At D.C. Prep Edgewood Middle School, one of the city’s top-ranked charter schools, showing up without a belt as part of your uniform gets you a half-hour detention at the end of the day. So does getting to your seat a minute late, at 8:01 a.m.
“We want to show them we’re serious about everything we do,” said the school’s principal, Cassie Meltzer Pergament.
At Maya Angelou Evans Middle School, near the bottom of the charter rankings, the staff labors each morning to get students through the doors. If one arrives in the burgundy and khaki uniform without a belt, principal La’Mont Geddis said, “I’ll give him a belt.”
These two schools illuminate the wide variations in performance and academic challenges within a sector of schools that could claim a majority of the D.C. public education market in a few years. Charter schools, independently operated but taxpayer-funded, serve 41 percent of the city’s 78,000 public students, up from 5 percent in 1998.
D.C. public schools, the city-run system, has shown more progress overall than charter schools on citywide tests over five years. But in 2011, the charter sector posted greater annual gains on the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System. Charter schools also topped DCPS in reading and math scores of African American students — with a margin especially wide in eighth grade — on the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress.
“We are on the cusp of charters being in a position to truly meet the needs of all students in Washington,” said Darren Woodruff, a member of the D.C. Public Charter School Board.
The board, which authorizes and revokes charters, on Dec. 6 unveiled a three-tier school performance ranking based on test score growth and other factors. D.C. Prep Edgewood Middle placed in the first tier, Maya Angelou Evans Middle in the third. Behind the rankings is a more complicated story about the background of the students and the distinctly different roles the schools play in the city.
Ritual and regimen
“Mark down a responsible ‘S,’ Tyrique,” fourth-grade reading teacher Julia King said one December day at D.C. Prep. “Thank you for helping him.”
Each day, the school’s 251 “D.C. Preppies,” as they are called, make entries on a yellow “prep note,” a running account of their classroom behavior. “S” stands for “working appropriately with others.” There are 26 behavior categories, one for each letter in the alphabet, from A (“caring for other’s property) to I (“staying on task”) to V (“advocating for oneself”). It has to be returned each day with a parent’s signature.
That is just one piece of the ritual and regimentation at the school, on Edgewood Street NE, for grades four through eight. Students are exhorted to “prep up” in the learner’s position: “Back straight up, feet on the floor, hands on your desk, eyes on the speaker.”
They seem to embrace the approach. Seventh-grader Nicholas Denney described his experience a few blocks away at Shaed Elementary, a traditional D.C. school that closed.
“They didn’t have any rules. The teacher used to sleep. Too many fights. Too much chaos,” he said.
It’s difficult to argue with D.C. Prep’s results. At a school where most students come from low-income homes, eighth-graders showed 100 percent proficiency in reading and math on this year’s city tests. Middle-grade pass rates were 85 percent in reading and 95 percent in math. Those numbers put D.C. Prep in the same league with the school system’s top-achieving Alice Deal Middle School in Northwest.
D.C. Prep follows practices common in successful charters. Most school days are 90 minutes longer than in DCPS. Teachers work a minimum 60-hour week, remaining available by phone until 8 p.m. to take calls from students and parents about homework.
There is a two-week staff orientation in August (DCPS does four days) and six professional development days per year (DCPS has four). Every component of teaching is analyzed. Pedagogy is heavily influenced by Doug Lemov, author of “Teach Like a Champion,” a book that stresses effective classroom management.
One technique is “cold calling”: asking students for an answer even if they haven’t raised their hands. Another is “no opt out.” In this case, if a student says he doesn’t know the answer to a question, the teacher turns to a classmate and repeats the query. If the other student responds correctly, the teacher poses the question again to the original student.
D.C. Prep officials said their most powerful tool is the “prep session” — twice-daily classes tailored to specific needs of each student below grade level.
One morning, eighth-grade math teacher Allison Lashley was working with a student who could easily graph linear equations from scratch but was having trouble matching equations to graphs already drawn.
“I know you’re a rock star at graphing,” said Lashley, trying to build the student’s confidence.