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Dropouts Build New Foundations at D.C. Charter School
04/27/06 - The Washington Post
By Marc Fisher
Thursday, April 27, 2006
These are the kids who mow your lawn, flip your burgers and work the register at CVS. Some vanish from the D.C. schools before they turn 15. Some have babies before they can drive.
Shanetta Brinkley, 17, quit Ballou High after her junior year because "they had people running in the halls, telling teachers what to do, yelling, screaming, fighting. They wasn't teaching." James Pearson, 23, left H.D. Woodson High after 10th grade to take care of his ailing grandfather seven years ago.
And Jessica Juarez, 22, quit Wilson High at the start of 10th grade, frustrated that no teacher knew her name. For most of a year after she dropped out, she returned to Wilson once a month, managing to stay on the enrollment books. No one noticed she was gone the rest of the time.
Now they are back in school, on track to earn a diploma and know a trade -- construction, learned on the job, on Holbrook Terrace NE near Gallaudet University, where students from YouthBuild charter school are gutting and rebuilding three apartment buildings that will soon be sold as affordable housing. As the D.C. public school system prepares to shut down many of its smallest facilities, this school of 36 students -- now completing its first year -- is quickly starting to change lives.
Students alternate between two-week sessions in the classroom on 14th Street NW and at the construction site. Given up for lost by the public schools, most of these students will start community college this fall. Few YouthBuild students live with a parent; they're on their own or with siblings, cousins or other relatives. One-third are parents themselves. Half are black and half are Latino. Eighty percent are 18 or older; the age range is 16 to 23. Eighty-four percent of the students come in reading at eighth-grade level or worse.
At YouthBuild, no one falls for the lame excuses that these kids dispensed to veer on to the wrong track. Each teacher has a caseload of students for whom they are held responsible. If the student doesn't show up, the teacher must know why and take action.
In Charlie Kennedy's class, the students conduct a mock election for mayor. Each student selects three issues and makes his case to the class. Then, to teach about voter apathy, Kennedy randomly hands half of the students "obstacle cards" that prevent them from voting. Most of the reasons on the cards are weak ("Work won't let me leave"), but typical of the excuses these kids have peddled all their lives.
"We have the luxury here of intimacy," says Kennedy, who came to YouthBuild this year after teaching in a large public school in Florida. "But you could do this at any school. The important thing is connecting with every student."
As a public charter, YouthBuild must take all comers. But the school, which supplements its D.C. charter school funds with a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, can and does push students to self-select.
The school year starts with Mental Toughness Week, when students must speak in public, show up on time and pledge to refrain from illegal drug use. When they hear that because school is held on a construction site they face random drug testing, 40 percent of applicants walk out the door, says Patricia Bravo, the school's education director.
"The message here is that if you really want to do this, we will be here every step of the way for you," says Lori Kaplan, director of the Latin American Youth Center, the nonprofit that founded the school. "You could make that commitment in a public school, too, but you have to have teachers who will hold up their end of the deal."
YouthBuild has no science labs, gym or foreign language program. Instead, students closely read a novel, Dan Brown's "Angels & Demons," -- which, for some, is the first adult book they have read. To teach writing and organization, the school has them produce an autobiography and complete a college application. Regardless of whether they plan to go to college, they apply.
"Most of these kids will go directly to work," says teacher Paul Holzer, "though quite a few will go to community college at the same time. Whatever their path, we've given them the life skills to expect more of themselves. This is a culture of responsibility and ownership for your actions -- a culture of competency."
YouthBuild's most controversial policy involves paying students to attend. At the construction site, students get $7 an hour. The apartments they're building will sell for more than $100,000 each, so why shouldn't they get a cut? In the classroom, they are paid $10 a day, on the theory that if this is what it takes to hoist them onto a career ladder, that's a valuable investment.
"A lot of the time, the stipend is what enables them to come back to school," Bravo says. "We don't make a big deal of it, because we don't want people coming just for the money. But it recognizes where they are in life; maybe they've just had a baby, and they're living with an aunt who needs help with the rent."
The money is useful, students say, but it's not why they're at YouthBuild. Jessica Juarez explains her reason: "You never see a fight here. People are your family here. My family says I have really grown this year. I used to be whiny. I would just shy out. What I'm doing here, talking to you, is totally new for me. I'm 22, and I acted like I was 12. I'm ready now to go out and get the job I want, not the job that I have to get because of my education status. And when I leave here? I'm going to be the first in my family to get a GED."