City Paper

Roll Call

Planting a SEED
At D.C. School
Students Learn Life Skills, Not Just Math and Science

By Stacy Zolt

The Congressional Roll Call

November 7, 1997

reprinted by permission

For most seventh graders, a 3 p.m., bell means it's time to head home- time to play. But for the seventh graders at the new SEED Public charter School, located at 800 Third St., NE, there's no bell at the end of classes. When classes end at 4 p.m., the kids head to a two-hour study hall, then dinner and free time and then bedtime, just a few floors away.

photo courtesy of the Congressional Roll CallFor the students at SEED, the nation's first urban public charter boarding school, school is home.

SEED is a subsidiary of the Schools for Educational Evolution and Development, which founded the school to provide a living environment in which kids can prosper academically.

Dr. Thomas Stewart, executive director of the school, said he opened shop this fall with the goal of "transcend[ing] education and spilling over into the development of children."

But in order for Stewart "to provide a safe, nurturin environment where learning is fun," he said he maintains open communication with the students to gauge what they are thinking and feeling. He then uses their comments to reshape the school.

"Students have different levels of development across different areas of life," Stewart said.

This is especially true of SEED students, who Stewart said represent a microcosm of the city's seventh-grade population - although most come from risky urban environment that could interfere with their academic development.

Because of their public status, charter schools cannot have admission requirement-for their students. If more children apply than a school can house, the school can hold a lottery or devise some other means of distinguishing those students who would best benefit from its particular program.

Fifty-two boys and 30 girls applied for Seed's 40 slots, half of which are for boys and half for girls. SEED opted to hold a lottery and invited the chief judge of D.C. family courts to oversee the process.  The 40 boys and girls who made the cut were invited to l0-day summer camp as an introduction to the school and a means of finding out if this is really the educational experience they want.

Stewart said the camp was "critical in terms of what we're ultimately trying to do." It was the first shot at teaching the kids about life skills, focusing on encouraging the students to dream, instilling leadership skills and stressing the value of a college education. The students now attend a similar class during the school year.

For many campers, this was their first time away from home and, while SEED may have sounded exciting to them, Stewart said being away from friends and family is not right for every child.  "We never felt they knew what they were buying into as far as being away from home," he said.

He said the kids' biggest fears are that they're being kicked out of their homes or that they may call home one day to find the family has deserted the m~. Stewart told the story of one boy who feared his dog and his house were gone, so a SEED staffer drove him by the house. Once he realized that his pup and house were still status quo, he came back to camp with renewed enthusiasm.

All of this focused on laying the ground for the SEED School's environment and relieving the students' first-day apprehensions. "If the environment is safe, the child feels nurtured and learning is fun, [the student can] achieve academic excellence," Stewart said.

39 accepted the invite and at the end of the camp, two homesick boys opted to forgo joining the school. Three students were taken from the waiting list and SEED opened at its enrollment goal of 40 children - 20 boys and 20 girls who, Stewart said, spent their first eight days on a retreat in West Virginia "building culture, building trust and building confidence."

They live in a setting not unlike a college dorm, the boys on one floor and the girls on the other. Three or four students live in each slightly cramped room and two staff members live on each floor: Kid-constructed masterpieces hang in the hallways, and the game room downstairs boasts air hockey and Jim Carey classics like "Liar; Liar" and "The Cable Guy."

There's a library filled with mostly donated books and 100 computers. Eventually, Stewart said, there will be a computer in each dorm room.

Students learn traditional subjects, but in a nontraditional fashion, focusing on making learning fun and using thematic learning techniques. For example, this trimester will have a city theme and the students will learn about cities and the unique life skills one must have to thrive in such an environment.

They create vision statements in their life skills class, and then the teachers work back-ward to help them understand the hard work and dedication it will take to meet their goals.

The kids get a lot more homework than they are used to and have structured study hall time for two hours each night to complete their work. During the first two weeks, Stewart said the kids were "kicking and screaming" -. Most of them hadn't received homework before or just didn't do it.

But Tuesday, one teacher asked the class, "How many people did their social studies homework?" and shouts of "Me, me, me" echoed through the room.

During study hall, parents supervise, which frees up teachers to do one-on-one tutoring. It's one of the many ways parents help make the SEED School a viable operation.

At the beginning of the school year, Stew-art explained to parents that the school's costs are twice the amount of money it gets from the government, which translates to about a $1,500 gap per child. The parents can either make a monetary contribution or make a time/dollar contribution where the parent works #or the school six to nine hours per month and receives, a $15 credit per hour worked.'

Parents do various work, including: cleaning, supervising, carpooling for home visits and even braiding the girls' hair. "It adds a touch of home," Stewart said.

Aside from working at the school, parents can visit during three-hour blocks set four days per week. The kids can go home one weekend per month holidays and summers.

Nelson Smith, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter Schools Board, said the board is enthusiastic about the school. "They are able to bring all kinds of new investments -- financial, personal and even political -- into the lives of these young people," he said.

"They really break the boundaries."

He said parental feedback has been positive, too, as indicated in Friday night's ribbon-cutting ceremony for the residence hall. "They've taken a risk, but I think they see the very real possibilities out there."

"It's too early to tell how they will do in the long run," Smith said,"but the school will he held to Itlie charter schools'] accountability plan. So stay tuned -- we have high expectations."


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