Picture your dream school: You hire the best teachers, noble and wise, who implement the latest innovative classroom strategies. Add truckloads of the fastest computers and hook them all up to the Internet. Even the food is healthy and hot in your educational fantasy. And then you open up your doors to the most troubled of the city’s kids and give them everything you’ve got.
And you still fail. Your best efforts come to naught because after the vivid biology dissection, the happening jazz class, and some bountiful after-school enrichment, many of your students go back to hostile homes and harrowing nights. Even the most ambitious of nontraditional schools can’t avoid the cold reality that eight hours of intense educational nurturing can be stripped away by one pipe toke or gunshot in the night.
Unless, of course, your students don’t go home. Rajiv Vinnakota and Eric Adler’s proposed SEED charter school for at-risk inner-city youth in D.C. is conceived as a full-service, round-the-clock womb of educational respite. The two fresh-faced consultants want to open a coed boarding school for grades 7-12 and are in the midst of applying for charter-school status to use city money to get things rolling next year.
A charter school works just like a public school but with none of the usual public-school hassles: As long as the school serves students for free, does not exclude kids based on academic ability, and adheres to the terms of its charter, its practices are largely exempt from school board oversight. And D.C. charters are valid for 15 years.
The SEED school would be one of the first chartered boarding schools in the nation, and the first such effort in D.C. The plan is to give a population with historically low high-school graduation rates day-and-night attentionand a far better chance of defeating the urban cycle than is offered by traditional public schools.
It sounds both splendid and impossible. Vinnakota, 26, and Adler, 33, have the résumés of people unaccustomed to failure: Wharton Business School and Princeton University followed by gold-plated consulting jobs at Dean & Co. and Mercer Management Consulting (respectively). Adler attended Sidwell Friends School and also worked as dean of students and a teacher at St. Paul’s School near Baltimore for eight years. For his part, Vinnakota has worked with inner-city kids in summer programs, teaches kids public speaking through a local program, hatched the plan for SEED and founded its foundation, and is pouring 60 hours per week into the effort.
Both quit their day jobs last spring and embarked on the arduous application process for a charter from the D.C. Public Charter School Board. SEED stands for Schools for Educational Evolution and Developmentthat’s “schools,” pluralmultiple SEED schools are part of the long-term vision.
“There is clearly a need in this city, as in many cities, for this type of school. A certain number of kids will not get a good education without this type of institution,” Adler says.
Their intended customers, according to their charter application, are “academic underperformers whose residential settingeither their homes or their neighborhoodsare disruptive to their educations, and who have the desire to attend boarding school.” The guys behind SEED are up for the harder cases as well: “The school will be prepared to address minor learning, emotional, physical and speech disabilities and to assist students whose primary language is not standard English.”
The two are confident that attracting students will be among their lesser worriesjust about every charter school in the U.S. has a waiting list. Once they make it into school, the SEED kids are going to be very busy bees, if a sample schedule from the charter application is any indication: “Saturday: 8:30-9:10, breakfast; 9:20-10:20, campus chores program; 10:30-11:30, off-topic class, outside speaker, or additional play rehearsal time; 12-12:40, lunch; 1-5, enrichment (field trip or cultural event) or community service activities; 6-11:30, dinner and supervised, formal social activities with students from other schools; midnight, lights out.” Whew. And that’s just the weekend.
SEED board member Steve Bumbaugh spent four years at I Have a Dream, which promised to pay college tuition for selected students who graduated from high school. Adler suggests that Bumbaugh joined SEED out of frustration because I Have a Dream kids “were his for only eight to 10 hours a day, then lost for 14 hours. We are not saying that I Have a Dream fails, just that some kids will never get a chance if they are not removed” from fatally problematic environments.
According to its founders, SEED’s “fairly traditional” curriculum will include “very intensive remediation” in 7th and 8th grades in order to get students up to grade level, per the national average. Adler predicts that the final four years of SEEDdom will produce students on par with “some of the finest college prep schools in the U.S.”
“Clearly, the last four years will be largely borrowed from successful programs,” Adler says. Howard University’s education department has agreed to help develop that curriculum, although the curriculum will not necessarily be Afrocentric. “We certainly will study African issues and history, as any good school would, but we will concentrate heavily on reading, writing, mathematics, and history from around the world, all of which are important issues for any student, regardless of his or her background.”
It’s tough to disregard Adler and Vinnakota’s background when you consider the challenge before them: Both are privileged businessmen who live in the suburbs and have little in common with the kids they want to remove from their homes and neighborhoods. But Adler and Vinnakota say they don’t see themselves as the high and mighty coming to rescue the unknowing ghetto dwellers. “The kids have to want to do this, and their parents have to want it,” Adler says. And they feel that whatever they lack in terms of community ties, they can grow.
