- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 12, 2010

Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray wants to push forward with education reforms by having more collaboration between charter schools and traditional schools, an initiative supported by charter co-founder Joshua Kern.

Mr. Kern, founding president of Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter High School, also is being considered as the next deputy mayor for education.

“I cant really talk about it,” Mr. Kern said Sunday concerning a possible slot in the Gray administration. “I cant really say anything.”

The development comes as Mr. Grays alma mater, the once-elite Dunbar High School, undergoes its second transformation in as many years after Interim Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson fired the charter organization that was managing the school.

“Obviously I want to see the school turned around,” Mr. Gray told The Washington Times on Saturday. “We have a lot of successful charters in this city. Some are better than others and thats one of the reasons we want closer collaboration.”

The incoming mayor said he holds Mr. Kern, who co-founded TMA nine years ago, his school and other successful charter schools in high regard.

“Oftentimes, charters are viewed as competitive because they take different approaches to governing,” Mr. Gray said. “Thurgood Marshall Academy is a shining example of a successful public school.”

Thurgood Marshall Academy and Mr. Gray’s Dunbar High School are two D.C. schools that have a lot in common, though they are nothing alike. Both are public high schools, both are named for outstanding black Americans and both have majority-black student bodies.

But the commonality begins and ends there. Thurgood Marshall, the citys most successful non-selective public high school, is a school that works.

Students at TMA, as the school is called, rank higher on standardized tests than any other open-enrollment public high school in the city, with 72 percent of its students scoring proficient in reading and 66 percent in math on this years DC-CAS standardized test. Also, 100 percent of its graduating classes has been accepted to college for the past five years.

Neither of those accomplishments is a small matter in the nations capital, where public schools consistently rank near the bottom of the nations academic ladder. The situation is especially bad at the high schools in TMA’s neighborhood. Less then 20 percent of students at Anacostia High School scored proficient in both DC-CAS categories, and Ballou didn’t do much better — 30 percent of its students were proficient in reading and 26 percent in math.

Dunbar, whose alumni include D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, former Republican U.S. Sen. Edward Brooke, and blood bank pioneer Dr. Charles R. Drew, is an underperforming traditional school where recent rape accusations and hooliganism forced Ms. Henderson to reverse reform measures made by her predecessor, Michelle Rhee.

During a recent visit to the school, Mr. Kern, a Gray campaign adviser, said three words — “teaching and learning” — sum up what goes on inside the walls of TMA, which relocated in 2005 to the aged red-brick building that had housed Nichols Avenue School on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue Southeast.

The school is neighbor to the Anacostia Metro Station, low-income housing, liquor stores, and mom-and-pop shops — the very environs its students dream of leaving to attend college. About 74 of TMA’s students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

Markysha Dickens, a senior, and junior Latrice Clyburn said TMA teachers and counselors are already preparing them for college and professional careers, and both have younger sisters who will be attending next year.

Having met her deadline for essays and college applications, Markysha has her heart set on the University of Vermont to major in psychology.

“I want to open my own office, to help people,” said Markysha, who would have attended Anacostia, Ballou or Dunbar but settled on TMA, because “you have to be on your ps and qs.”

“Ive grown academically and got my head on straight,” she said.

TMA’s no-nonsense approach gives students a syllabus, so they know what is expected from them in each course. It offers rigorous curricula, including moot court in honor of the school’s Supreme Court justice namesake, and Advanced Placement, foreign language and art courses — instruction many D.C. public schools forgo to focus on basics. It also offers students laptop computers, after-school hours in the library and computer lab, as well as discussions with teachers and counselors.

With 96 percent of TMAs students living in Wards 7 or Ward 8, teachers said it is incumbent upon the faculty to first meet students where they are and then guide them to reach goals they never imagined achieving, let alone surpassing.

“Many come in reading below grade level, but we’re pretty open with one another and flesh them out,” English teacher Evan Lloyd said.

“Some have social and emotional needs that we try to meet,” said Michael Hendricks, who teaches Spanish and social studies. “We tell them they can do better than a 2.0 [grade-point average].”

Teachers also said its important to connect with and stay in touch with parents, and encourage teenage charges to let others see what they see and think.

“I start out with a blank canvas,” said art teacher Nafeesah Shabazz, who had taught in Prince Georges County. “I have to make them believe than can do it. I dont care how good or bad they are, I dont criticize them. I critique them.

She said she often will “call and send e-mails to their parents when I have a standout student.”

TMA follows students through college, too, with an alumni association and emergency fund that ensures college freshmen and other underclassmen dont have excuses to drop out. To that end, the fund helps students buy books, pay for emergency travel, toiletries and food.

“We don’t want them to drop out,” said Mr. Kern, a former teacher. “We want them to continue to succeed.”

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