remind you that you are on the top floor, requiring taller visitors to duck when walking through some hallways. “Our kids call themselves ‘children of the attic,’” says Lesley Poole, a SEED administrator.
Williams leads her group through the maze of rooms and crooked hallways. Ever the optimist, she can see the future of the space no matter its current condition. “You’ve got the things that come with old space,” she says. “You take the bitter with the sweet.”
And really, Tree of Life is lucky to have any space at all. The search for appropriate school buildingsespecially ones that are in decent shape and affordableranks as one of the biggest hurdles for most charter schools, which find themselves regularly fighting DCPS officials over empty public-school buildings. Charter schools are supposed to get priority and a discount when the school system sells off old, unused buildings, but it hasn’t always worked out that way, says Robert Cane, executive director of FOCUS.
Two new charter schools, the Washington Public Charter School for Academic Excellence and the Sasha Bruce Public Charter Middle School, have had to postpone their start dates until next year because the spaces they were building or renovating weren’t going to be ready in time, says Nelson Smith, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board.
The Tree of Life founders at first hoped to open their school at a site east of the Anacostia River, where many of the families they will serve live. But after an unsuccessful search, they finally opted to rent 10,000 square feet at the museum, for about $10,000 a month. Williams says they plan to continue looking for a site on the other side of town and will likely move the school within two years.
The museum has been less than ideal for other reasons. Williams has already struggled to get museum staff to clean and paint the space, as outlined in the lease, by the school’s planned move-in date, sometime in early August. And lease negotiations were held up when museum officials complained that the drum classes that Tree of Life founders are planning could prove a “nuisance.” Williams finally signed the lease with museum officials on July 12, but the delay held up $150,000 in funds that D.C. officials were supposed to disburse in early June.
“The relationship with the museum is going to behow should I put it?interesting,” Williams remarks at a staff meeting one evening. “Growth-producing, that’s another way to put it.”
Nevertheless, Williams remains hopeful about the space. “This room, we’re thinking for the kindergarten class,” she says as she leads the staff around. “It’s the warmest room, and it has a sink.” The rest of the group nod silently. “We can make it work with a bunch of creative people,” William adds, sounding only a little bit as if she’s trying to convince herself.
It’s standing-room-only at what will likely turn out to be the Tree of Life’s last public meeting of the summer. About 30 people are here on a Thursday evening in July. They were supposed to meet in the school’s new space at the museum, but the SEED staffers still haven’t finished removing their equipment, so Williams opted to have the meeting in the Mexican Conference Room.
Williams is ecstatic about the turnout; it’s the largest she’s had so far. She greets the visitors excitedly and groups them into what she calls a “unity circle.” Each person is supposed to hold hands with the next, she says, “left hand to heaven and right hand down to Mother Earth.” She asks them to introduce themselves and, if they want, to call out a name of an ancestor to make them part of the community.
Williams begins her speech. Enrollment has increased sharply over the last few weeks, she says, but the school still has a few openings in each grade. She encourages them all to enroll their children, knowing that people are likely to drop out at the last minute or not show up on the first day of school.
“Some [of you] have already enrolled, and we thank you. Thank you,” Williams says. “Some people are considering enrolling, and we beg you. We beg you.”
She runs through the mission of the school, explaining that “it reflects the culture of the child, which means African-American.” Most of the parents in the room, some of whose children were previously enrolled at Bethune-Woodson, seem attracted by the African focus.
But not everyone is thrilled with the idea. Debbie Vereene is considering enrolling her 5-year-old daughter, Jada Vereene, because she wants a small class size and access to computers, things she doesn’t think she could get in the regular public schools.
A single mother who works as an administrative budget assistant for the U.S. Coast Guard, Vereene wants a supportive atmosphere for her daughter, who also needs day care before and after school. Vereene is looking for a safe and sound academic environment, not necessarily a specific cultural focus.
“I wasn’t sure if this is African-based,” says Vereene in an interview a few days after the meeting. “I don’t want to put her in anything where she’s labeled….I’m not disowning my African heritage, but I don’t walk around in a kente cloth.”
Williams explains in a later interview that a focus on cultural instruction is only part of the mission of the school. “Whatever the culture of the children, that’s integrated into the curriculum, whether it’s African or African-American or Washingtonian,” Williams says. “Our focus is really more universal. People say ‘African-centered’ and they home in on that, and they forget the rest of what we’re doing.”
