The students are all neatly dressed in uniforms. The average classroom has 14 kids, and each of them is prepared, engaged, and eager to learn. Outside of class, students get regular exposure to professionals in a variety of fields. In other words, this place boasts many of the advantages that you would find at any good private school.
That's what makes the SEED Public Charter School of Washington, DC such a bold step in educational reform. Opened in 1998 as the country's first urban public boarding school, SEED (Schools for Educational Evolution and Development) currently has an enrollment of 230 disadvantaged DC students who are all preparing to go to college. The school is creating a new educational model that founders Eric Adler and Rajiv Vinnakota plan to replicate nationwide.
"We really want to be working with families, not removing kids from families," says Adler, now executive director of the SEED Foundation, the umbrella organization for the SEED School and for future SEED schools. SEED schools are boarding schools because of Adler and Vinnakota's belief that the quality of a child's education is seriously compromised if she lives in an unstable home or neighborhood. At the same time, the founders have made it a point to build their campus in the southeast-DC community that the school serves.
Students go home some weekends, and the school encourages parents to volunteer. As Adler explains, "We want a strong relationship with the parents so that wherever the child turns, there's a united front supporting education."
Students are selected by lottery to enter SEED in seventh grade. If, after two years at SEED, students still aren't ready to enter high school, they simply don't: Although students are never asked to leave the school for academic reasons, they are regularly held back. "The standards that we use can seem grossly high and unfair," Vinnakota explains. "But they're not. They're college preparatory."
It was a shared belief in the power of education that brought Adler and Vinnakota together. Vinnakota — the son of a college professor and a second-grade teacher — took a leave in 1996 from Mercer Management Consulting to research issues of urban education. Through a mutual acquaintance, Vinnakota met Adler, a former prep- school physics teacher who had enrolled as a student at Wharton after eight years in the classroom.
As Adler and Vinnakota embark on plans to replicate the first SEED school, they are regularly reminded of why they first got involved with educational reform. For Adler, affirmation happened one day last spring, when he overheard a visitor asking a SEED sophomore what his summer plans were. "The kid said, 'I'm trying to get a summer job in Paris,' " Adler recalls. "I was just floored, because there are several leaps there: A. There is a Paris. B. I'm allowed to go. C. I might be able to figure out how. D. I think I'll try. It was a moment when I saw that we have made this child realize that the world is his to experience."
Learn more about the SEED Foundation on the Web (www.seedfoundation.com).
A version of this article appeared in the May 2003 issue of Fast Company magazine.