- The Washington Times - Monday, December 21, 2009

Firsts are not new to Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter High School in Washington. The most recent citywide test scores established the nine-year-old public charter school’s elevated status as the highest-performing nonselective high school in the District.

Offering a safe and caring environment, Thurgood Marshall Academy is the only high school in Southeast to operate without a metal detector. Now it is the first charter to partner with the city to create a state-of-the-art athletic and community center, fulfilling an urgent need for east-of-the-Anacostia River youths, for whom few adequate recreation centers and athletic facilities exist.

The 24,346-square-foot athletic facility is the brainchild of Josh Kern, founder and executive director of Thurgood Marshall Academy. Like many D.C. public charter schools, the academy lacked adequate gymnasium facilities for many years.

Once the project was up and running, the D.C. government agreed to partner with the school and included in the project the city’s planned modernization of neighboring Alfred Kiger Savoy Elementary School, a multimillion-dollar investment program that included new computer labs.

The state-of-the-art facility includes a full-court gym floor, rooms in which community agencies can offer yoga and other physical activity classes, and a workout room equipped with cardiovascular exercise equipment and free weights. In addition to its uses for physical activity, the new space also will provide a venue suitable for dance, concerts or public presentations.

Externally, the facility replaces a blank brick wall facing Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue Southeast with an inviting entrance to a sleek modern building with street-facing, full-length, museum-quality display cases in which the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum will showcase community history. Thurgood Marshall Academy also will be able to use the window display cases to advertise open houses for interested parents and community members.

Noting the many benefits of the new facility, Mr. Kern said: “This collaborative venture has brought a top-quality athletic facility to the charter and non-charter students it will serve as well as to the wider community in Anacostia, which has long been bereft of recreational facilities.

“With our original renovated, historic school building and this brand-new top-of-the-line athletic and community facility, Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter High School now has the facilities to match our status as the highest-performing nonselective public high school in the city,” he said.

The public charter high school, which began its life in a church annex in Congress Heights, is widely regarded as a model of best practices by other public charter schools in the city and has developed complex data systems to analyze and track the academic performance of individual students, 70 percent of whom are economically disadvantaged.

Dignitaries at the Dec. 4 ribbon-cutting ceremony included former D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams and D.C. Council member Marion Barry. D.C. government officials included Kerri L. Briggs, state superintendent of education for the District; Stefan Huh, director of charter school financing and support at the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education; and Allen Lew, executive director of the D.C. Office of Public Education Facilities Modernization, who was instrumental in building on the charter school’s initial investment and the city’s decision to partner with the school in this joint project.

Other guests included representatives from Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, an advocacy and resource organization for D.C. public charter schools, and Building Hope, founded by Sallie Mae to help charter schools overcome the facility obstacles that keep them from expanding and serving more students. Students, faculty and alumni from both schools in the joint venture also were present.

Students at Thurgood Marshall Academy are three times more likely to be proficient in reading and math than their peers in the two neighboring high schools, and 100 percent of the school’s first five graduating classes this year were accepted to college, officials there said.

Commenting on the District charter venture, Robert Cane, executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, said: “It is to the credit of Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter High School that it has successfully created a high-quality public school in a community that has been chronically underserved for quality education options.”

• Mark Lerner is a former board member of Cesar Chavez Public Charter School.