By design, charter schools are intended to be independent bodies, free of a large bureaucracy, so they can more easily innovate and improve on education. But at some point, they have to answer to somebody.
For the Tree of Life School, that somebody is Elaine Gordon and Myra Spriggs, consultants for the D.C. Public Charter School Board, which granted the school’s charter. The two show up at Williams’ house on a Thursday morning in August to advise Williams and her colleagues on how to prepare for the “pre-opening visit,” a review of the school that Gordon and Spriggs will conduct a few days before the school year starts. This visit is critical, the final obstacle the new school must overcome to open on time.
Today’s visit, however, will be short. “We’ll only be 15 minutes,” says Gordon.
Smith, executive director of the board, says that this is the first year he’s had consultants meet with the schools to give them a heads-up about the pre-opening visit. In the past, some schools had put off essential steps until after opening day, like making sure teaching and student materials were on-site or at least on the way, he says.
“This year,” Smith explains, “we really want to impress upon them they need to have things done.”
At Williams’ house, Gordon passes out copies
of a checklist the consultants will use during their visit. The two-page, two-sided list includes items relating to everything from staffing to curriculum to furniture. But only some of the items, such
as having a certificate of occupancy and a contract for food services, absolutely must be checked off by the start of school. “If you don’t have those when we come back, you cannot open,” says Gordon.
Gordon does most of the talking. She’s friendly but efficient; small talk is limited. She asks about enrollment. When Williams tells her they have 70 out of 74 slots filled, she gives an encouraging nod and says, “Ooh, nice.”
Gordon and Spriggs are not so encouraging when they hear about the school’s choice of language-arts curriculum. Williams tells them the school founders have selected Success for All (SFA), a model designed by researchers at Johns Hopkins University that intensely focuses on promoting literacy and family involvement. The program starts with 90 minutes of scripted reading lessons each day; later on, it involves group work, individualized tutoring, and 30 minutes of reading with a family member. But when Williams mentions the model, Gordon and Spriggs trade grimaces.
Gordon explains that she and Spriggs, both former DCPS principals, prefer more traditional, phonetic approaches to teaching reading. She says they’ve worked as consultants with other teachers who have used the SFA models and found that the 90-minute script, which is supposed to be followed exactly, limits creativity. “We are from the old school,” she says. “It is our belief that we need to get away from some of the frills stuff and really go back to the basics.”
Spriggs nods. “We feel like if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” she says. But she quickly turns a little more positive. “You may have greater success,” she tells Williams, “because [you] can change it a little. When you’re a public school, you have to follow the reform package they give you.”
“Just sneak in your own stuffyou’ll be fine,” says Gordon, who adds in a later interview that her views on the SFA model will not affect her review of the school.
They chat a little more about curriculum, teacher training, and how to make the school look presentable. And that’s it. Gordon and Spriggs get ready to leave. Time elapsed: 17 minutes.
It’s efficient, but is it sufficient? It’s a fair question, especially when you consider that this is one of the few times representatives of a charter board will meet with the school during the final months before it opens.
The 1996 legislation that laid the groundwork for District charter schools granted chartering authority to two local boards: the D.C. Board of Education and the D.C. Public Charter School Board, whose members are appointed by the mayor. Each board can charter up to 10 schools per year. But ever since charter schools started in D.C., critics have warned that the two separate boards might not be able to provide stringent oversight and control. Smith’s board, for instance, has just one full-time staffer besides him. Three people staff the D.C. Board of Education’s office for charter schools.
Smith insists that his board does a rigorous job. He adds that the board is in the process of hiring three additional employees and that the board contracts with at least 35 independent workers, like Spriggs and Gordon, during the course of the year. He says that the creators of the board always intended its staff to be small, to allow board members to rely on contractors with technical expertise. And he says that board members and staff have “constant interactions” with school staff during the summer, through e-mail or phone calls, to iron out details and keep in touch. Williams has been especially diligent, Smith says.
“She’s just been assiduous about chasing things down, about figuring things out,” says Smith. “I think one of the reasons the board gave Tree of Life a charter is because she and the people she’s worked with are so thorough.”
