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Thomas Friedman has a column in the New York Times about attending the graduation ceremonies at the SEED high school in Baltimore. His wife, he writes, “chairs the foundation behind the SEED schools.” The column, of course, is a celebration of the young people who have made it to graduation in this very unusual school. It is a boarding school, which begins in sixth grade. Although other SEED schools are charter schools, this one in Maryland is not; it is described as a “statewide public college-preparatory boarding school.” It relies on private contributions to get started, but its operations are funded by public dollars.
As the saying goes: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Unfortunately, not everyone made it to the finish line: Of the 80 who won the lottery that day in 2008, only 29 stuck it out or made it from sixth grade to graduation. The good news is that the graduates are going to the University of Virginia, the University of Wisconsin, University of Michigan, U.S.C., Villanova and others; one is joining the Coast Guard.
SEED has long been lauded in national media for its test scores and its college placements. But, at the Maryland campus described by Friedman, only 36% of students persisted from sixth grade to graduation from twelfth grade.
I first became aware of the SEED boarding school concept when I saw the movie “Waiting for ‘Superman.’” It was one of the charter schools featured as an escape for students who seemed doomed to fail in urban public schools. I wrote a review of the movie and in doing so, checked out the schools that were featured. What I learned about SEED in 2010 was that it had a very high attrition rate, and it was very expensive (at that time, about $35,000 per student in public funding, more recently the cost per student was $40,000).
Here is a description of the D.C. SEED charter school that was featured in the movie,
“In order to help kids do better in school, the SEED School takes them away from their home environments for five days a week and gives them a host of supporting services. The results of this educational experiment have been promising so far, and SEED believes their model can be used on a broader scale.
When consultants Eric Adler and Rajiv Vinnakota founded the school in 1998, it was the first and only urban public boarding school in the country. Much like Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone, Adler and Vinnakota saw the classroom as only one component of a college-preparatory education.
“The SEED model includes academic, residential, mental health, physical health, social, and enrichment programs,” explains Laura O’Connor, director of communications for the SEED Foundation. The school provides volunteer tutoring, extracurricular programs like robotics and cooking classes, and a scholarly environment where Facebook, MySpace, and television are forbidden.”
I take away three lessons from the story that Friedman tells.
One is that public schools should have the resources to provide “academic, mental health, physical health, social, and enrichment programs.” They too should have the advantages that are clearly beneficial to students.
Second, SEED is not in any sense “scalable.” No state is ready, willing, or able to pay $40,000 per student for children who live in distressed urban districts. Nor should a school with an attrition rate over 60% be considered appropriate for entire districts.
Third, without knocking the people who are trying to help kids in need, I question the value of separating children from their families and communities as a broad-scale approach. It is not likely to happen because it is too expensive, but it also operates on the presumption that the children can thrive only by getting away from home. For some that may be true. But for our society, it is a way of evading our obligation to address the systemic problems of segregation, poverty, and racism. Saving our children one at a time is a noble cause, but it is even more noble to fix the social and economic conditions that put them at risk.