- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Two days after President Obama disparaged D.C. Public Schools on national television, Education Secretary Arne Duncan used a highly successful public charter school as a backdrop to publicize a federal college-access program.

Mr. Duncan and Rep. Chaka Fattah, Pennsylvania Democrat, visited Friendship Collegiate Academy in Northeast, There, via videoconference, he and other supporters kicked off National GEAR UP Day on Wednesday to highlight the federally funded Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, which serve 670,000 U.S. students.

About 5,000 schools nationwide participate in the program, but Friendship Collegiate is the only D.C. public charter to do so.

Public charter schools are practically the only alternative to traditional schooling that D.C. parents have after the Obama administration began defunding a federal voucher program for low-income families.

Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee has instituted several reforms over her three year-tenure, but they have yet to produce the graduation results shown by schools like Friendship Collegiate.

Opened a decade ago in a formerly abandoned schoolhouse, Friendship Collegiate has a 94 percent graduation rate, 22 percentage points higher than the D.C. Public Schools System. Moreover, 100 percent of Friendship’s graduates are accepted to college, and 96 percent of their collegians graduate from college.

Friendship is already producing the results of GEAR UP, largely because the students are taking college courses via partnerships with the University of Maryland and the University of the District of Columbia and participating in mentoring programs, and because the students are self-motivated and have strong parental support.

“Even when they come home in the summer, we make sure our college students get the support they need,” said Donald Hense, founding chairman of Friendship schools, which has several campuses in D.C. and Baltimore.

A major component of GEAR UP, which offers financial aid and encourages campus tour, is parental engagement.

“Parents are a child’s first teacher and good parent-teachers relationships foster motivated children,” Mr. Duncan said after the hour-long conference.

Unfortunately, Mr. Fattah said, schools “have treated parents as nuisances rather than assets.”

Miss Manners could have heard a pin drop as students listened to parents and educators exchange questions and answers with Mr. Fattah and Mr. Duncan. Many of the students are preparing to become first-generation college students.

Some of them aren’t even preparing to go to college but still benefit from GEAR UP and Friendship’s college prep emphasis.

Friendship senior Emmanuel Johnson doesn’t plan to attend a post-secondary school. He’s aiming for the Air Force.

But Friendship is pushing him academically and that helps instill the leadership skills that will help him reach his “full potential in the military.”

Mr. Duncan and Mr. Obama, both of whom advocate public charter schools, have been outspoken in recent days about the state of education in general and D.C. schools in particular.

On Sunday, Mr. Duncan and Ms. Rhee appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” where he said U.S. education reform has a “long, long” way to go.

He also praised Ms. Rhee’s reforms and said he is a “huge fan.” And he has recommended that she be retained as schools chief.

His comments led an elected D.C. school official to say on Monday that Mr. Duncan should “butt out” of local school affairs.

Asked for reaction to that comment Wednesday, Mr. Duncan’s press secretary, Justin Hamilton, said, “We’ll let the secretary’s comments speak for themselves.”

Mr. Obama appeared Monday on “The Today Show,” where, when asked by a viewer whether he would send daughters Malia and Sasha to a D.C. public school, he said, “The answer is ‘no,’ right now.

“The D.C. public school systems are struggling,” though “they have made some important strides over the last several years to move in the right direction of reform.”

• Deborah Simmons can be reached at dsimmons@washingtontimes.com.

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