Charter High Schools: Closing the Achievement Gap
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The SEED Public Charter School of Washington, D.C.
Washington, D.C.


School Profile: Selected Variables
Year First Chartered and Authorizer 1998, Washington, D.C.
Grades and Enrollment 7–12 and 320
Student Ethnicity 99% African-American
0% Asian American
1% Hispanic
0% white
Special Education 13%
Free and Reduced-price Lunch 78%
Graduation Rate 100%
Annual Cost per Student $33,000

Source: School records data from 2005–06

When cofounding the SEED Public Charter School of Washington, D.C. (SEED), Eric Adler started with the premise that all children can succeed in school, regardless of social or economic barriers, if given the right environment and support. SEED defines such support as round the clock, and this is what makes its learning environment unique: SEED is the only charter boarding school in the country. Here, students live where they learn because boarding students, as one teacher puts it, "is about building a community, our own little mini-culture, focused on one common goal: academic excellence and getting students to college."

SEED's mantra—"We're preparing these children for college"—is evident in the high expectations that are the norm. Parents support the rigorous curriculum and structured environment and encourage their children to stick it out even when it seems too hard. On the boarding side, life skills staff teach social skills, explicitly designed to help the children succeed in the world. The school also provides numerous outside enrichment activities, including trips abroad and internships.

When SEED opened its doors in 1998 with 40 seventh-grade students, the school was housed downtown in Capital Children's Museum. Now located permanently in the Southeast section of Washington, expanded to include grades 7–12, and serving its full capacity of 320 students, the school retains as its mission, "to provide an outstanding, intensive educational program that prepares children, both academically and socially, for success in college."

Students are clear about what the mission requires of them. "You can't just come in and say you want to do it and then two weeks later you want to get out of here," says one senior. "You got to really be committed to it, because you will be here for six years. You have to come here with an open mind, to be willing to try new things." Another senior agrees. "It's a really hard commitment because of how rigorous the curriculum is and how much you have to put into it to get an output. It's not for everybody." But he believes it is worth it, adding, "It's a life-changing experience."

School Operations and Educational Program

Boarding fosters the kind of communication that is not possible in conventional schools. Students see adults from the time they get up until the time they go to sleep, at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, in class, and in study halls. Security, maintenance, and kitchen staff also interact with the students. The school wraps services and support around students 24 hours a day, says one of the founders. "Resident assistants can influence how they think," explains Student Life Manager Gerald Taylor. "I model certain behaviors. They watch everything you do." As one 11th-grade girl sees it, students have their parents at home and the adults at SEED act as another set of parents.

SEED's 320 students, evenly split between boys and girls, are 99 percent African-American and one percent Hispanic. While 13 percent of SEED's students are served by a special education teacher through an inclusion model, expectations for them are the same as for other students: They will be prepared for college. Seventh- and eighth- grade students must prove they are capable of doing high school work by passing through a "gateway" before advancing to ninth grade. If middle school students have not mastered the skills necessary to move on to high school, SEED offers them an additional "growth" year to finish middle school.

The academic program provides both breadth and depth, covering all subjects required for college. For example, SEED high school students take four years of English and math, four years of social studies, and three years of science. The school follows a rigorous curriculum based on its "power standards" that explains in detail what students are supposed to master and how they will know they have mastered it, in each subject at each grade. Placement, instruction, even professional development are all data driven.

A typical day for students begins at around 6 a.m. They have breakfast in the cafeteria before heading off to classes, which begin at 8 a.m. After a morning of biology, precalculus or writing, students and faculty eat lunch together in the cafeteria. Following afternoon classes, which end at 3 p.m., there are numerous activities, many organized and led by the students themselves. From roughly 4:30 to 5:30 p.m., students receive their Habits For Achieving Life Long Success (HALLS) lesson, which includes such things as etiquette, budgeting, and conflict resolution. After dinner, students have community time, followed by study hall, which is monitored by life skills counselors and volunteer tutors. Students spend the last half hour or so in "quiet" time before lights out at 9:15 p.m. It is a highly structured day.

Through the HALLS program, SEED also teaches life skills, such as grooming, time management, and making good choices. HALLS lessons focus on five core values: respect, responsibility, self-discipline, compassion, and integrity. Students are consistently reminded of such values in a gentle way. For example, Principal Josh Edelman, on morning rounds, may ask, "Did someone steal your tie again?" or say, "Someone pulled your shirt out of your pants." There are clear and thorough procedures for disciplinary actions; at the same time, programs are set up so students can earn rewards for good behavior and citizenship.

