The Birth Of A Charter School

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About one-third of school age children in the nation's capitol attend public charter schools, and lengthy waiting lists indicate there are still not enough of them to meet parental demands. Reporter Kavitha Cardoza, of NPR member station WAMU-FM, tells the story of two people — Regina Rodrigues and Jennifer Ross — who have partnered to help fill the growing need by starting a charter school of their own.


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're continuing our special look at charter schools. In a few minutes we'll tackle the separation of church and charter school. Around the country and here in the D.C. area, a number of religiously-based schools that were faced with deteriorating finances have made the decision to convert to charter schools. And we'll talk about what that process is like for the people who have gone through it. For some it's surprisingly emotional experience. We'll find out more in a few minutes.

But we first we continue our conversation about charter schools with a close look at D.C.'s charter schools. More than a third of the District of Columbia's public schools students are currently enrolled in charter schools, the largest percentage in the country, but getting one up and running is not an easy task. Kavitha Cardoza covers education at NPR member station WAMU and she is following the founders of something called the National Collegiate Preparatory public charter school as they take their mission public. Kavitha welcome, thank you for joining us.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Lovely to be here.

MARTIN: Tell us about Regina Rodrigues and Jennifer Ross, founders of the school. What kind of person wakes up one day and says I'm going to start a charter school?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CARDOZA: Someone who is very, very brave. They are a really interesting a pair. They actually called themselves the power couple with the perfect marriage, because they think they're so different that their strengths really compliment each other. So Regina has her degrees from Harvard and Jennifer from Howard. One is from New York, the other one is from California. One is really laid back and Regina says she's, you know, much more uptight and worried about things. So they really sort of compliment each other and one is taking on a lot of the academic portion and the other one is doing a lot of the student development.

And they are very fond of saying that between the two of them they have over 30 years of experience, so they're new to starting a public school but they're not new to education.

MARTIN: What is the mission or philosophy of a school they're trying to start?

CARDOZA: They wanted a high school because in Southeast D.C. there are very few high schools with strong emphasis on academics. So, for example, they want to start an international baccalaureate program which a lot of parents are very excited about. They want every junior to be able to go on study abroad programs. Their materials about the school were in high glossy, you know, really good - they want to set a very high standard. So their uniform, too, are blazers, they're going to have business days, because they said what they found was southeast D.C. encompasses some of the poorest neighborhoods. And they said that what they found was not just a socio-economic poverty but a poverty of thought where educators felt all the students, that's all they can achieve. And they wanted to show these kids an alternative.

MARTIN: You were reporting on the whole process of getting the school up and running. And despite the fact that the district already has a number of charter schools, the approval process is quite nerve-racking. I just want to play a short clip from your report describing some of what Rodrigues and Ross went through, here it is.

Ms. JENNIFER ROSS: We sat there kind of holding hands and every school they were denied and they come to us - she couldn't hear it

Ms. REGINA RODRIGUES: Just it looked that Jennifer because I figured well. She is pretty demonstrative, she will either cry or she will…

Ms. ROSS: And I did, but I (unintelligible).

Ms. RODRIGUES: (unintelligible) because we made it

MARTIN: And you report that the charter school board has only approved, 35 percent of the applications that they received in the past five years. How should we interpret that figure? Sort a sign that they're doing their due diligence or how - what does that figure mean in your view?

CARDOZA: I think what it means is that it's a very grueling process, as they said, because they said they worked for six months for six hours everyday just on the application process, because, for example, you can't say course work will be academically rigorous, you have to say how, what are the strategies, and the charter school board holds you accountable.

MARTIN: And once a charter school is actually approved, you actually have to work hard to keep it going. You spoke with Tamara Lumpkin of the D.C. charter school board. Let's just hear a little bit more of your report.

CARDOZA: They've come to realize that very soon after that that's easier than actually opening the school, and then when they actually get it up and running - even after the first year - I've spoken with school leaders who've said, in the second year, they thought it would be easier and it wasn't.

MARTIN: Where are Ross and Rodrigues now? How close are they to bringing their charter school dream to reality?

CARDOZA: They just found a new building a few weeks ago. So they're absolutely ecstatic, because everyone says that that's the hardest part of starting up a charter school. They have to renovate, because it's in a former elementary school building. They have to raise the height of the water fountains, retrofit bathrooms, you know things like that. At the moment they're really strongly focused on recruiting faculty and students.

MARTIN: Well, tell me what are the other things you're looking at over the course of following this interesting movement.

CARDOZA: I think the next part is going to be how they go about recruiting students because you get funded based on the number of students you can enroll. So if they don't make the number, which is about 125 students entering the ninth grade, they're going to have a problem with everything else. Sort of paying for their building, and staff and things like that.

MARTIN: So there are certain benchmarks that have to be met.

CARDOZA: Absolutely. And there are only a certain number of students in D.C. So it's not just competition between public schools and public charter schools, now, there's a competition between public charter schools and public charter schools.

MARTIN: Well, we can't wait to see what you come up with next.

CARDOZA: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: Kavitha Cardoza is a reporter at member station WAMU in Washington D.C. She joined at our studios in Washington. Kavitha, thank you so much for joining us.

CARDOZA: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: You can go to the TELL ME MORE page at to hear Kavitha Cardoza's latest reports on education including her interview with Illinois Senator Dick Durbin a Democrat, who's opposing a voucher program that allowed low income D.C. families to send their children to private and parochial schools.

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