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Public Education: Supporting the Transition to Adulthood

February 23, 2010
Lee Christian Parker

Author: Lee Christian Parker

“I would have dropped out of school without Maya Angelou,” a 16-year-old mother of a two-year-old told a group of Community Foundation donors, staff members and local funders last week on our tour of one of Washington, DC’s most successful charter schools—the Maya Angelou Public Charter School (PCS).  In a city where just as many students drop out as graduate, Maya Angelou PCS is the last option – one that the District is seeking to replicate through a variety of alternative charter and traditional school options. To date, few have met with the same success as Maya Angelou.

Maya Angelou PCS is one of 12 schools in DC whose student body has seen some challenges:  at least 30% have been arrested, previously incarcerated, are chronically truant or have dropped out of school altogether. Many of these young people are considered “unreachable” and, in another setting, would soon earn a new label: “forgotten.” Despite such a challenging population, the school boasts a remarkable 75% college enrollment rate within a year of graduation. What is the magic ingredient of Maya Angelou’s success?

It’s this: Maya Angelou is a “family” for its 200 students, the majority of whom are African American. The teachers, clinical staff and counselors provide guidance, support, and help —ingredients that otherwise would be missing from the lives of many of the students. On our recent visit, we saw students not stymied by family and community challenges, but full of exuberance as they entered and left their classrooms. We saw impromptu staff and student chats in the hallways to discuss weekend plans and events. We saw structured counseling sessions addressing academic, personal, and family challenges. We saw classrooms of 15 students co-taught by special- and general-education teachers to ensure inclusion of all students.   Most of all, we saw a dedicated staff working in innovative ways to keep these vulnerable young people connected.

We left Maya Angelou PCS with a sense that the students saw futures for themselves, futures that once were out of reach—as teachers, lawyers, political scientists, and more.   These young people may have been “impossible to reach” when they entered Maya Angelou, but today they are positioned to be leaders with no limits to their success.

Our own lesson of that day? That the District of Columbia could surely deliver a world-class public education if innovative models such as Maya Angelou PCS were available citywide.

If you want to join one of our upcoming tours of promising District schools, call me at 202-263-4762 or email me at lparker@cfncr.org.

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