- - Monday, January 14, 2013

Public education has changed dramatically in the District of Columbia since Congress temporarily awarded responsibility for it to a federal control board 16 years ago.

Today, 43 percent of all District students enrolled in public school attend independently run but publicly funded charter schools, outside of the control of District of Columbia Public Schools. Moreover, the District public school system has changed significantly since it became accountable to the mayor five years ago.

Washington’s 98 public charter school campuses are free to design their own educational programs, while being held accountable for improved student performance by the city’s Public Charter School Board.

Innovation in the classroom has had to be accompanied by innovation across the entire range of operations that are necessary to run a successful school. Accordingly, new, mutually beneficial opportunities for partnerships between public charter schools and area businesses have opened up.

One such local business is Ritz-Carlton, which provides career education for sixth graders at a local public charter school. Through the Alliance, Ritz-Carlton began working with the Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom Public Charter School, located in the Brookland neighborhood of Northeast D.C. As part of the company’s Community Footprints Program, Ritz-Carlton afforded the school’s sixth graders the opportunity to see firsthand how jobs such as chefs, engineers and human resource professionals are connected to their studies. The students participate in an “introduction to the hospitality industry” day at an area hotel. The partnership also extends to employees hosting students at classes in etiquette, teaching food safety at the school and judging their science fair.

Part of the Stokes’ school mission is community service, and Ritz-Carlton’s partnership supports this. Ritz-Carlton joined the school’s students and staff when they volunteered to plant trees on the Anacostia waterfront. The hospitality chain also provided the school a $1,000 grant to fund the school’s work, which included planting more than 100 trees in the area.

Ritz-Carlton also assisted when students prepared food at D.C. Central Kitchen, which provides meals for low-income adults and at-risk neighbors. They also support Stokes’ community service work through a formal grant and donated a new school playground.

As a public charter school, Stokes is free to enter into such partnerships without having to ask permission from the city, or comply with the school system’s plan, as city-run schools are required to do. Charters’ freedom to set their own school curriculum and culture create opportunities for area business collaboration, enabling schools to connect unique aspects of their program with relevant local corporate partners.

Stokes runs an acclaimed wellness program, which aims to introduce healthy living habits to its students. The program is rooted in the school’s decision to prepare and serve in-house low-sodium, low-fat meals using locally sourced, made-from-scratch ingredients, many of which are grown and harvested in the school’s on-site organic garden and prepared by the school’s French-trained chef. The school also operates an after-school fitness program.

In creating this program, the school was significantly assisted by its partnership with the local Whole Foods on P Street in Northwest. Whole Foods donated cookware, making it easier to prepare food at school, and fresh fruit and vegetables. When the school decided to serve fresh, sustainably farmed fish, the store donated tilapia for a month, and Whole Foods fishmongers spoke to students about sustainable fishing. The school also was included in a Whole Foods program whereby the store donates 5 percent of its profits to its nonprofit partners for one day.

Stokes teaches its pre-Kindergarten through sixth-grade students to speak, write and think in three languages — French, Spanish and English — and serves three meals a day to students, 3 in 4 of whom are eligible for federal lunch subsidies. Still, the students score 16 percentage points higher on D.C.’s standardized reading and math tests than their peers in the city-run school system.

These rewarding business partnerships help the school to provide a high-quality public education to many low-income students. More area businesses should consider them.

Tom Nida is regional vice president of United Bank for D.C. and Maryland. Linda Moore is founder and executive director of Elsie Whitlow Stokes Public Charter School.