Tuesday, June 7, 2005

Lawrence Chambers grinned yesterday like a young man who has accomplished the impossible. Through hard work and determination, the young Southeast resident was part of the first graduating class at Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter High School and became the first among his neighborhood friends to get accepted to college.

“If it keeps you off the street, it’s good,” said Lawrence, 18. “That’s what Thurgood Marshall Academy did for me. A lot of my friends dropped out of school or had kids. But I realized my potential.”

He was among 18 seniors yesterday who had been more likely to quit school than graduate. Lawrence was also part of the 80-student freshman class from Ward 8 public schools and the impoverished Anacostia and Congress Heights neighborhoods that had only fifth- or sixth-grade reading skills. At the end of the first year, 41 students were kept behind because they did not meet the 10th-grade requirements.

“It was a very difficult decision to hold back over half of the class, but we couldn’t honestly say that they were ready for the 10th grade,” school co-founder Joshua Kern said yesterday at graduation ceremonies at Howard University’s Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel.

Although more students were held back in the next three years and others dropped out after finding the rigorous academic program too difficult, all 18 seniors have been accepted to colleges.

Quanic Fullard, the class valedictorian, will go to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Justin Williams, the salutatorian, will go to Morehouse College, the prestigious, historically black all-male college in Georgia.

The Thurgood Marshall academy was founded in 2001 by lawyers and law students eager to help D.C. children and included legal classes in the college-prep curriculum.

“The goal … is to teach students what we learned in law school: skills such as how to advocate for yourself…, how to think critically and how to solve complex problems,” Mr. Kern said.

He also acknowledges the first year was tough, saying the students were often like “guinea pigs” because the system “was not entirely in place.”

However, the success of the school, he said, is a testament to the students’ commitment to overcoming challenges.

“It’s very impressive,” Mr. Kern said.

The nine male and nine female graduates took special care to congratulate each other, as much as revel in their own successes.

“It’s because of the school family that we were able to do this,” Quanic, 18, said.

Rick “Doc” Walker, a former Washington Redskin, told the students: “I hope that at the end of this you see that you are the one responsible for your success — no one else, just you.”

The Rev. Jessie Jackson was scheduled to attend the graduation ceremony but canceled at the last minute so he could stay in California for the duration of the Michael Jackson trial.

Jacarda Wilson, a 25-year-old paralegal, arrived with flowers and balloons to congratulate student Natasha Williams, whom she began mentoring four years ago.

“I’ve watched her grow from a little girl into a beautiful young woman,” she said. “Academically, she’s shown that she would have what it takes to excel in the legal field.”

Natasha, 17, plans to study entertainment law at North Carolina Central University.

Besides facing the rigorous curriculum and legal classes, students must attend school from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily, after-school programs, Saturday classes and summer activities.

Only 250 students were accepted for the 2004-05 school year. But the school hopes to expand enrollment to 300 students next year by moving from a rented church building on Alabama Avenue to the long-vacant Nichol School building, across the street from the Anacostia Metro station.

The school has a $3.4 million budget and 21 teachers. Officials spend $15,000 per student, $3,000 more than the District supplies.

“When people set high expectations for you, you start to set them for yourself,” Lawrence said.

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