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Is SEED school worth the money?
Civic activists protest charter's expansion
(Published May 1, 2006)

By KATHRYN SINZINGER
Staff Writer

Civic activists are questioning government officials' plan to turn over 15 acres of federal land along the Anacostia River to a D.C. charter school that, in its first six years, has produced graduates at a lower rate than D.C. Public Schools but at twice the cost to taxpayers.

Members of Save Our Schools, a coalition of organizations and individuals supporting public education, teamed up April 26 with civic association members to protest the planned expansion of SEED school into Northeast Washington's Kingman Park neighborhood near Robert F. Kennedy Stadium.

Protesters gathered outside the downtown office of the nonprofit SEED Foundation, which owns and operates the School of Educational Evolution and Development (SEED), to publicly criticize what they call "flawed educational methods" that have produced only 41 graduates since the school was founded in 1998.

"SEED is planning to build a gated boarding school, which resembles a prison, for 600 students, most of whom will probably never graduate," charged resident and longtime educator Emily Washington, a former education adviser to the now-dormant financial control board that Congress created in the mid-1990s to take over the D.C. government.

A spokeswoman for the D.C. Public Charter School Board, which issued SEED school's charter in 1997, confirmed critics' complaints about SEED expelling or suspending relatively high numbers of students. However, she noted that the boarding program at the school presents a unique environment that may also create disciplinary challenges not faced by other charter schools.

Performance reports posted on the charter school board's Web site show 21 suspensions and 18 expulsions from SEED school during the 2004-2005 academic year.

The SEED Foundation, which receives more than $25,000 a year per student in tax support and solicits tax-deductible private contributions, currently enrolls about 300 D.C. children in grades seven through 12 at the nation's only publicly funded boarding school. SEED school initially began with 40 seventh-grade students housed at the former Capital Children's Museum at Third and I streets NE, but has moved to larger quarters at 4300 C St. SE.

In 2005, Congress acceded to a request from Mayor Anthony A. Williams to permit location of a pre-collegiate public boarding school on land near Benning Road and Oklahoma Avenue, north of RFK Stadium. The Williams administration currently is soliciting proposals for such a school, though SEED appears to be the only potential applicant that meets the congressional criteria for the site and already has developed plans to locate a second campus there.

Rajiv Vinnakota, co-founder and managing director of SEED school, acknowledged during a telephone interview that SEED plans to submit a proposal before the May 24 deadline but has not yet done so. He said plans call for operating the planned second campus as a separate boarding school for students enrolled in grades seven through 12, rather than dividing grades between two different locations.

Vinnakota confirmed critics' claim that SEED has graduated only 41 students but noted that the Class of 2004, which began as seventh graders, was the school's first graduating class. He said 24 of the original 40 students enrolled ultimately graduated in 2004 and that 17 of the 30 original students enrolled in the Class of 2005 received their diplomas. Twenty-six seniors are expected to graduate this spring.

SEED school's combined 58.6 percent graduation rate for its first two classes is difficult to compare to available statistics for public school graduation rates nationally, which generally are calculated from ninth through 12th grade. In 2003, the most recent year for which federal statistics are available, D.C. Public Schools ranked in the middle range for large public school systems with its 65.2 percent graduation rate.

"We're graduating 85 percent of our students and 100 percent have been accepted to four-year colleges," Vinnakota said of SEED's senior classes.

By comparison, D.C. Public Schools reported graduating 83 percent of its students enrolled as seniors in the 2004-2005 school year. Questionnaires completed by members of DCPS's Class of 2005, graduating from 19 high schools, showed 85.2 percent planned to attend college.

Graduation rates at individual DCPS high schools in 2005 ranged from 100 percent at Banneker to 61 percent at Luke C. Moore Academy, a special high school for former dropouts who return to complete their education. The lowest graduation rates among traditional DCPS senior high schools were 76 percent at both Anacostia and Spingarn, and 77 percent at Wilson. In addition to Banneker, eight other DCPS high schools exceeded SEED's 85 percent graduation rate in 2005: M.M. Washington (99 percent), Ellington (92 percent), Eastern (91 percent), Woodson (90 percent), Bell (89 percent), Coolidge (89 percent), Ballou (87 percent) and School Without Walls (87 percent).

Copyright 2006 The Common Denominator