Innovations in Education: Successful Charter Schools
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Part II: Charter School Profiles
The Arts and Technology Academy Public Charter School

Location Washington, D.C.
Year First Chartered and Authorizer 1998
Special charter school board
Grades Pre-K-6
Enrollment 615
English Learners 0%
Subsidized Meals 97%
Special Needs 7%
Per Pupil Spending $8,650

When low enrollment led the District of Columbia Public Schools to close Richardson Elementary, local parents and community members stepped in to create a new school in the empty building. The Arts and Technology Academy Public Charter School (ATA) was chartered in 1998-"A true, homegrown, grassroots effort," says a member of the chartering board. In a tough Washington neighborhood characterized by public housing and family incomes well below federal poverty levels, some of these parents had a different vision for their children.

For its 615 students-98 percent African American and 97 percent low-income-the pre-K-6 ATA has designed a program to meet their needs and their parents' dreams. According to the school's annual report, the curricular mixture of the basics and the arts seeks to "propel" students beyond their "economically depressed community." The arts are seen as the foundation for building children's academic prowess as well as a way to "connect them to the great artists and leaders who were nurtured within their community." By design, the school program reflects for children the strengths of their heritage and creates many ways for them to express themselves and to excel.

Program and Operations

To meet its high expectations, ATA runs an extended, seven-and-a-half-hour school day, and an extended school year of 200 days, about 20 days longer than at neighboring schools. The basics in reading and math are taught through the scripted approach of direct instruction. On the other hand, a multicultural social studies curriculum invites students to explore the history of ideas. Everyone learns Spanish. Students and their teachers have easy access to current technology. After-school tutoring and homework assistance are provided for students who need it. Student clubs and extracurricular activities reinforce the focus on arts and academics. And student performances fill the auditorium with proud parents throughout the year. Teachers liken the school to "an oasis in the community."

To keep focused on the children's possibilities, the faculty and staff of ATA have created a list of belief statements that begins, "We can teach every student," and concludes, "Given knowledge and opportunity, students can shape their futures." To safeguard those futures, a culture of achievement has taken hold at ATA. While standardized test scores indicate that ATA students still have a lot of ground to make up, students are proud to have good grades. "I got 28 As and 8 Bs," a sixth-grader reports with satisfaction.

Principal Anthony Jackson is a large part of the ATA story. Jackson came to ATA in 2000, two years after it opened, at a time when the school was floundering, children were not succeeding, and complaints were high. After three years, all signs are positive. "This is an example of how a school can turn around," says a member of the District of Columbia Public School Charter Board. "When I get discouraged, I point to it."

The leadership that Jackson brings to the school begins with his attitude about the school's place in the community. On a tour of the school, he stops to point out a window in the rear of the building that looks onto the neighboring public housing developments. There used to be a cage on this window, he reports, to keep out the vandals. On all the windows, in fact. "Cages," he says, "signify surrender," and against the advice of many, he took a chance and had them removed. At the same time, Jackson is not willing to take chances with his students. Walking a boy home who was being suspended, Jackson experienced the open-air drug market outside the student's apartment, reversed course-boy in tow-to deal with him instead within the walls of the school. Otherwise, he says, "I was just turning him over to them."

In a tough Washington neighborhood characterized by public housing and family incomes well below federal poverty levels, some of these parents had a different vision for their children.

Academically, Jackson is equally protective. "I get kids to come read to me all the time. I see that child who struggled … he's reading with confidence, with inflection, and he understands what the heck he's reading. I think we're doing a pretty good job," he allows. A self-described "data nut," who enjoys the challenge of disaggregating data to see what it can reveal, Jackson also recognizes the limitations of test scores. He never loses sight of his students' broad academic needs and the role of the arts in their education. "It's our responsibility," he says, "to make sure that schools remain-even in an age of accountability-kid friendly. If at the end of the day children have passed every SAT 9 test that's placed in front of them, but they have no sense of beauty, what have we created?"

Beyond the core curriculum of reading, writing, mathematics, science, and social studies, students all learn basic communicative and performing arts, often demonstrating them through technology-based activities. The arts and technology program encompasses the disciplines of the visual arts; speech; drama; dance; music, including singing, playing instruments, and composing; journalism, and video production. As a teacher points out, the school's mission and belief statements are "based on the fundamental understanding that kids learn in different ways. ATA gives them many ways to learn."

The director of special education notes that the arts program is also very effective for the 7 percent of the students who have special needs. The parent of a special needs student calls ATA "a blessing" for her son. "All of the teachers and staff, everybody makes him feel comfortable and loved. The kids are comfortable with him. He's excited about his homework and about the things he's asked to do. He gets lots of stimulation."

The school's strong emphasis on teaching values and respect is key to the treatment this child has received at ATA and to the school's overall discipline approach. Teachers may not yell at students or punish children by isolating them in any way. Jackson counsels teachers to get to know students instead of resorting to overly strict practices. "You can't discipline strangers," he cautions. "You have to build trust first."

