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Friendship Public Charter Schools: Educating the Whole Child by Natasha Abbas


y child came to the Collegiate Academy from a magnet school in Montgomery County,” says Edwan Fon about her daughter FriMaikah Fon, a 12th-grader at Friendship Public Charter School’s Collegiate Academy. “Usually the assumption is that it’s a DC school, so it might be less challenging and less rigorous, but I found that to be to the contrary. She has to work extremely hard because instruction is rigorous, and the curriculum is challenging.” Founded in 1997, the Friendship Public Charter School (FPCS) grew out of the Friendship House Association, a 100-year-old social services agency, and opened its Chamberlain and Woodridge Elementary campuses in 1998. Today, with five campuses and a sixth proposed, FPCS educates nearly 4,000 students annually and is the largest public charter school in the District. “The school was founded to try to provide a better education for kids in the poorest neighborhoods. It was not a school that was opened for wealthy kids but to provide the same type of opportunity that students at private schools have,” says FPCS founder and Chairman Donald Hense. Accordingly, FPCS students are offered classes in art, music, foreign languages, media and technology, as well as advanced placement college credit classes, travel abroad programs and a multitude of after-school activities. “What is available to any kid going to Sidwell Friends in terms of programming, we do at Friendship Public Charter School, and from day one, that was our intent.” With a 90 percent graduation rate, and 95 percent of graduates accepted into colleges and universities, FPCS seems to be making the mark. The Friendship “family” consists of: the Chamberlain Elementary campus on Potomac Avenue SE in Ward 6, serving approximately 700 students from pre-school through fifth grade; the Woodridge Elementary campus on Carlton Avenue NE in Ward 5, serving approximately 500 students from preschool through eighth grade; the Blow-Pierce Junior Academy on 19th Street NE in Ward 7, serving approximately 700 students in sixth through eighth grade; the Collegiate Academy at Carter G. Woodson on Minnesota Avenue NE in Ward 7, serving approximately 1,200 students, grades nine through 12; and the Friendship Southeast Elementary Academy on Milwaukee Place SE in Ward 8, serving approximately 350 students from kindergarten to sixth grade. Formerly called Edison Friendship Public Char122 ★ HillRag |December 2007

ter School, FPCS’s 9-year partnership with the school management company Edison Schools Inc. came to an end this past June after a 3-year phaseout. As Hense describes, FPCS matured out of the partnership and began looking toward implementing their own unique academic design based around the concept of “the whole child.” This school year has marked the first year of phasing in the new academic design, which FPCS Chief Academic Officer Michael Cordell characterizes as standards-based, student-centered and focused on enrichment beyond the classroom. The curriculum design approach is referred to as “understanding by design” and is based on inquiry and problem solving. According to Cordell, it is a curricular approach that is unique in DC public schools. Before planning lessons, teachers must identify the essential questions within a lesson, as well as the knowledge and skills that are needed to address these questions. “We try and push teachers to do two things: make global connections with their work and make connections to real world everyday activities,” says Cordell. Other characteristics of FPCS’s new curriculum will include individualized and small group instruction, the use of student-friendly language, and creating classroom environments that are student centered. For instance, rather than a teacher always being at the front of a classroom behind a desk, students and teachers can sit together.

The Whole Child “When you look at the whole child, you look at their academic well-being, but also their physical, social and emotional well-being,” explains Cordell. To meet the needs of the whole child, FPCS provides a mental health counseling program through which students can receive direct counseling, direct therapy, outside support for families and referrals to other types of outside organizations. Each campus also has a Student Staff Support Team consisting of teachers, parents, mental health clinicians, nurses, security, cafeteria staff, principals and experts such as speech pathologists who come together to support students who may be facing academic or emotional challenges. “The approach is how do we connect all the different adults dealing with these kids, if they have issues? How do we connect them together so they might problem-solve about why a certain student might be struggling in school?” explains Cordell. According to findings from the California Healthy Kids Survey, an anonymous student and school staff study of attitudes and risk behaviors, students at FPCS were facing many pressures that were affecting their emotional well-being and thus

