- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 1, 2005

There will be no “Animal-costia High” for Quentin Ruffin this school year.

For the 16-year-old from Southeast and his mother, Justina Fendell, going back to school this week represented “a new year and a new school” and renewed hope for academic achievement.

This semester, Quentin will not be attending his neighborhood public school, Anacostia High School, which he and his mother said the students have dubbed “Animal-costia.”

Instead, Quentin will be one of 450 students attending the New School for Enterprise and Development, a public charter school in a converted warehouse at Bladensburg Road and New York Avenue Northeast.

“I had to get out of there; I couldn’t concentrate,” Quentin said of his former school. Now, his teachers are “stricter” and his classes are “hard.”

“There’s less drama, less commotion,” he said. “I can learn better and be more.”

Headmaster Ira Thomas said the “talent development high school” — the brainchild of several D.C. civil rights and community leaders including educators Charles Tate and Raleigh Kembrow and Anacostia businessmen Lloyd Smith and Albert “Butch” Hopkins — concentrates on a college-preparatory curriculum for students from east of the Anacostia River.

In addition to its strong academic team lead by Mr. Thomas, a licensed social worker and the former assistant principal at Ballou High School, Mr. Tate contends that a key to the New School’s success lies in the ability to have an adult community outreach team.

Lead primarily by former D.C. juvenile justice officer Thomas Blagburn and volunteer Amin Muslim, this team works one-on-one with parents and students to address social and economic problems such as poverty, homelessness, domestic violence and substance abuse that hinder academic readiness.

Many of the Ward 7 and Ward 8 students, who otherwise would attend Anacostia, Ballou, Eastern or Spingarn high schools, rise early to catch the No. 52 to the New School without having to transfer to another bus. In the evenings, Metro provides several express shuttle buses back across the river.

Mr. Tate said the New School’s mission is to prepare the students, who have to overcome weak academic skills and special home stresses, for college. It also aims to track them while they are away in order to help them stay in school. Then, “we want to get as many of them as possible to come back and be change agents in their communities.”

As educators and social workers, they can begin to conduct research and development projects that break the cycle of poverty by finding solutions to the problems that plague their communities and thwart “economic self-sufficiency.”

Mr. Tate said school leaders have spent a lot of money and effort renovating the two-story brick warehouse that now looks spanking new inside.

The New School students sit at round tables instead of desks and attend 90-minute classes with no more than 21 students per teacher. The students are separated into “academies” based on grade level and desired career track or “pathway.” There is a working computer in every classroom. The courses and after-school tutorials range from foreign languages to arts, but there is no gym or field.

Last year, Mr. Tate and Mr. Thomas boasted that the four-year-old school sent 100 percent of its 83 graduating seniors off to college, and a couple of them received full scholarships.

Still, Mr. Tate stresses that he is a proponent of public schools. So am I. In fact, he hopes that the New School staff will be able to conduct research and develop a model of teaching that works in modern-day urban school districts.

I still think money diverted to charter schools and vouchers would be better spent on public schools, using the same techniques that have proved successful in the alternative programs. But I sympathize with parents who are trying to find something better for their children.

“We keep trying to put an old model on a new student,” Mr. Tate said. “For some reason, urban school systems all over the country, just not in the District, are failing.”

But he quickly adds, “The schools are failing because the families are failing and the communities are failing.”

Most children in urban school districts come to school unprepared to learn and teachers must spend a lot of time taking care of social issues before instruction can begin, Mr. Tate noted.

Ms. Fendell cannot wait for reforms. She actively shopped around for alternatives after becoming disillusioned with her children’s schooling. She thought their teachers were not pushing them hard enough.

“I’m going to try a charter for a couple of [report cards] to see how it works,” she said. This decision came after she saw how her son became interested in helping his younger sister with her heaps of homework from the charter school she attended.

“Quentin is the type of child who will do just enough to get by, and they weren’t ready for Quentin,” she said, speaking of his average grades. After no improvement and several conferences with his teachers, “I said this is not for my child.”

No student in the District, or any other urban school district, should have to be subjected to a derogatory name that begins with the prefix “animal.” They all deserve the same hope for academic achievement as Quentin, and we are all responsible for providing much better.

Asked what academic track he was on, Quentin responded, “I’m on the right track.”

Following his cousin’s example of becoming an honor roll student, the affable Quentin, who writes poetry, acts, sings and says he “will try anything,” including his new public charter school, has promised his mom that he will become an honor roll student, too, this new year at his new school.

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