The school also benefits from having a dean of students, who serves as a "behavior interventionist." In a school founded on the arts, it is only fitting that one kind of intervention is music therapy. Picture a small group of boys singing a song called "Cooperation" as the music therapist strums a guitar. No one notes the irony of the cooperation in evidence.

Finally, the condition of the school's physical plant is not incidental to the atmosphere of confidence and pride that permeates ATA. One of the board of directors' first actions was to repair the run-down building. When ATA opened, the new school was in ship shape, but it was sterile. Two years later the hallways were still barren and no student work was on the walls, lest students tear it down or deface it. When Jackson arrived, he encouraged wary teachers to paper the walls with colorful student work. To their delight, they found that students respected each other's contributions. Says one proud teacher, "If children are going to be here for eight hours, they should have a stimulating, beautiful, safe environment-and our building is all of those things."

Continuous Learning

To improve instruction in all areas, faculty and administrative staff meet four times each year to review assessment outcomes and to develop responsive strategies. They use outcomes from curriculum-based assessments to identify students with low skill levels who are tracked for consideration of special education referral and/or learning enrichment, such as tutoring or homework assistance. SAT 9 outcomes are used to identify areas that are posing a challenge for students, and the curriculum is modified accordingly. Jackson also looks at data such as attendance, referrals to the office, and numbers in after-school tutorial programs, all with the purpose of planning improvements.

The school devotes at least 15 days each year to professional development in the areas of standards, best practices, test-taking strategies, and classroom management. Teachers meet with the assistant principal weekly to discuss classroom practices. In addition, the assistant principal completes weekly classroom observations and coaches teachers. Program coordinators for grades pre-K-2, grades 3-6, and arts and technology also regularly coach teachers. This structure and support are credited with teachers' high performance. Proud of what ATA teachers have accomplished, the school board president notes that they are not inherently "better" teachers than those in the rest of the District of Columbia but that they have responded to the environment in the school. The leadership team believes it has created a culture where it is "okay to ask questions." Likewise, teachers at ATA feel they are "allowed to grow."

The principal, one teacher says, "is a leader who demands the best. It makes all the difference because you want to do well for somebody like that."

Parents and Partners

Although ATA was first envisioned by parents and has two parents on the school board, parent involvement outside of a small core group is very limited. Most parents are single mothers and have themselves had few educational opportunities, which teachers report limits participation in their children's academic life. The school board and school staff are eager to increase parents' role in the school. GED classes, job training, and job placement that could be offered through the school's Parent Resource Center are seen as important services that could also strengthen parent participation in the school.

Students are proud to have good grades. "I got 28 As and 8 Bs," a sixth-grader reports with satisfaction.

ATA has many relationships with community groups such as local churches and cultural organizations, including the Library of Congress, but no key partnerships.

Governance and Accountability

The Arts and Technology Academy Public Charter School was chartered by the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board in 1998 as a nonprofit corporation and local education agency (LEA). It has an annual budget of about $5,320,000, receiving funding of about $6,550 per student, plus some extra dollars for weighted categories, such as pre-school, and federal entitlements amounting to about $475,000.

ATA has a business relationship with Mosaica Education, Inc., which operates 24 charter school programs nationally. The school pays Mosaica $610,000 annually to provide a "central office" function. The company also provides the school's Direct Instruction reading and mathematics curricula and the Paragon social studies curriculum.

The school is governed by a nine-member board, which meets monthly. Recently the board used tax-exempt bonds to purchase the school building, which it had been renting. Monthly payments dropped from $33,000 to $13,000. These savings have contributed to the school's $600,000 bank balance.

"The principal is a leader who demands the best. It makes all the difference because you want to do well for somebody like that."

While the school cannot operate without sound fiscal management, success is measured by student test scores, the scope of the curriculum, attendance, disciplinary referrals, staff retention, and parent satisfaction:

  • Since 2000, when Jackson took over as principal, students' SAT 9 scores have moved steadily up. In reading performance, 59 percent of the students were reading at or above grade level in 2003, compared with 35 percent in 2000. In math performance, half of the students were at or above grade level, compared with 20 percent in 2000.

  • Many educators are baffled by ATA's ability to emphasize the arts as well as raise test scores. With the trend toward an increasingly narrow curriculum, Jackson is used to the question, "How do you guys do it?"

  • Daily average attendance is 95 percent.

  • Behavioral referrals dropped from 43 to 24 in three years.

  • After Jackson's first year in the school, faculty turnover was high. Staff not enthusiastic about the school's demands were encouraged to leave, and 21 of the 41 teachers and instructional assistants did. The following year staff turnover was low, with departures down to seven.

  • Parent satisfaction is measured by the school's waiting list, the overflow audiences for student performances, and parents' pleas that the school extend its program into middle school.

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Last Modified: 06/23/2009