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Thurgood Marshall Academy First Friday’s Visit

My week began with a talk given by Jack Jennings at GW, my alma mater (how weird to say after only a month out of school!), about presidential politics and federal education policy history.  Mr. Jennings, founder of the Center for Education Policy, is certainly not a fan of school choice and is hailed as a champion of traditional public schools.  However, even he admitted that we need more choice and accountability in schools.  He admitted that even he had learned something from the education reform movement.

Perhaps he had heard about the amazing work that is happening at many of the district’s charter schools.  My week ended with a visit to one of these schools of choice, one of the best in the nation’s capital, in fact:  Thurgood Marshall Academy (TMA, as it is affectionately called).  This school embodies the basic idea behind charter schools:  give a school the opportunity and autonomy to be great, and make sure they follow up and meet high standards.  The potential and promise of the charter school movement is most certainly being delivered at TMA.

First, the data.  100% of TMA’s seniors are accepted into college, and 85% of them are still enrolled in college a year out of high school.  It’s not just the actual numbers that are impressive, but it’s the school’s focus on the numbers.  On the bulletin boards throughout the school’s halls, there are postings of graphs of the  student’s aggregate achievement on the DC CAS, assorted AP tests, the SATs, and the ACTs.  It only makes sense:  the staff knows if they don’t educate their students well, and if the students themselves don’t put in the effort to achieve, the school will close.

The school holds high standards for their teachers, but also gives them autonomy to come up with systems and practices that work for them.  And the teachers hold high standards for their students.  Grade promotion is not a given for TMA students, and if a child is not ready to advance to the next grade, they retake every class from that grade.

But the teachers also give autonomy to their students.  I was struck by how the school culture is mainly enforced by students.  Student participation was high in two classrooms that I visited: a 10th grade biology class and an upperclassmen government class.  Students were stationed as hall monitors throughout the school.  Students ran the writing center.  It was enlightening to say the least to see students using the opportunity and autonomy they were given to succeed.

The charter school’s numerous program offerings really struck me as well.  After school programming and athletics are vibrant, students are visited by professionals from law and policy many times throughout the year, there are job-shadowing opportunities, there is tutoring, and there is an office dedicated to advising alumni throughout their college career.

The echo of so many students attending schools of choice was heard at TMA this week: “where would I be?”  Students at TMA know the great opportunity they have been provided with and they most certainly do not take it for granted.

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