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School mission: Offer jobs, keep kids

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 17, 1999


Picture a high school where slicing zucchini is part of the drill. So is managing a tech center - and setting money aside for a mutual fund. Students attend class 11 hours a day, 12 months a year, five kids to a class. If they miss more than a few days, they're out.

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The Maya Angelou Public Charter School didn't start out just trying to be different. The aim of this new school in the District of Columbia was to help so-called "at-risk" kids: To figure out what they need and make sure they get it. To build a school culture that can compete with the streets.

The result could become a prototype for a new style of American public high school - and a model for dealing with adolescents, rich or poor, who may have given up on life.

Maya Angelou co-founders David Domenici and James Forman Jr., had seen too many kids disappear into the justice system. So they began by asking "at-risk" kids what they wanted. Turns out, it wasn't very complicated.

"They wanted a job. They are basically broke, and the only good option for them to make a little pocket change is to do petty theft or to run drugs for someone," says Mr. Domenici, a former New York attorney and now the school's director.

"We also quickly realized that these students were so far down academically that they'd be stuck in a minimum-wage job unless we worked on academics. Offering them a job was the carrot to encourage kids to come. But to make a difference, we had to have very small classes."

To get a job, students needed skills. To get skills, they needed intensive academic intervention. And, most critically, they needed a reason to stop listening to friends who said that going back to school was stupid.

"My friends told me it was crazy that I'd go back to school for 11 hours a day. But now they look back and say, 'I wish I'd had the heart to do that,'" says Sylvia Sherman, one of the school's first graduates, now entering Spelman College in Atlanta.

"If I'd have listened to them, I'd be sitting around smoking and drinking with a 10th-grade education, going nowhere. It's easy to sell yourself short," she adds.

There's a growing demand for alternative high schools for the 3.6 million-plus young Americans that drop out of school before learning enough to hold down an average job. Some schools offer a higher-security version of a traditional high school, or boot-camp lite. Others promise a back-to-basics, no-nonsense curriculum.

What counts at Maya Angelou is "wraparound" support: longer hours, a longer school year, smaller classes, flexible scheduling, intensive contact with families - if they exist - and extra support for students, if they don't.

The school offers small classes, intensive help, and a hyper-extended day. Support staff for the school's 44 students includes eight teachers, two social workers, two restaurant managers, two part-time residential counselors, and about 40 volunteers. Classes run from 9:30 in the morning until 6:00 p.m. Students eat dinner together, then work with tutors in a mandatory study hall until 8 p.m. Eight students live with residential counselors.

In addition, students work about eight hours a week in nearby student-run businesses - Untouchable Taste Catering (see story, left) or the See Forever Student Technology Shop, which makes business cards, fliers, and calendars. School-related activities happen 12 months a year, including internships and staffing of student businesses.

It's a place kids like to be. Its current location, on the top floor of a former DC elementary school building, is not air-conditioned, but students drop in on the hottest days of the summer just to talk with teachers or with each other. During the summer, they train siblings or kids on probation to use the same computers they've used in class.

No student need is out of bounds: If it's eyeglasses, the school finds a donor. If there's no place to sleep at home, the school provides residential facilities and supervision. Work experience counts; past records do not, as long as students are willing to make changes in their lives. But if you don't show up for class or stay free of crime, you're shown the door.

Big commitment for students

Not all students make it. The school loses from 20 to 25 percent of its students in the first month, mainly because they can't commit to the long hours. Any student who misses more than three days of class in a semester can be expelled; after five, expulsion is almost certain.

"We see our role as helping the kids who want to make the adjustments. What we don't want to become is a holding center for troubled kids," says Domenici.