- The Washington Times - Monday, September 24, 2001

''We're just finding our soul," says Joshua Kern, executive director of the Thurgood Marshall Academy, walking past an outline of the scales of justice in a mural on the church building the fledgling public charter school rents at 421 Alabama Ave. SE.
The scales represent the school's aim of integrating legal concepts into an academic curriculum that emphasizes active participation in civic life. Its model is the man the school was named for Thurgood Marshall, the first black justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and the lawyer who earlier had argued the landmark 1954 case, Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, which made segregation illegal in public schools.
The word "soul" isn't far-fetched. The founders of the only charter high school east of the Anacostia River, which opened Aug. 22, have set themselves an ambitious agenda requiring a great deal of feeling and thought by all involved.
"We want to provide a first-rate public school education equivalent to Sidwell Friends or Georgetown Day School, for free," boasts Mr. Kern, a newly minted Georgetown University Law Center graduate who has a master's in business administration from Tulane University and extensive experience as a business consultant.
School officials intend to do so knowing that, in Mr. Kern's words, "students initially are far below grade level in reading, writing and math a lot of whom would be written off by the system in high school because it's not possible, given the resources, to get them up to a basic level."
Forty percent of D.C. students east of the Anacostia River who start the ninth grade fail to graduate, he says. A majority of the academy's students qualify for lunch assistance.
Mr. Kern, 29, manages the school's developmental end. Overseeing academics is the principal. Joseph Feldman, 32, a lawyer with a master's degree in education from Harvard University who previously was assistant principal at Washington Irving High School in New York City. Jacquelyn Davis, 30, another recent Georgetown law graduate, has worked in the nonprofit world. As executive director of the academy's on-site Full Potential Foundation, she is in charge of the school's extra enrichment programs. The job involves coordination of 80 volunteer tutors from Washington's legal community.
Mr. Kern and Ms. Davis met as participants in Georgetown's Street Law Clinic, which gives credit to law students who do volunteer teaching in underserved area schools. From their work in Ballou High School, they realized that only a more comprehensive and intensive approach could make a difference in the lives of the young people they encountered.
"In law school, you talk a lot about justice, whereas law is the means and justice is the end. We believe in reforming education to achieve justice," Mr. Kern says.
* * *
This is a school with a difference in other ways, too, beginning with the practice of having students and parents sit in on interviews with teacher applicants. Five faculty and three key staff serve 84 ninth-graders. (A higher grade will be added each year.) Each student has a faculty adviser who is liaison between student and family as well as "facilitator" between student and school.
Teachers include a doctoral candidate in math from Howard University and two with master's degrees from Columbia and Stanford universities. Classes, which each number no more than 20 students, meet 51/2 days a week, from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and a half-day Saturdays. Academic classes last 1 hour and 15 minutes. The uniform is a burgundy top with the school logo in white and khaki trousers or skirts. Athletic shoes are not allowed.
Saturday sessions include a monthly "Law Day" for students and mentors that focused one recent day on families and family structure and the role government plays in family life. At this session, students had to write a statute defining the concept of family.
Saturday a week ago, students collected 2-1/2 tons of trash from the Anacostia River banks alongside mentors such as Allen Waxman, a partner in the downtown firm of Williams & Connolly who signed on after reading about the academy in the Legal Times newspaper.
The day before, students saw a film on the history of the river. Last Monday morning, they discussed how their clean-up activity matters in terms of the community and city in which they live. One Saturday next month, they will work with Habitat for Humanity, the nonprofit group that builds houses for the poor.
The school has no gymnasium, organized athletic teams or musical instruction, but it does have a full-time counselor, Taiwo Inman, who had helped start another charter school. The mandatory art class is conducted by part-time teacher Larry Quick, on the stage of a ground-floor cafeteria the school shares with a small day care center. African and modern dance is offered weekly in coordination with Dance Place. Theater class is weekly, as well. Some sports take place in the Congress Heights Recreation Center nearby.
Only one student has dropped out despite some grumbling over longer-than-usual school hours. Attendance has been "almost 100 percent every day, which is one indicator the kids are excited and want to go here," Mr. Feldman says.
"You've got to engender in kids the belief they will succeed, and that the people who work with them in schools also believe it," he says. "You then spend a lot of time thinking how you engage kids and address the skills you are trying to impart, developing a curriculum toward that end. It's very tough."
The pedagogical model, as he calls it, is "driven by the idea you can engage kids in high-order thinking skills even if they don't have all the remedial skills. By engaging them this way, you give them hooks they can grasp on to and use them to address remedial skills."
He rejects instruction based in drill in favor of projects that motivate the need to write and think clearly.
Trials and mock debates will be introduced later legal forums requiring the ability to write a well-organized speech and present it well.
"You have to be able to listen and respond. You have to be able to work in groups," Mr. Feldman says. "The students are very engaged by the idea of debate and trials and law. Developmentally, teen-agers are very concerned with the issues of justice and law and what is fair. They are beginning to figure out their society. They want to know how it works and what they can do to make it better, which is exactly what we are trying to teach."
* * *
This philosophy impressed Kathy Banks, of Buena Vista Terrace SE, mother of Darryll, 16, who previously attended Options Charter School in the Children's Museum for four years.
"I think his horizons are brightened. He has taken more pride in himself," she says. "I'm the lucky one. My son is motivated. He is really striving for this. I think they are great because they wanted to do something in D.C. and, right now, D.C. needs a kick."
Drug dealers in the neighborhood pose no lure for the likes of her son, she says. "They tell him, 'Just don't grow up like me.'"
The best part of the school, Darryll says, is the tutoring and the teachers. In almost any other school, he says, he would have had more people in class "and not as much attention."
Mr. Waxman says of the founders' efforts: "What they have done is really move mountains. I was so impressed how they pulled this together."
Mr. Waxman, an adjunct professor at Georgetown Law School, is a member of the academy's board. "This is a huge challenge and it will take some time with some bumps along the way."
* * *
One of the early "bumps" was finding space in an area where suitable buildings are limited. For six months, Mr. Kern walked the streets and talked to community leaders. To get pupils, they hired Ballou students to go door to door, sent mass mailings to the parents of every ninth-grader in Wards 7 and 8 and 6 east of the river, and held meetings in churches and social centers. Every student and parent or guardian sat down one-on-one with Mr. Feldman.
"We wanted families to make an educated decision on whether this was a good fit for their interests," he says. "There was no test, but they needed to [show] that they wanted to come."
To get teachers, they advertised nationwide, offering salaries 20 percent higher than the norm in the District's public school system, knowing that the work expected of these teachers would be greater.
The school's budget this year is $1.2 million, raised from public funds and foundation grants as well as privately. At full capacity, school officials expect a projected $5 million budget. Ideally, in several years, they would like to move into a vacant school building opposite the Anacostia Metro, a costly renovation project Mr. Kern estimates would take up to $12 million.
"We're basically now spending an additional $5,000 or more per student beyond the District's per pupil rate of some $7,000 to do educationally and philosophically what we think will work," Ms. Davis says.
Science teacher Tisha Thompson, an alumna of a Teach for America assignment in rural North Carolina, signed up because she "wanted someplace where I could have an impact on the classroom and on the school."
As a public school and university graduate, she says she was nervous about embracing the charter school idea. What won her over, she says, is being able to have a voice in the school, with time for this built into the schedule.
She has found the students "very eager."
"They know the academy is something different and they are proud of that," she says.

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