their ability to focus on school. “Being located in an area with a lot of high poverty, we found that some of the kids had social concerns that needed to be addressed within the school,” explains Charlene Roach-Glymph, who oversees the FPCS mental health program. “Most schools don’t have a mental health program,” she notes. For students like Fri-Maikah Fon, knowing that the FPCS faculty is looking beyond just academic performance makes a difference. “The staff and faculty care about the students,” says Fon. “They are there to teach and help and guide and not just be there as teachers.” FPCS administrators admit the challenge then becomes recruiting teachers who can meet such high standards both in and out of the classroom. “The competition for good teachers is getting stiff, so you have got to look at how you can recruit, train and maintain teachers,” says Hense. To maintain an exceptional faculty, this year FPCS increased teacher salaries, created a retirement program for faculty, and hired a director of talent to recruit skilled teachers. Hense explains that these advancements were made possible with resources reallocated from their partnership with Edison Schools Inc. Because it is a standards-based school, FPCS teachers also receive support in areas of professional development around standards and creative curriculums, describes Chamberlain Elementary school teacher Monique Abbott-Davis. “Friendship does a very good job with supporting their teachers,” says Abbott-Davis. This school year also saw the creation of a culture team composed of parents, teachers, mentors and principals who work to create a school cultural environment conducive to both teaching and learning at each school. “Their first area of concern was teacher morale, and the culture team worked on projects to make the teachers feel more appreciated,” describes Abbot-Davis. “Having a culture team really supports everyone.”

Bringing Technology To The Classroom For students, teachers and parents, technology is a key component of the educational experience at FPCS. To keep students more engaged, classrooms are equipped with web-based and computerized instruction tools such as interactive whiteboards that allow students and teachers to dialogue about lessons in inventive ways. Prem-Raj Ruffin, an AP Calculus and Physics teacher at the Collegiate Academy says, “I would describe FPCS as a place where there is creative teaching and creative methods.” With the help

LEFT: Friendship Public Charter School Fourth Grade Student in Class RIGHT: Pre- K Students at Friendship Public Charter School. Photos by: Friendship Public Charter Schools

of unique facilities called SmartLabs, Ruffin says he is able to make podcasts of his lectures and then make them available on CD and DVD so that students can check out lectures on different units. He can also develop interactive tutorials for lessons that students can then use to work at their own pace. SmartLabs are innovative high-tech learning labs in each school building that allow students to explore science, technology and media technology. As of yet, few schools around the country offer this type of technology, in which there are different stations centered around different curriculums and concepts. For example, students can build virtual bridges when studying mass, investigate soundwaves when studying music, or learn about animation at an art station. “What we are also trying to do is learn how to do independent study and work in small groups. If you talk about what 21st century skill sets are, 21st century skill sets are working in teams,” says Hense. With the help of the SmartLabs, FPCS was one of the first schools in the District to form a robotics team, which now competes nationally. “Our technology around the school is great,” says Fri-Maikah Fon, adding that many students use the SmartLabs independently outside of class to work on projects such as producing music. FPCS parents are also very pleased with the emphasis on technology at FPCS. “My child is a very curious child, and her teachers have to continue challenging her because she runs through her work,” says Edwan Fon. “The SmartLab has really given her support for the type of things she is thinking about because her head races. In that lab there are so many opportunities, it is one of the avenues that she gets to help her curiosity.”

Beyond The Classroom The faculty and administration of FPCS recognize the importance of stimulating this innate curiosity. When students express interest in certain areas, it is important to be able to

connect them with opportunities where they can further cultivate those interests, describes Director of Community Relations Barry Lofton. “We recognize that we are in a city with a lot of resources,” says Lofton. As a result, he says, FPCS focuses on creating partnerships with many local organizations like the Kennedy Center, the YMCA, DC Arts and Humanities Education Collaborative, and Concerned Black Men, which has a strong mentorship program for young men. As Lofton describes, many local organizations are very excited to hear from schools that want to create partnerships and develop programs for local students. Similarly, FPCS is committed to providing a strong after-school program environment so that young people remain stimulated through sports, band, dance, chess club, debate team and robotics club, just to name a few activities. “Our goal is to try to keep as many kids in school as possible until 6 or 7 at night,” says Hense, adding that some campuses remain open until 10 p.m. “We are community schools, so you want students in safe environments. If they are running their clubs, etc., after school, you feel relatively safe that they are OK.” Tracy Scales, parent of an eighth-grader at the Woodridge Campus, says she is appreciative of the supervision and care students receive both during school and after. “They don’t let kids fall behind, they always let you know where they are and what they need,” says Scales. Through regular reading and math assessments every six weeks, teachers who are always willing to stay after class for tutoring, and an array of after-school activities, Scales says FPCS parents can always feel comfortable their children are being cared for. “That’s my daughter’s second family,” says Scales. “I never have to worry about her when she’s there.”

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To learn more about Friendship Public Charter Schools visit or contact Barry Lofton at 202-281-1700. ■ ★ 123

Educating the Whole Child  
Educating the Whole Child  

by Natasha Abbas ★ 122 ★ HillRag ★ December 2007