Many seventh-grade students enter SEED two or three years behind academically, and it is not unusual for some to have attended several different schools. To elevate them to grade level, the school provides double classes in math and reading, tutoring, study halls dedicated to specific subjects, and extra tutoring when they need it. At SEED, say school officials, there is no "social promotion" by which students are promoted to the next grade irrespective of their academic performance in order to keep them with their same-age peers.

Family Involvement and Partnerships

Assistant Head of School for Student Life Lesley Poole knows that most schools struggle with the issue of parent involvement. "That's not our story," she says. "Their children spend so much time here that parents want to be included, too." About 75 to 85 percent of parents respond when Poole calls a meeting. They may fuss about it, but they come. There are many opportunities for parents to get involved, such as serving on committees, shadowing their children for a day, and chaperoning activities. There are also parent workshops, developed with input from parents, support groups for parents of struggling children, and activities, such as parent literacy night. "Our ability to communicate to parents that we need them is a strength," she says. "We spend a lot of time shaping what communication looks like." In response to parent desires for more communication, SEED created what it calls the "Friday checkout folder," into which school staff place information for parents to pick up when they come to gather their children on Friday afternoon. Parent involvement is critical to the success of SEED students, Poole says. "Parents trust us to push their children beyond their comfort zone."

SEED has extensive partnerships with community entities, which help fulfill the school's mission. "They all provide access and opportunities that lead to preparation," according to Head of School John Ciccone. A full-time staff person cultivates and nurtures external partnerships and also raises funds for the school. Partnerships with such organizations as the Kennedy Center, the DC Arts and Humanities Education Collaborative, and the Shakespeare Theater allow students to attend concerts and plays that would otherwise be unavailable to them. An extensive partnership with the U.S. Department of the Interior provides many opportunities, including tutors on campus, book forums, and museum tours. SEED has a unique partnership with the Embassy of Greece, which allows eight students each year to visit Greece. A former Greek ambassador visited SEED and was so impressed he decided to create the relationship. Experiment in International Living also has provided opportunities for students to travel abroad to places like Spain and Australia.

Governing for Accountability

As part of its wraparound approach to supporting both the social and academic growth of its students, SEED has staff on day and night shifts, a life skills staff housed at the school, and an academic staff whose members go home at night, though often quite late. This dual or complementary structure is reflected in the management of SEED. Ciccone, who is responsible for all operations, his assistant, the principal, and assistant principal, all work together as a team to manage the academic portion of SEED. Ciccone and Poole handle the boarding portion of the school, and Poole also handles admissions and parent outreach. A 15-member board of trustees, which includes parents and both founders, oversees the school.

Chartering has allowed SEED to become a boarding school, uniquely combining college preparation with a life skills curriculum. Chartering also has allowed it to create the "gateway" between middle and high school, a system that provides students an additional year to finish middle school in order to master the skills and knowledge needed to do high school work. Being a smaller school with smaller staff allows for close communication and fosters a sense of community. It is easier to make decisions and changes at SEED because there is little bureaucracy. SEED staff are highly motivated, in large part, because of the opportunity to be a part of something unique, a boarding school. Chartering also has allowed SEED to require and cultivate parent involvement in various ways. For example, parents must come to the school to get an application form and participate in the application process, seeing firsthand what a boarding school is like. If their children are selected, parents must participate in the detailed orientation process. Additionally, they must pick up their children on Fridays and drop them off on Sundays.

"We've only had two classes graduate," says one teacher, "but all of them have gone on to an impressive array of colleges, with tremendous amounts of help from adults in this building, at every level. You know, at a large public school, you wouldn't have that." SEED has received a huge amount of press since it opened, and visitors come from all over the country to learn more about the model. One indication of SEED's growing reputation in D.C. is that its lottery has become a major event; there are far more SEED applicants than there is space for them in the school.

SEED staff are particularly proud of the support students continue to receive once they have left. "Almost weekly I talk to one of the three students from my department who've graduated," says a teacher, "and offer them support or guidance, or help them follow through with something they're feeling challenged with." One parent whose daughter graduated and who has enrolled two other children calls SEED a godsend. "This is the best gift I could have given them," she says. The combination of academics and life skills, says another parent, "prepares children for the world outside a four-block area. I wish every child could go to a school like this."

The SEED Public Charter School of Washington, D.C.: Evidence of Closing the Achievement Gap

SEED students are outperforming their peers in D.C. schools. In math and reading, 56 percent of SEED students were proficient on the Stanford 9 assessment, used districtwide, compared to the D.C. target of 33 percent for math and 29 percent for reading.

Of 13 seniors in the class of 2005, 100 percent were accepted to four-year colleges, with 88 percent going on to attend four-year colleges and 12 percent accepting jobs instead.

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Last Modified: 11/18/2009