Gordon and Spriggs insist that they won’t let the school off easy when they return for the final review. “You’ll probably get the word that Myra and Elaine are very thorough,” says Spriggs, as the two head out Williams’ door. “They call us the ‘hatchet ladies.’”
By mid-August, Williams and her colleagues have managed to move a handful of tables and a couple of chairs onto the fifth floor of the museum building. Most of the furniture is donated; a couple of pieces came from a government warehouse of used office furniture. They’re still waiting for the rest.
Even so, the largely vacant space is starting to look more like a school on this first real day of business, a day set aside for parents to complete enrollment forms.
By 11:30 a.m., there’s a small but steady stream of families. They have to trudge up five flights of stairs to the school, because the elevator is out of orderagain. But once they reach the top, most with exhausted, annoyed looks, they’re quickly met by a smiling Barbara Jordan, who, along with Matthews, will be one of the school’s two teaching assistants.
Today Jordan, a beaming, cheery woman with a voice that rarely dips below high-pitched, has assumed the task of greeting all visitors and quickly directing them to a table laden with juice, fruit, and slices of gingerbread, which she has made herself.
Next, the parents cycle through tables to fill out health forms, submit residency documents, complete paperwork for before- and after-school day care, and apply for free or reduced-price lunches.
Parents such as Roe have opted out of enrolling their children in the school. Roe says she decided to keep Mariama in a school setting that’s more culturally diverse than she thinks Tree of Life will turn out to be.
“We want to see them flourish in their own culture,” Roe says in a separate interview. “But the reality is that [my daughter] has to be able to communicate with other people. I like Shepherd for that.”
Roe adds that although she has plenty of confidence in her friend Jones and some of the other Tree of Life founders, she worries that a charter school won’t be competitive with a traditional public school. And she doesn’t want to have to “uproot” her daughter when Tree of Life relocates to a new building.
Roe says she might consider enrolling her daughter in Tree of Life in a few years, after she sees how the school fares. “I don’t know how that’s going to pan out, because it’s new. We have to kind of wait and see what happens,” she said.
Another waverer, however, has decided to test out the school, at least for a year. Vereene, along with sister Pam Vereene, is here to complete forms for Jada. Although Debbie Vereene initially had concerns about the African focus of the school, she says she was impressed with the staff and knew Jordan from her childhood. As far as she can tell, Vereene says, she doesn’t think the focus on culture will overwhelm traditional academics at the school. “I wanted to make sure they weren’t pushing their beliefs on my child,” says Vereene. “I didn’t get the impression that’s what [they’re doing].”
After months of struggling to reach the magic number of students74the school now has a waiting list, with more parents calling every day. Janice Hyshaw is one of the parents still hoping to enroll her 6-year-old son, Anthony Hyshaw, into the first grade. She says she thought Anthony wasn’t getting the discipline he needs at John Burroughs Elementary, so she started to look around.
“He’s been acting really silly,” says Hyshaw. Wearing jeans, a striped shirt, and a sly smile, Anthony wriggles in the seat next to her, singing a song about the banana he’s eating. His mother tries not to notice. “He has gone backwards since I’ve had him in public schools,” she says. “They allow him to be babyfied there….I was going to have to send him to a private school or move.”
A legal secretary at a downtown law firm, Hyshaw overheard some colleagues talking about charter schools a few weeks earlier, so she started to check into them. But when she called Tree of Life, the first-grade class was already filled, so she put her name on the waiting list. “I’m not real worried,” she says. “I think we’ll get in. I know I heard that conversation for a reason.”
Classesfor the staff of Tree of Lifestart on a Monday in August, two weeks before students arrive.
The four teachers and two teaching assistantsjoined by Williams, Jones, Boone, and all the other staff membershave come to learn more about the SFA reading curriculum. The group was supposed to meet in one of the classrooms, but museum volunteers recently painted the room, and the place reeks of fumes. Boone says they would have opened one of the windows, but they were all painted shut. So instead, the assembled staffers all sit around a couple of tables in the large common area of the school.
Rena Mohamed, a “family support consultant” for SFA, starts the session by passing around photocopies of her training book. The teachers were supposed to have their own copies by today’s session, but the books haven’t arrived yet.
