The little class that could

A successful group of grads strengthen the concept of public boarding schools.

This weekend, Deon Milton will graduate from high school. A slight kid with an easy grin, Deon will attend Hiram College in Ohio next year. It was his second choice, actually, but he is psyched. He has a full scholarship, a place on the basketball team, and lots of plans.

Deon's dad never went to college. Neither did his great-aunt, the one who brought him up, and whom he calls Mom. His real mother - whom he also calls Mom ("Yeah, sometimes it's confusing," he confesses) - didn't finish high school.

In sum, he says, very casually, ticking off all the aunts, uncles, and grandparents on the fingers of both hands - no one in Deon's family has been to college.

"I am the first," he says, flashing his usual grin.

Nationwide, only about 45 percent of public high school graduates this month will go on to a four-year college, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. The rest will attend junior colleges, work, or perhaps stay home and not do much at all.

But Deon's story is a very different one. He attends the SEED school - a highly unusual public school that requires that its city students live on campus.

Deon and his 20 classmates are about to become the school's first graduating class.

The success of these students would be noteworthy under any circumstances.

One class member is off to Boston University, another to Duke, and a third has been accepted at Princeton. Others are bound for American University, the Art Institute of Philadelphia, Georgetown, and other schools. One hundred percent of the class is going to college next year.

But in this case their success is also a big relief, says Leslie Poole, SEED's director of admissions. "These families took an enormous risk and put their faith in us - and we delivered."

SEED's Class of 2004, like the rest of the school's 300 Grade 7-12 students, is fairly typical of the public school population of southeast D.C.

Ninety-eight percent are African-American, 2 percent are Hispanic. Ninety percent come from homes below the poverty line; 88 percent come from single parent or no parent households, and 93 percent are the first generation in their families to go to college.

All students were selected by a lottery system, and most were two grade levels behind in academic performance when they began seventh grade, says John Ciccone, assistant head of the school. Typically, some 30 percent of each class has to repeat a "growth year" before moving into high school.

But these days, SEED's upper-class students are scoring higher on standardized tests than their counterparts at other public schools in DC, staying in school (the national public high school graduation rate is 63 percent, here it is almost 100 percent) and getting into colleges across the country.

They are also better behaved than the rest of the kids on the block. According to a Ford Foundation study, 5 percent of SEED students were in a physical fight last year - compared with 35.7 percent of students from other D.C. public schools; and 12.1 percent of SEED students had tried drugs - compared with 47.2 percent students elsewhere.

So, in this age filled with sorry news about failing students, the question is: What went right at SEED?

The School(s) for Educational Evolution and Development (SEED) is the brainchild of Eric Adler and Raj Vinnakota, two young management consultants who went searching for something more meaningful to do with their time. Their idea was to establish a new model for an urban charter school that would prepare children, both academically and socially, for success in college and life.

To do this, they went about choosing teachers from different backgrounds, charting their own curriculum, and keeping down class sizes - things all charter schools do. But their main innovation was to have the students live at school.

"There are so many considerations outside the classroom that can jeopardize academic instruction," says Mr. Adler. "Stability of the child's home, health issues, truancy... the list goes on." Boarding school is not for everyone, he says, but he and Mr. Vinnakota believe the supervision and structure can work for many.

SEED students must be DC residents, but stay overnight at the campus on weekdays and some weekends. Tutors helps with homework, a school psychologist and career counselor are always at hand. Three square meals are served daily in the spacious dining room, extracurricular activities like tech or drama club take up the late afternoons, and outings to museums and plays are frequent.

Spurred by their success, Adler and Vinnakota now run the SEED foundation, which aims to create more public charter boarding schools across the US.

"It's critical, because there are so many kids who are not getting the education or the exposure they need or deserve," says Adler, adding that options are being looked into and it is possible another SEED school - either in D.C. or in California - will open within a year. "We made it happen here, and we will make it happen again," he says.

A can-do attitude has been a key to SEED's success. When Deon and others entered SEED six years ago, classes took place at the city's Children's Museum, and dorm space was found at a nearby community college.

But, soon, the SEED Foundation acquired an abandoned school building and transformed it into a sprawling campus. Dorms were built, security systems installed, Internet-enabled computers plugged in, and a gym and a library were dedicated. It became, they joke, "Andover - but free."

All of this, of course, is not really free. The school is funded by a combination of the public monies awarded to any charter school and private donations from individuals, foundations, and corporations. So far, SEED has raised $21 million privately, to cover building and operating costs.

Some critics claim that the expense of the project makes SEED unsustainable, and argue the money would be spent on bettering the existing public system.

"Considering how difficult it's been to get increased funding for the public schools, and taking into account that there is a limited pot of public money, as well as a limit seemingly to philanthropy - we have a problem," says Susan Nogan, a senior policy analyst at the National Education Association, a teachers' union.

SEED receives about $24,000 per student annually from Washington's City Council - more than twice the $9,000 a year allocated for most D.C. public school students. "I would prefer to see an alternative found within the public school," says Ms. Nogan, "instead of a small model like this which only helps a few."

Those few kids benefiting, however, are certainly not complaining. Deon's great- aunt saw SEED advertised on the side of a bus, he recalls, and pretty much forced him to go, even though his neighborhood friends thought it was strange.

Who goes away to school, they would ask? Only bad kids. He grins. "I didn't like it one bit," he says. "Who wants to leave home? The thought of living with people I didn't even know at all - it was crazy!"

Today, however, with his younger sister two grades behind him at SEED and his younger siblings all begging to join too, he thanks his lucky stars that bus rolled by in front of his aunt. Is his family proud?

"Yeah," he says, grinning. "They call me the big man on campus. That's me."

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