- The Washington Times - Monday, July 23, 2001

Few students showed up for class on a rainy day last week at a new charter school in the District. Some principals might have been tempted to give students and faculty a day off. But not Susan Schaeffler. She and her staff at KIPP DC/KEY Academy hopped into their cars and drove to the homes of each absentee student, bringing them to school.

The District's brand-new charter schools have taken on a tough mission — to equip students with a thorough grounding in academics and the tools to help them succeed in the modern world.

Officials and operators of the charter schools are using an aggressive approach to discipline and an array of unusual programs to get the job done.

At the Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter School, the school's founders, Josh Kern and Jacquelyn Davis, wanted to make sure students get exactly what they wanted when they came to school every day for a nine-hour day. So they allowed students to sit in when teachers who applied for a job were being interviewed.

This year, four charter schools are opening in the District, three of them east of the Anacostia an area that has not given parents many choices in the education of their school-age children.

"Each [new charter school] will bring something special to the District," said Nelson Smith, executive director of D.C. Charter for Public Schools, one of two agencies that award or deny charters to privately owned schools in the city. The D.C. Charter for Public Schools approved the four new schools. The D.C. Public School Board, the other chartering authority in the city, did not charter any schools this year.

The leaders of the four new schools are mostly young, firm-handed men and women who give a warm welcome to new teaching ideas that show promise.

The other new charter schools are the Sasha Bruce Public Charter School, where teachers will lead high-risk and special education students on "learning expeditions" designed to pique their natural curiosity and creativity, and the Howard Road Academy in Northwest, the largest of the new schools with 550 students. It offers a more traditional liberal arts program.

A fifth school approved by the D.C. Charter for Public Schools, Tri-Community Public Charter School, will not open this year.

At Thurgood Marshall, on Alabama Avenue in Southeast, Mr. Kern, 29, and Ms. Davis, 30, have come up with a method of teaching that weaves legal concepts into its academic menu. Both are recent graduates of Georgetown Law School and taught a popular "Street Law" program at Ballou High School in Southeast. The Street Law program at Ballou "really excited the children — excited them enough to attend school. We saw it as a really powerful model of education," Mr Kern said.

They chose to put the Thurgood Academy in Southeast because children in underprivileged areas often grow up viewing law as a tool used to hurt them, they said.

"We want them to see it as a tool that empowers them," Ms. Davis said.

The school isn't trying to create future lawyers but rather people who understand the law and its impact on society, Mr. Kern said.

Thurgood Marshall will open on Aug. 22 with 80 ninth-graders. A higher grade will be added each year.

The KEY Academy begins with fifth-graders. It will also add a grade each year until they reach the eighth grade and a maximum of 320 students.

The school's program is part of a network called KIPP (Knowledge is Power) that started in 1995 in a school in Houston and later opened in the Bronx in New York. The schools aim to turn their students into role models for the school's next generation of students.

KEY Academy classes are held in a church basement on Minnesota Avenue in Southeast — its temporary home for a year until the school's operators find a permanent building. The classrooms are bright and large. Each room has its own name — Harvard, Brown and Bucknell, for example — in honor of the universities the teachers attended.

"Showing them that we went to college helps them see it as something they may want to do some day," said Michael Diaz, who teaches science. The teachers constantly remind students they are the class of 2009 — the year a fifth-grader would normally enter college.

KEY takes a new approach to discipline students are rewarded with a paycheck for "school dollars" every week based on attendance, teamwork and good behavior, among other things. Students can use their paychecks to buy items from the school store.

Students learn to keep track of their paychecks in bank books, fostering an early habit of seeing "how money works," said teacher Sarah Hayes.

On the other hand, a lack of discipline, like not doing homework, can lead to students being benched — an idea parents appreciate, she said.

The overall approach, she says, is a "no-excuses" one.

Ms. Schaeffler and her teachers say they make no excuses themselves. All carry cellular phones and can be reached by students and parents at any time, if they need help. Teachers also get paid better for their extra effort — $8,000 more than the $32,000 made by a new city public school teacher.

"We give every child our trust. And we try to hold on to it," Ms. Schaeffler said.

She says she already sees the difference in the children at the school.

"We have students here who missed 50 days last year. But now they attend because they want to get paid and they also enjoy being here," she said.

Then there is the food.

No red meats, greasy burgers or soft drinks for KEY students. Instead, their lunches will range from salmon croquettes to whole wheat bread, turkey and cheddar cheese with lettuce, or a chef's salad. Students will also have a 45-minute physical education class each day.

School days stretch from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at KEY and 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Thurgood Marshall. Saturday school is mandatory, and the focus is on music, art and sports.

Keeping children in school for nine hours and holding their attention for the entire time could be easier said than done. Mr. Kern said an "engaging" curriculum could do the trick.

"The best discipline is a good curriculum that will interest and engage them. If they are having fun, they will value it," he said.

Children, they say, also value personal attention from their teachers. "We are developing a school culture that will treat students in much more meaningful ways" than public schools traditionally have, said the school's principal, Joseph Feldman.

"Traditional high schools are large, and children just get lost," he said. At the new charter schools, class sizes will range from 14 to 20 students.

Danielle Simmons, a ninth-grader who plans to move from Johnson Junior High in Southeast to Thurgood Marshall this year, said she was looking forward to what she believed would be a "challenging curriculum" at the school.

The long school hours, she said, did not bother her. "I was not getting enough attention at my other school, not enough counseling," she said. "Thurgood Marshall will be better because we are doing something fun there. We will learn."

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