No one seems too bothered. As staff to a startup charter school, the teachers expected some bumps in the beginning. Many of them, in fact, have already worked with newly created schools. Boone served as the business manager for the first year of operation of the Arts and Technology Academy, another charter school. Evelyn Exum-Morel, who will be the school’s second-grade teacher, worked at two other charter schools shortly after they opened. And Kalonji Niamke, who will teach first grade, helped start a Saturday school to tutor students in Ithaca, N.Y., when he was a student at nearby Cornell University. “I’m used to the process,” he says.
Niamke, like most of the teachers, says he came to Tree of Life because he appreciates the curriculum. He also says he wanted a teaching environment that would incorporate parents. “You don’t educate a child,” he says. “You educate a family.”
Most of the teachers offer similar sentiments. Third-grade teacher Babatunde Pyne, who last year taught at Neval H. Thomas, a regular public school located at Anacostia Avenue and Foote Streets NE, says he came for smaller classes and room for more creativity. Yaa Peace, Tree of Life’s new kindergarten teacher and a former instructor at a private school, liked the culture-centered education there but wanted to work with younger kids. Exum-Morel says she was attracted by the small environment and close-knit staff, and figured she’d make good use of the museum.
Exum-Morel previously taught at Bethune-Woodson as well as Ideal Academy and Young Technocratswhich was one of the first charter schools to fail. But that didn’t deter her from trying again at Tree of Life. “I knew [the founders of Young Technocrats] had bitten off more than they could chew,” she says, explaining that the school started with too many students and not enough resources. “I don’t want to put certain schools down, because they all could have worked.”
But the risk factor associated with signing on to a brand-new school is still a concern for some. “Since it’s the first year, I worried maybe they wouldn’t be able to pull it together,” says Matthews. “I was very concerned with job security. I was calling [Williams] every week, [asking], ‘Is it still going to happen?’ I need a job. I have bills to pay.”
By 6:15 p.m. that night, the auditorium at the Children’s Museum is half-filled with most of the staff and some of the families that will make up the Tree of Life School when it opens. The 60 or so parents and children have come for “family orientation,” as Williams calls it, a night to meet staff and other families, learn final details about the school, and share in a potluck dinner.
Williams opens the meeting with another unity circle. Then she pops a cassette into a portable player, and “So Glad I’m Here,” by Sweet Honey in the Rock, a D.C.-based gospel group, comes pouring out of the speakers. She wants everyone to listen carefully so they all can sing the song together as a group. The parents exchange nervous looks. When the song is over, Williams goads some into clapping to keep the beat and restarts the cassette, and the groupquietly at firstjoins in. Within a few minutes, they all turn into a swaying, singing, smiling crowd, as if at some Baptist revival.
Williams runs through some last-minute details: School will start at 8:30 a.m., 15 minutes before DCPS schools, so the students will have time to make a unity circle every morning. Students should wear white shirts and blue pants or skirts as the school uniform. Parents can also purchase vests for the boys or aprons for the girls, handmade out of brightly colored African-style fabric, to add to the uniform. When a parent protests, Williams agrees that the girls may also wear vests.
She opens the discussion to questions. Parents throw out a couple, and then 8-year-old Julian Dixon raises one skinny arm. He has to repeat his question twice, because Williams can barely hear his whisper of a voice. “Do people have to be in detention until night?” he asks, finally audible above the crowd. A couple of people giggle. Williams, treating his question with the seriousness she gives to all the others, shakes her head in an emphatic no.
“We’ll be calling your mom and telling her good news, because we know you’re going to do great,” she says. She urges the crowd to applaud Julian for his courage.
Julian’s twin brother, Julius, apparently feeling a little left out, then raises an identically skinny arm. “Will we be able to take computers home?” he asks.
Once again, Williams shakes her head noat least not the first year, she says. The crowd claps for Julius this time. As the applause dies down, Williams admits that school staffers won’t have everything they hoped for the first year. It’s been hard enough just getting the school started, she says; they still need to raise about $200,000 to meet their budget and to pay for additional furniture and computers, and maybe a bus to transport kids on field trips. They also hope to recruit more tutors and volunteers.
In fact, with just two weeks before the start of school, there are still plenty of loose endssuch as finalizing contracts and background checks for employees. The teachers are still waiting for much of the furniture and curriculum materials. And they have to pass the final review by Gordon and Spriggs.
“I’m exhausted beyond what words can express,” Williams says, “but invigorated about what the future holds.”
The future begins on Tuesday. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.