School mission: Offer jobs, keep kids

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

Graduating senior Phil Russell was ready for changes in his life when he first heard about the Maya Angelou school. Soft-spoken and buoyant, he says he'd always liked going to school, but that "everything fell apart" in high school.

"There were so many things that I could get into," he says. Friends dropped out, and his attendance slumped to about 10 days a month. When he had his first run-in with the juvenile-justice system, his grade-point average was 0.0.

"I made some bad decisions," he says. "I had put myself at risk for being locked up. Then, I realized that ... I wanted to be somebody in life." At the suggestion of a court-appointed education advocate, he joined the Maya Angelou school's first class in 1997. The long hours were tough: "When I first came, I never thought I'd make it from 9:30 to 8. I don't remember a day I didn't complain," he says. "But those two years just flew past, now that I look back on them."

In the last two years, he has managed the school's Tech Shop, taught a summer computer camp, and completed computer-related internships at George Washington University and in local businesses. He likes to read novels and is even beginning to read newspapers "to see what's going on the world."

On Saturday, he heads off to Montgomery College in Takoma Park, Md., with a scholarship.

"Life for many of our kids looks bleak and it looks short," says Kim Hardy, a full-time social worker at the school. "When we started talking to Phil about college, he just said that he couldn't imagine living that long."

From the start, this school focused on raising expectations - for students, their school, and their classmates.

Humble beginnings

The idea started small. In 1995, Domenici and Mr. Forman launched a program that aimed to help young offenders who would commit to changing their lives. They started with a pizza delivery restaurant, an after-school tutoring program, and computer training.

Gradually, the program expanded: The pizza service evolved into a catering business, and later they started a technology shop. The after-school program became a school; then a residential program, family counseling, an internship program, and health services came along. In November 1997, the school was granted one of the first charters approved by the DC Public Charter School Board.

It has public funding and is accountable to the Charter School Board, but is free to develop its own programs without many of the restrictions that govern other public schools.

Programming didn't come cheap. Developing a year-round program that works for at-risk kids costs at least $20,000 per child, compared with about $8,400 in a traditional public school in the District. (The school makes up the difference with private fund-raising.) But Domenici insists that the expense is worth it - especially when you consider that incarceration runs at least $50,000 per inmate.

The pay offered students doesn't compete with what some could make on the streets - but it's legal and it adds up. The school opens bank accounts for students and direct-deposits their checks. "It doesn't keep them from drawing down their accounts, but at least they're not going to the liquor store that charges $5 to cash a check," says Domenici.

Mutual funds for all

Moreover, about a third of what they earn goes into a custodial account that converts to a mutual-fund account once a student reaches the $500 threshold. If a student has perfect attendance, makes the dean's list, or wins an award, it's another $100 - $25 to the student and $75 straight into their mutual fund. Those accounts are strong talking points with friends who mock all that work for minimum wages.

"I figured that if I keep adding to my account [at the same rate], it will be worth $50,000 when I'm 35," says Sherti Hendrix, one of three students who graduated this year. This begins to sound like real money to friends on the street. Ms. Hendrix hadn't gone on to calcuate what the fund would be worth at retirement ($1 million) because, she says, "I never used to think I'd live that long."

Hendrix won the competition to name of the school. She had read the autobiography of Maya Angelou, whose poetry decorates the school's walls. "She reminded me of myself, because she went through a lot when she was little. Her mother and father left her, but she went on," says Hendrix, who will attend Bennett College in Greensboro, N.C., in the fall.

"Some people told me that going back to school wouldn't make a difference because I was too set in my ways," adds Ms. Sherman. "But that's not the way it has to be. It's never too late."

*E-mail chaddockg@csps.com

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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