Three teachers and lots of hope

Ambitious charter school aims to instill a love of learning - and reinvent urban schooling

Sixty kids, three teachers, a handful of rooms over a waterfront shopping mall, and a long name - the Cesar Chavez Public Charter High School for Public Policy.

That's what Principal Irasema Salcido is starting with in her bid to create a high-quality school in a city where student achievement has defined rock bottom.

As a popular assistant principal in the District of Columbia's public school system, Mrs. Salcido was in line for a principalship in a mainstream school - one with predictable hours, vacations, and a staff.

Instead, she took a radical step. She applied for a charter to start an independent but publicly funded school.

"It's hard to be innovative in a big school system. You can't pick your own teachers, can't order the books you want, and have to wait forever to have someone fix something," she says.

You also can't define a purpose for the school and ask students, parents, and teachers all to sign off on it. That's one of the defining features of charter schools, which many educators see as the next wave of education reform. And it's a feature that can prompt top educators, like Salcido, to abandon a more comfortable position in favor of an unpredictable and often daunting challenge.

"Charter schools are the reinvention of public education," says Nelson Smith, executive director of the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board, one of two groups authorized to charter schools in the District.

With a strong nudge from the US Congress, the District has launched one of the most ambitious charter-school programs in the nation. This fall, 15 new charter schools opened their doors here, in addition to the three already up and running. In all, some 3,600 students now attend charter schools, or about 5 percent of public school enrollment.

What impressed this board about the Cesar Chavez proposal was its notion of creating a public-policy school in a city that runs on public policy. "The proposal takes advantage of the resources the city has in that area and equips kids to participate in that process," says Mr. Smith.

For Salcido, the first few months of operation have been "overwhelming." The formal school day runs from breakfast and morning meeting with students at 7:45 a.m. through required tutoring sessions that wind down at 7 p.m. But her own work days may start before 3 a.m., to keep up with the work.

Her office "to-do" list - a wall of flapping yellow stick-ems alongside the portrait of the founder of the National Farm Workers Association - now exceeds 50 items, from fund-raising, internships, and setting up a summer school to locating shelter for a student facing abuse at home.

Hard classes, inexperienced students

But her most urgent priority is to find a way to establish a strong culture of learning in the school.

"Our biggest surprise was the time we've had to invest figuring out what works. What we assumed the students would know and bring in is not there. Teachers are having to deal with issues like how to read and summarize the content of an article and how to behave all at once," she says.

"It's a little overwhelming to have to do so much in a year, but we are not going to accept excuses for ourselves." she adds.

Early on, Salcido decided to base her school's curriculum on one of the most rigorous and respected models for whole-school reform in the country, the Modern Red Schoolhouse design. This model has never been applied in a high school setting, and its developers are closely following the Cesar Chavez experience.

"What's most visible at Cesar Chavez is how they are expanding the time that students have available to learn. Every student has a tutor, and there are vivid reinforcements to learning in Washington," says Sally Kilgore, president of the Modern Red Schoolhouse design team, which is based in Nashville, Tenn.

"With only three teachers, you can also help teachers work as colleagues engaged in a collective endeavor. Private schools understand this and work to have a shared vision of what they want for kids. To us, that's one of the most fundamental things that needs to happen at the high school level."

"What you don't want is the teacher who is convinced that children can't learn and that you're naive if you're trying. That's the culture that's so hard to conquer in urban high schools," she adds.

Last week, the school wound up its first interdisciplinary or "Capstone" unit on the US Constitution.

As outlined in the Modern Red Schoolhouse model, these units involve extensive reading, writing, and oral presentations, as well as clear standards of performance for every assignment.

Making use of the city

Cesar Chavez supplemented this curriculum with visits to monuments, panel discussions of local civil-rights activists, and a field trip to Thomas Jefferson's home at Monticello.

(Sample quiz questions on the visit to the Lincoln Memorial: How long is a score? To what document is Lincoln referring in this line of the speech? What is symbolic about the monument's portrayal of Lincoln's hands?)

