Taking a Chance; Public Boarding School Reaps Great Success

The SEED School seeks to expand to urban areas around the country.

June 9, 2010— -- Fifth-grader Giavonna Turner sits anxiously with her family in a crowded school gymnasium. On stage at the front of the room numbered ping pong balls spin around in a metal bingo barrel.

A man in a grey suit calls out numbers one by one as the balls roll out. "16, 2, 22..." Loud cheers erupt after each number, families hug, and tears of joy are shed. Giavonna and her family wait for number 19.

This is not your average bingo night. These students are waiting, hoping to hear their number called in the lottery to be accepted to the SEED School in southeast Washington, D.C. One-hundred seventy applicants are taking a chance on a better education and the opportunity to go to college. Only 40 ultimately will get spots.

SEED is located among some of the worst public schools in the country. Only 33 percent of students in the neighboring wards graduate from high school.

At SEED, 91 percent of ninth graders go on to graduate and 97 percent of graduating seniors are accepted to four-year colleges.

Giavonna learned about SEED when school representatives came to speak at her elementary school.

"She came home and she was so excited. Everything was about SEED," her mother Janella said. "She called me at work and she said 'Mommy please.'"

What's their secret to success? Imagine a world with a level playing field, where children from disadvantaged communities have the same opportunities as their counterparts raised in well-to-do suburbs. That was the vision behind the creation of SEED, the first public boarding school in the country.

"There are 100 things that I took for granted growing up ... that a lot of kids that grow up in economically secure neighborhoods can take for granted," said Eric Adler, who co-founded the SEED Foundation in 1997. "We are providing our students the same opportunities that most of the kids in other neighborhoods just naturally have as an accident of birth."

SEED's Curriculum Teaches Values and Life Lessons

While the school is open to any student in the district, most of the kids come from low-income, high-poverty areas.

"We think that there's a group of kids for whom, if they're going to be successful, they probably need a 24-hour supportive environment that is able to provide support to the educational process around the clock," Adler said.

SEED students are put through a rigorous curriculum and teachers set high expectations.

"We have a specific mission that resonates with families, and that mission is to provide an outstanding intensive academic program that prepares students academically and socially for success in college," director of admissions Mecha Inman said.

Aside from the school day, which is two hours longer than most, at night students receive counseling, tutoring and lessons in various life skills.

"It's a 24-hour program, absolutely," Inman said.

From structured college prep courses to informal discussions on goals or even etiquette, the "hall lessons" make up for many of the skills that students may not be taught at home.

"Everybody has to learn who they are, what they believe in and what their values are, and somebody has to suggest what those values maybe ought to be and how to think about it," Adler said. "If mom is off working two or three jobs and doesn't come until 11, then who are you going to be picking that up from? Are you going to picking it up out on the street corner? Or are you going to be picking that up from adults who are there to provide that stuff."

Roslyn Shorter, whose daughter Shamiyah is in the 11th grade at SEED, said, "She's learned a real sense of responsibility ... and was able to meet such wonderful people."

While at SEED, students live in houses of 10 to 12 each supervised by a "life skills counselor."

"We don't call them 'dorm parents,'" Inman said, "because they don't assume the role of a parent. They are truly a 'life skills counselor.'"

SEED prides itself of being small enough to foster strong relationships with the parents of all its students.

The 4-acre campus offers kids a peaceful retreat in the middle of the city with 24-hour security. And although students spend Monday through Friday on campus, they return home for the weekends.

Public Boarding Schools in Every Major City?

But how is it that the students are able to receive an education that costs $35,000 per year free of charge?

Startup costs, including the money to build the campus, are raised privately by the SEED Foundation. Once at scale, the operating costs to maintain and run the school are publicly funded.

The SEED school in Washington operates as a charter school, which enables them to tap into funding available for independently run public schools. However, Adler said setting up a school of this nature required legislative action for the District of Columbia to agree to pay the additional costs.

"There isn't a source of sustainable funding that pays for boarding in existence in most places," he said. "For example in D.C., there was a charter law that was used to the idea of paying the operating expenses for an independent public school but it was the regular day expenses. It required an act of Congress, in the case of the District of Columbia, to add onto that the boarding expenses."

SEED also operates a school in Maryland that is not a charter school, and students there must meet certain criteria to attend. Securing funding for that campus required Maryland to agree to pay the above and beyond costs for the students who live in circumstances where they have multiple risk factors working against them.

Given the success of the boarding school model, the SEED Foundation is eager to expand.

"This kind of a school should be in the portfolio of almost any major city," Adler said. "None of us believe that this is the solution. ... Lots of kids, if they just had a good after school program or a strengthened day school program, would be fine. But for kids who this would really make a difference, it ought to be available in each city."

SEED has looked into broadening the program to cities in Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin and New Jersey and they are about to begin work in New York.

"Should we have more SEED schools? Absolutely," Inman said. "Do I think everybody has to be at boarding school? No, it's not for everyone."

SEED Credits Students for Its Success

The Obama administration has highlighted SEED as an education success story and the president himself visited the school last year. The administration strongly supports charter schools as a model of reform and Education Secretary Arne Duncan has vowed on several occasions to back "what works."

The school has received national attention and is profiled in the upcoming documentary "Waiting For Superman," by the award-winning director of "An Inconvenient Truth," Davis Guggenheim.

Although the idea is revolutionary, the staff and educators at SEED are adamant that the credit goes to their students.

"We change lives for the better, and in so doing give kids great opportunities that they otherwise might not have and which they deserve, but the kids run with it," Adler said. "A kid gets himself college ready, we provided the opportunity for that, but the kid still had to do it."

As for Giavonna, she described the lottery as "nerve-wracking." Any anxiety quickly turned to cheers and smiles, however, when number 19 finally was called. This fall, she will enter the 6th grade with 39 other classmates of similar luck.

Her mother was ecstatic, tears of joys in her eyes. She seemed a little nervous about her daughter leaving the house, but reassured herself by saying, "it's only a few days away to get a better education. It's definitely worth it."