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Specialized Charter Schools Increasingly Popular in District

In Chinese, di yi means “first” and it’s a highly appropriate word to describe the history-making crop of new public charter schools that have opened this fall in D.C. An all-girls elementary school, gender-separated grade school and a Chinese immersion school are three that particularly stand out as firsts of their kind.

Altogether five new charter schools opened their doors to students last month, and six formerly Catholic campuses converted over to charter schools, adding to the unbelievable charter surge happening in the nation’s capital.

Nationally, the District is second in its proportion of students choosing charters — at almost 40 percent, or close to 25,000 students — only to New Orleans, where city leaders practically built their educational infrastructure from scratch after Hurricane Katrina.

Like traditional public schools, charters receive funding from taxpayers on a per-pupil basis and accept students from anywhere within the city limits free of charge and with no admissions requirements. What makes them unique is their largely decentralized structures and greater curriculum flexibility than traditional public schools. Corporations and boards, generally comprised of past educators and business experts, found the individual schools and then run all aspects of their existence from staffing to curriculum. An overarching Public Charter School Board checks academic progress and financial viability along the way, holding the schools accountable for producing results, which are often spelled out in their charters.

System wide, charter schools don’t have to be spread out according to any sort of mandated degree throughout the city’s wards or fall in any particular ratio of middle schools to high schools to elementary schools. So what’s resulted over the past dozen years — when charter schools got the green light to open in D.C. — is a hodgepodge of institutions with a wide range of music and cultural specialties.

And with each passing year, the schools are becoming more creative and diverse, even incorporating an international flair as enterprising founders exercise their options and provide parents an alternative to public schooling.

That’s certainly the thrust of Washington Yu Ying Public Charter School, situated half a mile from the Brookland Metro station in Northeast D.C. Executive Director Mary Shaffner said a number of Yu Ying’s founders happen to have adopted children from China and saw clear advantages to bringing a fully immersive Chinese language school to the District.

“A lot of families feel that it’s the language of the future,” she said. “We have three families who are Spanish speaking. Their kids speak Spanish at home but they want them to have that third language too. If they don’t have a connection to another language, they want to choose Yu Ying to expose their child to a second language.”

Starting in the first grade, students spend half of their learning time in classrooms where their bilingual teacher only speaks Chinese. In these language sessions they also learn math and other academic disciplines, not just basic vocabulary and dialogue, so it becomes more of an integrative experience, Shaffner said.

The expectation is that mastering the language won’t come overnight. Within just a few days of the start of the school year though, youngsters were chirping back greetings in Chinese, clearly grasping something already.

At this point the school is open to pre-kindergarteners, kindergarteners and first graders, but it will eventually expand up to the eighth grade, with one grade added per year until that goal is reached. By the second week of school, enrollment was at 140 students, just 10 shy of the target. Already, word is spreading around the neighborhood about the school, which is why 30 families want their pre-kindergarteners in next year.

According to Shaffner, the student body really “comes from all over the city” and mirrors D.C.’s increasingly foreign population. The hope is to truly take advantage of this diversity.

“Our International Baccalaureate curriculum really promotes internationalism mindedness — you as a part of the planet. So it allows us to integrate a lot of different cultures where our families come from,” she explained. “We have a family from Trinidad, families from Ethiopia, families who are Indian, French, one from Madagascar, one from Indonesia. So we can bring them in and have them speak about their culture as well.”

Further south in D.C., Imagine Southeast Public Charter School — which also opened this year — is setting a milestone of its own in the public charter world. Beginning in the first grade, girls and boys learn in separate dual academies, as teachers cater to the learning strengths and weaknesses of each sex.

Director of Development Melissa Rudd said the school’s building, on Alabama Avenue in Southeast, though a bit cramped, lends itself well to the single-sex classroom model. Pre-kindergarteners and kindergarteners occupy the third floor, girls the second, and boys the first along with a multipurpose room for assemblies and out-of-classroom activities.

“The idea [of the dual-sex classrooms] is for academic benefit and to build an academy culture. So it’s a community within a school. Not all Imagine schools function like this, but we thought it would work in Southeast D.C.,” Rudd said. “When you want to have an impact with students who come in behind or who are not getting the background knowledge from home, it really is a tool that helps you teach in ways that might be most beneficial to them.”

Parental involvement is a big part of the achievement journey, with regular family math and reading nights. Rudd added that mothers and families receive “What My Child Should Know” guides for each school year so they can follow their child’s lesson.

To gauge how far students have come, assessments will be more regular than just at the end of the year. Even after only the first week of classes at Imagine, students were being tested to gauge their knowledge level, a practice that will continue numerous times into the school year, according to Principal Stacey Scott, who came from a Philadelphia charter school.

“The kids so far have been great, very receptive of what we put in place. Now they’re in there learning,” she said. “You’ll notice that it’s a very calm atmosphere… it’s very evident that boys and girls learn differently, so I know this can be effective.”

That attitude seems to be paying off. In stark contrast to most of D.C.’s traditional public schools, which are hurting for students, 225 students are enrolled at Imagine — far more than officials’ expectations to enroll 206 in the school’s first year.

Popularity also seems to be working in favor of the newly opened Excel Academy, which will eventually go from pre-k up to the eighth grade. What distinguishes this charter campus is that practically only female voices can be heard in the building, which is located on South Capitol Street in Southwest.

That’s because girls — so far just 3- to 5-year-olds — are the only gender represented, and, coincidentally, all of the teachers and teaching assistants are female. Founder and President Kaye Savage is particularly boastful of her faculty, many of whom came from all over the nation, drawn to the buzz about an all-girl’s public school and Savage’s experience as a parent activist in D.C. public schools and then as a charter school scholar.

As such, classrooms are decorated based on the college the inhabiting teacher attended. Students hail mainly from the area, which is ideal to Savage, who said she wanted her program to be located in Ward 8 of the District, a troubled ward that “comes in first in all those areas you don’t want to be first in.” To change that, Excel employs a rigorous curriculum spread out over a longer school day and school year that is coupled with mandatory Saturday schooling sessions. Teachers are told to focus on both academics and character development to an even degree.

“The only thing that’s going to change these lifetime outcomes for these girls is testing out of this environment,” Savage said. “Our responsibility to the students and their families is to prepare them to succeed in high-performing high schools, college and life.”

At a Glance

Other brand new charter schools in D.C. this year are:

• Achievement Preparatory Academy - An expanded middle school program with a college prep focus for grades fourth through eighth.

• Thea Bowman Preparatory Academy - A middle school program that focuses on small classes and has a partnership with Lincoln University of Missouri.

Existing charter schools that have expanded this year to additional campuses are:

• Capital City

• Community Academy

• D.C. Preparatory Academy

• The Washington Latin School

About the Author

Dena Levitz is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999