“We established a grass-roots communication without even trying,” Vinnakota says. He and Adler have letters of support from D.C. Council chair Linda Cropp, the Marshall Heights Community Development Organization, Howard University, the Anacostia/Congress Heights Partnership, and NationsBank. And the board of SEED includes a list of educational and youth program luminaries that probably wouldn’t waste their time if they thought Vinnakota and Adler couldn’t pull off what sounds like a pipe dream.
SEED’s application, all 150 pages of it, was submitted Sept. 15 and is competing with 25 others for as many as 10 charters that the board may approve in a given cycle. If an application looks complete, the board interviews the applicant and, if that goes well, holds a public hearing to discuss details. SEED had its interview Oct. 6 and was slated for a late-October hearing.
Ambitious as their plan may seem, Adler and Vinnakota expect to have the SEED school open for educational business by Day 1 of the 1998-99 D.C. school year, provided their charter is OK’d. They have already formalized arrangements to rent space from the Capital Children’s Museum, a cluster of buildings at 3rd and H Streets NE, which also houses the Options Public Charter School. Options, in existence since 1990 and operating as a charter day school since 1996, serves grades 5-8. There are plans in the works for a larger, permanent campus.
If all goes as planned, a 40-member 7th-grade class will start at SEED next year, and the 7th grade will be replenished with newcomers yearly as each crop progresses to the next grade. SEED’s anticipated full house of 250-350 students is not unusually low for a charter; about 60 percent of charter schools nationwide enroll fewer than 200 pupils.
An approved charter in D.C. means the charter holder will be reimbursed with federal money for each student enrolled. In D.C., that amounts to about $6,000 per student per year based on the average operating cost of sending a kid through the D.C. public school system.
That average “omits a lot of costs that D.C. schools never face, the No. 1 being facilities costs,” Adler laments. The regulation leaves SEED with a funding challenge to make up the difference between $15,000 per child per year and the $6,000 it will receive per child. Showing savvy beyond their years, Adler and Vinnakota have worked with a group called the D.C. Charter School Coalition to sponsor an amendment to the charter law in a congressional bill that may yield larger reimbursements for charter boarding schools. That bill, the D.C. House Appropriations Bill, passed the full House and is currently in conference committee.
But those efforts won’t totally fill the funding gap, so the SEED chiefs are smiling and dialing to solicit contributions from individuals and corporate entities. Following a model tested in Philadelphia, SEED wants contributors to pony up $3,000 per year, which essentially buys them sponsorship of one student. The sponsor will act as a mentor to the student, meaning the sponsor will be available “at least every couple of weeks [to provide] mostly a social outlet with an adult” for the sponsored student, Adler says.
The SEED school is designed to have one teacher for every 10 students in both day schooling and night boarding. There will be some crossover between day and night staff, with at least one teacher staying every weeknight until lights-out. Each staff member will be hired to serve primarily as a day prof or a night resident adviser. “A lot of boarding schools burn out faculty with 20-hour days,” and SEED wants to avoid high turnover among the staff, Vinnakota says.
Under the master plan, the night staff would be culled mostly from area graduate schools, where students might be tempted with an offer of free room and board plus a stipend. Plus, grad students “would serve as excellent role models” for the SEEDlings, Vinnakota adds.
Adler bristles slightly when questioned about planned security precautions to handle a traditionally rambunctious age group. “These are not rough kids. They act rough because of their neighborhoods,” he explains. “We’ll have expectations of behavior [standards], and if [students] act rough they won’t be there for long.” SEED expects “to have the same kinds of problems as other schools and, if we are good and competent, those will be our only problems,” Adler says.
Keeping the kids on campus, which would seem to be a primary challenge of boarding kids in their city of origin, draws a confident, if facile, reply from Adler: “There are two ways to keep kids” in a school: “Build fences and wallsor provide the best protection and environment so they want to stay.”
Josephine Baker, chair of the D.C. Public Charter School Board (which is considering the SEED application), notes that charter schools are far from a sure bet, especially when it comes to money.
“[SEED] does have a funding issue that needs to be resolved, but we cannot resolve funding issues. Our job is to look at the application on merit,” she says. Baker declined to address other specifics concerning SEED’s application.
There has been surprisingly little opposition to the notion of a couple of self-appointed angels who happen to have led privileged lives being handed a great deal of control over the lives of a primarily black student body. One D.C. public school teacher with over 20 years logged in the system proffers that “anything that mixes it up is healthy as long as it meets certain standards. You need a variety of ways to approach these children. I like the idea of a school that cares for kids at night, because that is where it all unravels.”
SEED board member Cathy Martens, who is president of the Capital Children’s Museum, says Adler and Vinnakota will be up against “the utter lack of education about charters, the negative press generated recently from one D.C. charter school [Marcus Garvey School], and the dysfunction” now inherent in the D.C. system. Plus, she warns against pioneering efforts directed at public school kids, “It is never easy to be the first.”
With all its problems, Adler and Vinnakota picked D.C. in which to start their potential empire because, Adler says, “because we knew people here, we live here, there is a need here, and D.C. has a powerful charter law.”CP