Photo from Thurgood Marshall Academy.

Thurgood Marshall Academy, a charter school in Anacostia, has had a track record of success with a tough population: low-income high school students. What is its secret, and is it something DCPS and other schools can replicate?

The entering 9th-graders at Thurgood Marshall (TMA) are generally on a 5th- or 6th-grade level in reading and math. But for the past 9 years, 100% of its seniors have been accepted to college, and 65% of them graduate within 5 years. In Ward 8 as a whole, only 10% of the population has a college degree.

How does the school manage to pull this off? While some have accused TMA of cherry-picking its students or falsifying results, its executive director Alexandra Pardo says that’s not the case. The “secret sauce,” she says, is simple: good teaching.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the deficiencies of DCPS’s middle schools, but in fact their problems are minor compared to those at DCPS’s non-selective high schools. Aside from Wilson in Ward 3, the proficiency rates on DC’s standardized tests at neighborhood high schools range from 17% to 46%, with the majority below 30%.

That’s a problem not only for families who already have their kids enrolled in those schools, but also for parents of younger children who are planning for the future.

At TMA last year, 87% of students scored proficient in math and 62% in reading, which is higher than the rates at Wilson (60% and 61%, respectively). And the school did far better than average in helping its students advance. In fact, on a measure of academic growth, the school ranks first in DC.

No pipeline to draw on

Among DC charter schools serving a high-poverty population, KIPP DC College Prep is a close competitor. But KIPP DC is a network of high-performing schools that begin in pre-K, so its high school can draw on a pipeline of students who have already been acculturated and educated in its system.

TMA, on the other hand, draws its students from about 60 different middle schools, with many coming from low-performing DCPS schools in Wards 7 and 8. “We never have more than 12% coming in on grade level in math,” Pardo says. For reading, she says, about 22% are on grade level.

While Pardo says the secret of TMA’s success lies in good teaching, there are obviously other factors at work as well. For one thing, there’s a summer prep program that gets entering 9th-graders accustomed to behavioral expectations before school starts. It also enables the school to administer diagnostic tests, start getting kids caught up on math and reading skills, and determine what classes students should be placed in.

The school isn’t allowed to make attendance at the summer program mandatory, but Pardo says that usually about 90 out of an entering class of 120 to 130 will attend.

Once school starts, students who are advanced in a particular subject can take an honors class. And students who are well below grade level in a subject get “tons more support,” Pardo says.

But all 9th-graders get a double dose of reading and math, with 90-minute blocks of each daily. They all take Algebra I, and those who need basic pre-algebra skills also get an additional 90-minute class focusing on those.

The curriculum isn’t all about reading and math, however. Ninth-graders also take world history, Spanish, and earth science or biology.

Nor is it all about remediation. Students in 11th and 12th grade can take AP classes, although those are also 90 minutes long, in recognition of the fact that TMA students may need additional support. And those who are advanced in math can take two full years of it in 10th grade so they can take AP Calculus later on.

There’s also an emphasis on writing throughout the curriculum, with a set of common standards and goals, although every teacher takes a somewhat different approach.

Each student accumulates a portfolio over the course of the school year, which includes academic work and a record of behavior. Students develop public speaking skills by giving oral presentations based on their portfolios to panels of staff and parents, explaining why they did or didn’t meet the goals they set for themselves.

Promotion policy

And if 9th-graders aren’t ready to move on to 10th grade, the school doesn’t let them. Students who fail up to 3 core classes can move up if they pass at least 2 of the courses in summer school, but those who fail 4 core classes are required to repeat the grade.

Every year about 15 students are in that situation, and Pardo says about half of them choose to return and repeat. The others go elsewhere.

“It’s never an easy decision” to require a student to repeat, says Pardo. “But it’s not helping you in the long run if we promote you.”

That policy is one reason the school’s 4-year graduation rate was only 76% last year. That’s certainly respectable; the overall 4-year graduation rate for DC was 64%, with a rate of only 58% for DCPS as a whole. But among charter schools, the average was 79%.

But Pardo says that the school’s 5-year graduation rate is 96%, with about 15% of seniors graduating in 5 years.

In the next part of this post, we’ll look at other factors in the TMA’s success, and whether they can be replicated at DCPS high schools.

Natalie Wexler is a DC education journalist and blogger. She chairs the board of The Writing Revolution and serves on the Urban Teachers DC Regional Leadership Council, and she has been a volunteer reading and writing tutor in high-poverty DC Public Schools.