Urban Preppies

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It's 8:30 P.M., and the seventh-and eighth-grade residents of Howard House, one of the dorms at the SEED School in Washington, are only half an hour from bedtime. A group of 10 boys crowd around their tall boarding instructor, Marcus Allen, pleading for permission to stay up later. "Mr. Allen, I need to finish my project on the computer," says a diminutive boy, showing Allen his homework. Another begs to watch a game on TV. Most just want to talk to Allen, who has become a father figure to the students. It's a scene common in boarding schools, but these youngsters--98% African American, 79% from low-income homes — aren't your typical preppies. And they're not at some elite private academy. The SEED School is the nation's only publicly supported boarding secondary school in an inner-city setting.

Founded in 1998 by Eric Adler, 39, and Rajiv Vinnakota, 32, two former management consultants, SEED — its formal name is the Schools for Educational Evolution and Development — is a charter school, which means it receives public funds but operates independently of the school system. Tuition is free for its 310 male and female students in Grades 7 through 12. It is perhaps one of the most innovative and expensive experiments in educating low-income students.

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Kids live at SEED from Sunday evening to Friday afternoon and go home most weekends. The academic program is challenging. High school students are required to take four years of math and three of science and Spanish. To help those who aren't used to this level of work, class sizes are small — usually fewer than 14 students — the school day is an hour longer than at most D.C. public schools, and the focus, particularly in the lower grades, is on periodic tests that determine each student's progress. The school is not designed for kids with mental disabilities or behavior problems, but it is not an elite academy that caters only to the best and the brightest. Places are doled out strictly by lottery. Last spring 213 youngsters applied for the 140 spots in last fall's entering seventh-grade class.

Adler, who spent eight years teaching physics and working as dean of students in a Baltimore prep school, and Vinnakota, whose parents were teachers, built SEED on the premise that kids need a safe, stable place where they can concentrate on learning. They believe these kids have the best chance of succeeding and going on to college if they are nurtured before they get to high school. The pair opened SEED in the fall of 1998. Its first home was in a children's museum. Classes were held in the unused attic, and dorms were set up in an unoccupied building next door. A year later the two men found a vacant elementary-school building in the high-poverty area of southeast Washington and raised more than $12 million in donations from across the country and secured an additional $14 million in bonds to buy the site and rebuild on it. SEED moved to its current location in January 2001, and the campus, which is surrounded by federal parkland and construction for what will be a private town-house development, now includes two dorms, one for boys and one for girls, an academic building, a gym and a couple of playing fields.

The dorms are divided into "houses" of 10 to 14 students, which are named after universities, reflecting the school's emphasis on college preparation. Two students share each small room, which contains little more than twin beds, two desks and, for upperclassmen, desktop computers. The schedule is purposely intense. Each morning, after waking up at 5:45, the kids make their bed, get dressed in their uniform of khaki pants and white polo or Oxford shirt, then line up single file to go to the cafeteria for breakfast. Classes begin at 8 a.m. and last until 4 p.m. The late-afternoon hours are filled with extracurricular activities that range from choir to flag football. After dinner, the students go back to their dorms for an hour-long study hall before a half-hour of "quiet time," then to bed. There are few behavior problems. "They don't have a lot of time to get into that stuff," says Roz Fuller, the associate boarding director.

Still, adjusting to this tightly regimented atmosphere is difficult for many of the students. "There's too many rules," complains seventh-grader Avery Douglas, who, like most of the younger students, says his mom "made me come" to the school. Senior Eboni-Rose Thompson recalls that she "felt like my mom was trying to get rid of me" when she was enrolled as one of the first SEED students five years ago. But now she enjoys the small classes and appreciates extras like a trip to Greece and a 10college tour, funded by private donations.

Almost all SEED students plan to go to college. Many talk casually about applying to summer programs at schools like Cornell University or getting a job overseas. Parents are happy because they believe their kids are safe at the school. "It's given me peace of mind," says Joan Lyles, the guardian of Deon Milton, a senior.

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