- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 10, 2002

Two D.C. charter-school applicants plan to implement the phonics-based, direct-instruction curriculum promoted by Lynne Cheney, another seeks to work with high school dropouts and one intends to combine work with play to help preschoolers with special needs.

The D.C. Public Charter School Board has received five applications for schools that would open in fall 2003, said Tamara Lumpkin, the board's manager of school development. A public hearing on the applications will be held this month and final decisions are expected in August, she said.

The D.C. school board, the District's other chartering authority, also has received five applications, from a residential special-education program, a year-round performing-arts school, a vocational-education facility, an alternative school and a language-immersion school, a board spokeswoman said. Decisions are expected at the board's Sept. 18 meeting.

One charter school in the District that opened last year, Howard Road Elementary, already employs direct instruction a program that relies on memorization and helps give children a grasp of the basics, say advocates. Mrs. Cheney, former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities and wife of Vice President Richard B. Cheney, is a proponent of direct instruction and has visited several schools around the country that use it.

Earlier this year, she visited City Springs Elementary in Baltimore, a school that went from being one of the lowest-scoring in the city to one of its top performers after implementing direct instruction in 1996.

At the time, she described direct instruction as a "program with real focus" and said it was a tragedy that it was not looked upon more favorably in schools. "Teachers don't hear about it, or if they do, they hear about it in a critical way," she said

Of this year's applicants, D.C. Preparatory Academy will seek to fill the gap between children's elementary education and the demands of high school by using direct instruction. The school, which aims to open in Northeast, would open with the fourth and fifth grades and add a grade each year until students reach the eighth.

"Our focus is to make sure students can enroll in top high schools and go to college. That is our mission," said founder Emily Lawson, who has helped set up charter schools in Boston and New York City.

Another charter school that would employ direct instruction has been proposed by the Coalition of Citizens for Educational Change. The school would serve pre-kindergarten through fifth grade in its first year and gradually expand to 12th grade.

One school, Eagle Academy, will target preschoolers, including special-needs students, with a curriculum called "academic play" that combines games with learning, says Cassandra Pinkney, one of the school's founders.

Mrs. Pinkney, who works with the city's public schools as an early-childhood coordinator, says there is an overwhelming demand for preschool services, particularly for students with special needs, that the school system is not able to meet. "I know services are needed, and the need is felt all over the city," she said.

Other applicants this year include Lifeskill Center of Washington, D.C., which plans to start a high school for dropouts and students with special needs, and the Auto Arts Academy, which would provide an arts focus for high school students with special needs, Ms. Lumpkin said.

Meanwhile, at least one new charter school is scheduled to open this fall. The Tricommunity Public Charter School, which will target Hispanic students, will open in the Petworth area. It was approved two years ago, but couldn't open last fall because it couldn't find a building.

Charter proponents say they continue to see applicants despite the problems. "There is still a lot of interest in charter schools out there," Ms. Lumpkin said, despite the persistent problem of finding space for the schools.

The District currently has 36 charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, a D.C.-based pro-charter group, estimates that one in every seven of the District's 67,000 students are enrolled in charters. According to the group, 11,000 students enrolled in the last academic year and 13,000 are expected to attend this fall.

The first charter schools opened in the District in 1997 as an alternative to the city's poorly performing public system. More than 40 schools have since opened, but the D.C. school board has closed six over the years because of financial mismanagement.

Many of this year's charter applicants seek to serve special-education students, which is considered one of the city's areas of greatest need.

"There is clearly a need for schools for the special-education population. It is an area of focus for the board," Ms. Lumpkin said.

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