Two friends with some choices to make huddle over a catalog. The green sneakers? Cute, but no. Pink? Certainly not. Had to be black - worn without socks.
Now, the tougher pick: Should they repeat the ninth grade at the new charter school they're attending, or go back to a traditional public school, where it's easier to get by?
More than half their first-year class at the Cesar Chavez Public Charter High School for Public Policy in Washington just learned that they likely won't pass this year. Teachers say students don't yet have the skills to do high school work and go on to college - a school goal. Ten months wasn't enough to correct the problem.
It's not a point kids typically hear in DC public schools, where most students who don't drop out or get in trouble will graduate, though they may not have the skills to open doors later on.
That's what Cesar Chavez, like many fledgling charter schools, is promising students and their parents: harder work and
higher standards in exchange for a better life. For the school, the challenge will be proving that they are doing enough to help students meet these standards. Their charter is up for renewal in five years.
But for the students, who chose to attend Cesar Chavez instead of a traditional public school in the District, crunch time is now. And when you're 14 years old and about to repeat ninth grade while your friends move on, college and a better life can look remote.
"I want to have a summer job, so that I can buy my own school clothes and won't have to depend on my mom. Even if I go to summer school, it's not sure I'd pass," says Rhonda Ingram, who says she came to Cesar Chavez because she wanted a more challenging academic program.
"I love the principal. She's like a second mom to me. And the teachers really care about us. But none of our friends [in other schools] are being held back. And I want to be in my regular grade," she adds.
The school is telling them that colleges don't care if you're 18 or 19 when you enroll, just whether you're ready to do college work. But these girls are not sure.
"College is not for everybody," says Jewel Spencer, another first-year ninth-grader who has been told she will need to repeat the year. "The teachers here give us too much work, and the books I have to carry home in my backpack are heavier than dictionaries. My friends in other schools don't get that much work."
Cesar Chavez principal Irasema Salcido says that the talks she's having with students and parents about the need to repeat a grade are the toughest she's had since the school opened last year. Some students cry. Parents seem to understand what's at stake, she says.
"For the first time, these kids are being asked to deliver and produce. It's too bad that I'm having to do what should have been done before. But this is not just about passing, it's about succeeding in life," says Mrs. Salcido.
It's been a rough first year. The school started out in a basement with piles of boxes, waiting for renovated space to be ready. Now, with 50 new students signed up for next year, it's outgrown its location above a shopping mall, and is not sure it there will be space for a new class.
"I've had to stop interviewing students. I'm just not sure where we would put them," says Salcido.
While the facilities question is the most urgent, the question of how to get students working up to a higher level is the most critical for the future of the school.
The core idea of the charter-school reform movement was to grant public schools more independence in return for more accountability for results. Salcido won approval for her school from the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board, one of two groups authorized to grant charters in the District.
To do so, she had to demonstrate a sound academic plan. Instruction at Cesar Chavez is based on the Modern Red Schoolhouse design, one of the most respected models for whole-school reform in the country. In addition, Cesar Chavez extended the school day, added Saturday classes, and recruited more than 60 tutors from some of the top universities and public-policy groups in the capital.
But teachers and tutors soon found big gaps in what students were able to do - such as summarizing an article they were reading or figuring out long division.
"We were assigned to help students get ready for the PSATs, but soon realized that we had to get much more basic," says Carly McVey, executive assistant at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, who supervises volunteer tutors at the school.
Cesar Chavez teachers have already completed a self-assessment, which they are discussing with the D.C. Public Charter School Board. The need to assess students early and continually is a leading issue. In this end-of-first-year assessment, the board said the school's top challenge is the "difficulty of responding to current student performance levels" while "maintaining high academic standards."
"Just because many students aren't ready to move to the 10th grade doesn't mean that the school has failed," says David Mack, a consultant to the D.C. Public Charter School Board. "Most people that hear that assume students were ready to be in the ninth grade when they came to the school, and it is almost certainly true that many or most were not."
One of the lessons charter schools are learning is the need to set a base line from the beginning to assess student needs and measure progress.
For example, the two D.C. charter schools run by the Edison Project, the country's leading private manager of public schools, do a lot of diagnostic work the first few weeks of school.
"They knew exactly what their challenge was for the year within the first few weeks. It only became a reality for the other schools, including Chavez, much later in the year," says Mr. Mack.
Cesar Chavez didn't have the resources of an Edison Project their first year, but teachers say they can redirect resources to improve student skills.
"The mistake I made coming from a suburban high school was assuming that I could push, encourage, and cajole students and they would be able to do it," says math and science teacher Jill Russo-Downey. "What they needed was an intensive, daily math curriculum."
Next year, math and science will be decoupled to give more time to basic math. Mandatory summer school this year will focus on reading and math.
This month, Salcido met with a new public-policy advisory board, including local businesses and groups that will train students for internships and help define what a good policy program looks like in advanced grades.
To get there, they will have to solve the issue of how to create a culture of learning for kids not used to achievement.
"[T]hese kids have been told that you had to do the work to pass [in D.C. public schools]. They didn't, and they still passed. They got used to that. Suddenly the ninth time, it's for real," says Channing Hawkins, a Howard University student who has been assisting teachers and meeting with Chavez students.
Chavez teachers say they know that it would be easier for their students to go back to the D.C. public schools and get promoted. But they insist that some students are learning to work.
"When we started, less than 20 percent were doing the homework. Now about 50 percent are doing it on a regular basis," says teacher Randy Littlefield.
But some parents worry that children's self-esteem is taking a battering.
"I love the idea of this school and the way they get kids outside the walls of the classroom. But I feel they tried to make the kids fit the program instead of the program fitting the kids," says Anthony Lee. He says his daughter, Tonese, was overwhelmed by the volume of work and lost hope.
The decision to stay another year will be a tough call, he adds. "I got A's in D.C. public schools, but when I graduated I knew that I didn't know anything.... I want Tonese to push through. But as a parent, you also want to protect them from extreme disappointments."
Despite the high repeat rate this year, Salcido says most students are staying.
Rhonda's mother says that there is no way she would send her daughter back to a regular D.C. public school. "I don't have time to keep going up to school because someone is trying to jump her or pick on her. It used to happen a lot. I will not send my daughter to a school where the teachers are so frightened of the students that they run the school," says Rosa Mewborn.
"Here they talk to the parents and try to help the child. And I tell Rhonda that without education you can't get anywhere. Once you could get a job at MacDonald's easy, but now they ask for a high school degree."
*Last in a series on the first year of the Cesar Chavez charter school. Previous stories ran Dec. 22, 1998, and Jan. 12 and March 16.