On a hot August Friday, soon-to-be junior Justice Wright is sitting with 44 other students presenting a final project.
She and her peers at Cesar Chavez Public Charter School at Capitol Hill are completing a two-week program to prepare for college-level AP classes in the fall. In recent years, the public policy-focused school has begun to offer AP courses to both juniors and seniors.
Wright plans to complete six AP courses by the time she graduates. The rising junior had to forgo a trip to King’s Dominion with friends so she can complete classes, but she says the time put in during the summer will make her fall classes less intimidating.
“It’s just sticking through anything, being here, taking the first step, saying, ‘hey I can do this. I can make it to college,'” she told Watchdog.org.
At charter high schools like Chavez that serve mostly low-income kids, the success of college prep cannot just be crunched into numbers.
Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews’ 2016 ranking of America’s Most Challenging High Schools included four charter schools: two Chavez schools, Thurgood Marshall Academy and Washington Latin Public Charter School. All four were ranked below three private schools and six traditional public schools in D.C.
The rankings were based on the percentage of seniors taking college-level tests, and didn’t factor in the percentage of students qualifying for lunch subsidies. But if you take that into consideration, the success of these schools is even more impressive.
Two of the charter schools serve high subsidized lunch student populations — Chavez at 100 percent and TMA at 71 percent. That’s higher than most of the ranked district public schools and suburban schools.
Chavez Parkside and TMA, respectively located in the historically impoverished Wards 7 and 8, help 100 percent of their graduates get admitted into colleges.
At TMA, 90 percent of these students actually attend college. “Socioeconomics shouldn’t be used as a proxy to achieve,” Executive Director Richard Pohlman told Watchdog.org. “I think that our students show that to be true.”
With disadvantaged, first-generation college students less likely to graduate than their peers, it’s not enough to ensure they get into college. For college prep charter schools, the commitment to students can continue throughout college.
“Whatever choices they make in their lives are their choices after that. But if we can make sure they can successfully get through college, it changes their opportunities forever,” Chavez CEO Joan Massey told Watchdog.org.
Extra preparation pays off
The college-level tests factored into The Post’s ranking include Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Cambridge tests. Aside from college-level testing, Chavez and TMA have provided college prep in ways that the rankings don’t include.
TMA’s ultimate goal of seeing its students attend college requires extra preparation in core subjects. Students come in from over 50 different district, charter and private schools at varying education levels. More than 50 percent are two or more years behind in reading, according to Pohlman.
In ninth and tenth grade, students take double blocks of math and reading. “Our students have spent almost two years extra on those subjects than other high schools in the area,” Pohlman said.
The last two years are focused on college preparation. That includes a senior seminar focused on choosing the right college, and college-level tests for upperclassmen.
A pathway to college begins the minute students walk through the doors at TMA. New ninth and tenth graders attend a five-week summer orientation, which culminates in college visits every other Friday.
Chavez students begin going on college visits while attending its two middle schools, also tackling a rigorous public policy curriculum. In addition to writing papers for class, students must complete extracurricular activities such as presenting to the community or testifying to the D.C. Council. Students complete senior thesis projects, community action projects, advocacy projects and internships.
“It’s a different level of overall communication that is at a higher and much more rigorous level. We are really in line with what students need to do in college,” said Massey.
In 2016, 31 TMA seniors took at least one AP course, but more students choose dual enrollment college courses over AP courses. The charter school has partnered with University of D.C. and George Washington University to offer dual enrollment courses. Approximately one-fourth to one-third of students are getting college credits, but even more are at least taking the college-level courses.
Availability of city funds for AP and dual enrollment course fees vary by year. “Anything that’s left over that our families can’t pay for, we would foot the bill. We never want finances to be a barrier for our students to take a course or earn college credit,” said Pohlman.
In college and graduate school, thesis projects are often an integral part of a degree. Chavez students enter college already having completed a thesis project in 12th grade. Every year, a select number of these seniors present at an annual symposium to education officials — sometimes from the federal government.
“Some of them are terrified of going into that thesis course because they know how rigorous the class is,” said Massey. “But they all say when they get to the other side of it, they are so proud of themselves and they’re so happy that they did that. They understand directly how it links to college success.”
A support system beyond high school
Chavez knows what its graduates might need in college — its director of college success is a Chavez graduate herself.
“We make sure we have some funds available, so if they need books or other things that they might not had enough for…those small roadblocks don’t get in their way,” said Massey.
TMA was one of five winners of Raise D.C.’s Data Spotlight Awards for its efforts to continue working with students after high school graduation. Pohlman said the barrier is not that students don’t want to attend, but they feel like they can’t because of their background.
“The barriers that exist for a lot of students aren’t because they’re not smart enough, aren’t because they won’t work hard enough, but are because they don’t have a bank account that can absorb $100 of an unexpected cost,” said Pohlman.
Pohlman is referring to one case where a TMA student had gotten into the University of Michigan, but at the airport she couldn’t pay $100 in baggage fees. She called the school, saying she could no longer go to school simply because of the fees. The alumni office insisted she still go, covering the fees with alumni funds. The student has since graduated.