- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 25, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Recently, I returned to my alma mater, Anacostia High School in Southeast Washington. As a graduate of the class of 1966, who had not stepped inside the building since, I was invited back by the principal, Ian Roberts, who gave me a personal tour of the facility. As the former chairman of D.C.’s Public Charter School Board, which regulates the city’s public charter schools, I knew about Anacostia’s educational woes. I was familiar with the difficulties in getting the vast majority of Anacostia’s students to grade level in reading and math, or even to guarantee their safety on campus. Mere survival was a sign of success.

But things are changing. Old assumptions that have defined Anacostia’s reputation throughout the city no longer apply.

Located at the heart of a community blighted by poverty and violence, the school faces many challenges. About 95 percent of Anacostia’s students are eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches owing to their families’ low income. One in five girls are teen moms. Nearly one in 10 students are homeless. And almost one-third of students are classified as having special education needs.

After decades of decline, former D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee invited Friendship Public Charter School to partner with DCPS and turn around the school - now renamed the Academies at Anacostia. Friendship runs six public charter schools in the District and four traditional public schools in Baltimore, in partnership with Baltimore City Public Schools. Previously, they had assumed management of a failing charter school, Southeast Academy in D.C. Friendship serves nearly 8,000 students from pre-K to 12th grade. Since September 2009, Friendship has been responsible for the school’s curriculum and culture.

Change was evident, as I observed the classrooms and walked the hallways with the charismatic new principal. He seemed to know the name of every student he encountered, and he kept in constant contact with staff through two-way radios.

Friendship’s chief academic officer, Michael Cordell, described the state of the school upon their arrival two years ago. The schoolhouse, with its caged windows reminiscent of a prison, had been allowed to steadily deteriorate. For many years, more students could be found in hallways than classrooms, demonstrating neglect of another kind. Students spoke of teachers asleep at their desks; of teachers telling them they got paid whether or not the children learned; and of the constant fear of violence.

Two years on, there is much work still to do, but there are important signs of hope. The city is finally investing in bringing the school campus up to modern, acceptable standards. A completely refurbished gymnasium and three-story building is gleaming with classrooms complete with state-of-the-art computers and Promethean whiteboards. Data walls, which track the academic progress of each student, adorn every classroom. The original schoolhouse, constructed in 1935, is being renovated and refurbished for the start of the next school year. A new message is being sent to students: Adults care about you and your education.

What’s taking place at Anacostia goes beyond modernizing the building. Students must wear school uniforms, with financial assistance for families who require it. In many classrooms, there are two teachers. When the partnership with Friendship began, staff were asked to reapply for their positions. About 85 percent were let go. New teachers, many from the highly praised Teach for America program, brought a new, heightened level of commitment and enthusiasm, while Friendship provided them a meaningful level of support.

Under Friendship’s direction, many statistics are now moving in the right direction. Attendance was 72 percent last year, up from 56 percent prior to the partnership. Arrests are down, from 135 in the year before the new management, to 30 in the past school year. That year, 79 percent of students graduated, compared with only 56 percent before the partnership. And 90 percent of the graduates were accepted to college - a big change.

Friendship has begun to offer academically rigorous Advanced Placement courses; 150 more students took these this year than in the partnership’s first year. So far, 40 students have earned Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation-funded D.C. Achievers Scholarships, paying a full-ride through college. One student has been awarded a Gates Millennium Scholarship, which fully funds an undergraduate and postgraduate degree.

As I left the building, filled with memories of my own schooldays, I reflected on how many challenges these students and their families face. Changing the expectations of the children and the community about what can be achieved through education will take time and hard work. But replacing cynicism and chaos with college and careers is worth the effort. If the expectations of the staff, students, their families and the community at large are raised, the Academies at Anacostia can become a catalyst for change for the entire community.

Tom Nida is regional president for United Bank in Washington, D.C., and Maryland, and former chairman of the D.C. Public Charter School Board.

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