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?

In the first part of this post, I looked at how Thurgood Marshall (TMA) uses a summer prep program to help entering 9th-graders, who usually come in well below grade level, catch up academically and understand the school’s expectations. I also discussed the school’s promotion policy, which usually results in about 12% of students being asked to repeat 9th grade.

Another factor in the school’s success is a consistent, predictable disciplinary system. Teachers don’t necessarily need to enforce that themselves. There are deans for each grade who are available to handle difficult situations, and who are also well acquainted with each student.

If, for example, “your shirt is untucked, you know you’ll get a detention,” says Alexandra Pardo, the school’s executive director. That means staying after school for an hour and working on a reflection activity. There are escalating consequences from there, but the school tries to ensure that students don’t miss classwork.

Last year the Washington Post highlighted a case involving expulsion proceedings at the school in 2011, but last year there were no expulsions.

And the short-term suspension rate was only 8%, significantly lower than the District average of 21% for high schools. The school has no metal detectors, but, says Pardo, “we’ve never had an incident.”

Teacher turnover

And then there are the teachers. Pardo says the school looks not only for good teachers, but also for those who are committed to the profession and willing to engage in a constant process of self-assessment. The school’s overarching philosophy, she says, is “we are never good enough.”

Teacher turnover is fairly low, with 5 out of 36 teachers leaving last year, mostly because they were moving from the area. The average teacher has over 4 years of tenure at the school, and 36% have been there for 5 years or more.

Pardo says that’s partly because the school has created support systems that allow teachers to focus on teaching, and partly because it’s possible to combine the job with other demands, such as raising a family. The school day is only 15 minutes longer than the standard one, so teachers can leave at 3:30 if they need to.

TMA does offer a wide range of extracurricular activities in its afterschool program, but teacher participation is voluntary.

Could DCPS manage to achieve the same results in its high schools? Pardo, who worked within DCPS for 4 years before coming to TMA, answers with an unequivocal “yes.” The measures the school has put in place are all “scalable,” she says, “but they do require work” in terms of creating systems and monitoring them.

DCPS has been “very open to collaboration,” she says, and she’s worked closely with administrators there on things like formulating graduation requirements and crafting a summer prep program.

Advantages over DCPS

But TMA does have some advantages over a neighborhood DCPS school. It’s true that the school draws from the surrounding area: about 95% of students come from Wards 7 or 8, and Pardo says that requiring the school to implement a preference for neighborhood students would make no real difference. But the fact is that, as at any charter school, parents need to take the initiative to apply, and that may indicate a greater level of engagement.

While the school is high-poverty, with 80% of its students qualifying for free or reduced meals, it’s possible that poverty rates at some DCPS high schools are higher (because DCPS is using new methods of counting kids who are eligible for free or reduced meals at some schools, it’s not always clear what the actual poverty rate is). That could make a difference to school culture.

And the percentage of special education students at TMA is only 9%, whereas at comparable DCPS schools it ranges from 24 to 33%.

TMA also gets a good deal of private help and money. With its law-related focus, a number of law firms help with tutoring and other activities, and about 20% of the school’s $8.5 million budget comes from fundraising.

Lastly, TMA generally doesn’t take new students during the school year, whereas DCPS schools are required to. At Ballou last year, for example, 21% of students entered after the start of the school year, and the average for the District was 17%.

Obviously, bringing that many students in during the year can be disruptive. Could TMA achieve the same results if it had to admit them? Pardo says it would depend on how many the school got.

“But if you have a strong culture,” she said, “kids tend to adapt to the culture. At low-performing schools, the school is led by the students.”

From abysmal to award-winning

Yes, DCPS high schools are generally in pretty bad shape, and it may seem unlikely that they could transform themselves into something like TMA. But not that long ago, TMA itself was in pretty bad shape.

Pardo says that 8 years ago, TMA was doing so poorly its charter was in danger of being revoked. “Our test scores were abysmal, quite frankly,” she says. “And we didn’t have a curriculum in place.”

Pardo was brought in to turn the school around. Now, TMA has been selected as a finalist for an “Excellence in Urban Education Award.”

Update: Pardo says that the turnaround at TMA was a group effort. While she was brought in to revise academics and introduce data-driven instruction, other individuals worked on many aspects of the school’s improvement. Most importantly, she says, the school’s Board and leadership at the time took the crucial step of recognizing that change had to happen.

There’s no guarantee that a DCPS high school using TMA’s methods would achieve the same results. But TMA can only admit 125 or so students a year, and its waiting list this year was 412. If there’s a chance that other schools, including DCPS schools, could bring even a fraction of TMA’s success to more students, it seems like it’s a chance worth taking.

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.