On Friday, Salcido managed to get four tickets for students to witness the impeachment debate in the US House of Representatives. "It was a good way to end our work on the Constitution," she says.

For many students, this unit represents more writing than they have ever been asked to complete. Essays were first submitted in draft form, then revised. Some have yet to finish assigned work.

"We do not want to give F's. It is not an option," Salcido told students at a morning meeting last week. "For those that still need to do some work, there is an opportunity to get it done. You can take time this afternoon to get help from tutors and peers. You can come in on Saturdays. You can come back for summer school..."

"Oh no! What if you've got a job?" cries out a student leaning against the wall.

"It's not an option that you don't get it done," she says, after a sharp series of "shhhhs" to calm the murmuring. "It would be easy for those who have not completed their work to just take an F. You can't do that here," she says.

After classes end at 2:15 p.m., students huddle in groups to work on assignments or work with teachers individually. At 5:30, some hunker down for help sessions with tutors from groups such as the Urban Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency, or the Department of Commerce.

Some students say they see a big difference between Cesar Chavez and the District public schools they attended.

"They weren't teaching me at my last school. The teachers were often out for weeks at a time and we'd have to go to the gym and play cards. These teachers teach us something. We go home with homework every night," says Rhonda Ingram, who transferred to Cesar Chavez.

"These teachers care about us and help us a lot," says Jesus Flores, who says he'd like to manage his own restaurant some day. "At my other school, there was too much playing around. The students didn't care too much."

They know my daughter

D.C. resident and retired public school teacher Bruce Alcan says he is impressed with how well the teachers at Cesar Chavez know his daughter, Sandrina Ray.

"Her teachers are aware of the status of her assignments. She attends classes in a modern, clean, and well-maintained building. If she's late or absent, I get a call.... None of these benefits were ever seen at D.C. public schools," Mr. Alcan said at a public hearing on charter schools convened by the District Council's Committee on Education, Libraries and Recreation last week.

"There are much smaller classes at Cesar Chavez. If you talk to one of the teachers about a child, they know who it is," he added, in an interview.

But teachers and the principal agree that their school is still very much a work in progress. Teachers say they are not getting the depth they would like, but they are getting something.

"A lot of students have been intimidated by the work we gave them. I was surprised at how many had never had to write an essay before," says English Language Arts teacher Beth Fighera.

Science teacher Jill Russo-Downey was a helicopter pilot in the US Army for seven years. After that, she took up teaching in public schools in Fairfax, Va., but said she found the crowded classrooms "discouraging." She learned of Cesar Chavez from a charter school jobs fair.

"I was impressed with the sheer audacity of those starting their own school. I knew they were stepping out on a limb and leaving very secure jobs in the public schools to do it. I liked the idea of more hands-on, risk-taking teaching," she says.

You name it, I do it

In her work at Cesar Chavez, she has had to be a teacher, secretary, guidance counselor, social counselor, and janitor. "Especially janitor!" she says.

"We knew that it would be hard starting anything from scratch, but you don't realize how much work it really is until you're in it," she adds. "When you put so much of yourself into a job, you want to see results yesterday."

Teachers say the process of building a new culture here happens slowly, one student at a time. You see it played out in the small conversations between teachers and students in class, in the corridors, or over a muffin before morning meeting.

"I m getting sick of trying to do everything perfect," one student tells the principal in a hallway. Her comment sets off an 18-minute conversation that ends with a hug and a quiet, "Just do it."

"It's a slow buy-in process. First, you get them to carry books home. Then, to attempt a couple of homework assignments. They may not like the comments they get the first time, but they hand in some more. Little by little, you see them buying into the idea that it might be worth it, that they might succeed," says Ms. Russo-Doney. "Once we get a culture established, that will make our lives a lot easier," she adds.

"This school tires your mind," quips ninth-grader Marie Kamara. "But it's helping me go higher a little bit."

* First in an occasional series. The Monitor will track the progress of this new charter school through the year to give readers a close look at critical issues in the school-reform movement. Next week: charter-school accountability. Send comments to

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