A Boarding School In The 'Hood

Students at Washington's SEED Public Charter School.
This Against the Grain commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.

The most important and impressive boarding school graduation ceremony in the country took place Saturday in Anacostia, one of Washington, D.C.'s lousiest neighborhoods. The school has no massive endowment, no secret society, no mahogany paneling and no posh headmaster's house. There are no alumni. That's because the SEED Public Charter School's commencement ceremony was its very first.

There were 21 members of the Class of 2004 and all 21 are going to college.

That's one of the reasons why there wasn't a dry eye in the house on Saturday. Ten minutes never passed without a standing ovation. Parents, siblings and cousins didn't just cheer the kids, they shrieked with joy and pride.

Valedictorian Eboni-Rose Thompson said "no thank you" to Stanford and Princeton and will go to the University of Pennsylvania instead. Sophia Echavarria, however, will carry the SEED banner at Princeton. SEED kids will matriculate at Georgetown, Howard, Ohio Wesleyan and ten other schools.

Full disclosure: I'm in the bag for the SEED school. I wasn't at commencement as a reporter but as a friend and that's why my eyes weren't dry either. My wife has made two documentaries about SEED and I have heard the detailed, amazing stories of the adversity some of the kids have met. I've seen the dedication of staffers like admissions director Leslie Poole. When my daughter became a bat mitzvah two weeks ago, she asked that donations be made to SEED instead of the customary gifts.

It's hard to come into contact with SEED and not root for it.

Batting 1.000 in this neighborhood is nothing short of miraculous. Nine of 10 kids at SEED come from homes below the poverty line. The same percentage comes from single parent or no parent homes. All the students are black or Hispanic and the school is in a part of town white people rarely see.

Of course, the very idea of a successful boarding school in a neighborhood like this is miraculous, and odd. The SEED school was founded in 1998 by two young management consultants, Eric Adler and Raj Vinnakota, who had the credentials and brains to make zillions on K Street or Wall Street. Instead they launched an important education experiment that will be copied in other cities and that has already turned around scores of lives.

The idea behind SEED was simple: educating kids requires a safe, secure environment where learning is deeply valued by all members of the community. And good teachers.

There was another idea at work: if this most intense of experiments didn't succeed with the country's under-privileged children, what would? What could?

Adler and Vinnakota delivered what they promised and more by unleashing an extraordinary arsenal of fundraising skill, entrepreneurial know-how, idealism and charisma.

The school started with 40 students in space rented from a children's museum. It now has over 300 students in grades 7-12 and has its own campus with new, attractive buildings and dorms. Students must pass through a "gate" of strict academic achievement before they can enter the high school and many need an extra year to do it. Many will not make it, about half in the case of the Class of 2004.

SEED thinks of itself, and feels like, a college preparatory school -- it's about sending kids to college and the world beyond. Top students have the opportunity to go to Greece for a summer. All students will learn table manners. The dorm "houses" are named after colleges. The mix up of newly-made prep school traditions and the aesthetic of Washington teen street life is a hoot to glimpse.

Remarkably, SEED is a public school in one of the most dysfunctional systems in the country. It is charter school and functions very separately from the public school culture and bureaucracy. But SEED does not have the luxury of selecting its students; by law, they must be picked by lottery. The success SEED has had did not come from plucking the best students from public schools.

Though SEED does get public funds, Adler and Vinnakota have supplemented them with over $20 million in private donations. Batting 1.000 is very expensive: too expensive, certainly, to be a broad solution to the problems of schools in our inner cities.

But not too expensive to take many, many children out bad schools, bad neighborhoods and, often, bad homes and turn them in to college students. SEED will be doing that for a long time and the Class of 2004 will certainly come back for many more graduations. And SEED will inspire boarding schools in other cities.

You wouldn't doubt that if you were at the graduation. New seeds will somehow emerge from the teachers, former teachers, friends, donors, administrators and family in the audience. The energy of this profound ceremony, the experiment's first success, was immense. In his remarks, Eric Adler drew not a second of attention to his own moving story and accomplishment. Raj Vinnakota bounced and beamed as he handed out the diplomas like a new father of 21.

In her valedictory address, Eboni-Rose Thompson said something about each of her classmates. One of them, she said, brings "all of your energy into anything that looks remotely promising." I imagine that was exactly how Eric Adler, Raj Vinnakota and their devoted staff must have sowed SEED. Their idea is too good not to spread.

Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the Editoral Director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.

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By Dick Meyer