Innovation Blog

SEED Charter School:  Scale it Up!

By Shlomo Maital

Vinnakota and Adler

Many countries are aware that their educational systems are in huge trouble.  America is one.  The first step taken by President George W. Bush after his election in 2000 was to initiate and pass the No Child Left Behind Act, which implemented a long series of metrics to measure school achievement.  The result:  School teachers taught kids to study to pass the tests, rather than to learn.  And worse — many countries, including Israel, are in the process of imitating America’s mis-step.

A CBS TV 60 Minutes segment reveals an innovative educational experiment that works.  It should be scaled up, not only in the US but abroad.   (The founders are starting a new SEED school in Baltimore, and then will open one in Cincinnati).   Here is how it works:

The school is called SEED.  It is sited in one of the worst slums in America, downtown Washington, D.C., an area ridden with crime and drugs. (This area is unimagineably awful; and it is within hailing distance of the Capitol, where America’s elected representatives and President meet.  It is a permanent unforgiveable blight on America, a rich country that regularly leaves behind many of its children and dooms them).    It is the first urban public boarding school.  Kids are chosen by lottery from those living in the district.  And the success rate is stunning.   Four years out of the last five, every graduating student was accepted for college.  Children enter at 7th and 8th grade.  They are almost all underperforming, because of where they live and go to school.  They quickly aspire to college. Many become the first in their families to graduate from high school, let alone college.

The school was founded by two businesspersons,  Raj Vinnakota and Eric Adler, who quit their jobs 13 years ago to pursue their dream.  They raised the money to start the school.  Operating expenses are covered by public funds.  It is expensive.  Annual cost for one child is $35,000.   But the investment is worthwhile; the human capital it creates is enormous.  The children who complete SEED go on to become creative productive citizens, rather than be doomed to a life of drugs and crime.

Vinnakota told 60 Minutes:

“There’s boarding schools for rich kids; why aren’t there boarding schools for poor kids?” Vinnakota said. “The intense academic environment, the 24-hour aspect and constant access to role models. Why wouldn’t all of those things be just as important for poor kids as it would be for rich kids?”

“We believe very strongly that there is a group of kids for whom the answer is a 24-hour supportive educational environment. And they’re not gonna have a shot if we don’t give it to them,” Adler added.

This is creative thinking.  It examines basic assumptions. It is assumed, naturally, that boarding schools are for rich kids.  Why?  Why not for poor kids?

The boarding aspect is vital.  Children rise early.  They start classes at 8 a.m.  They finish at 4. Then they have study hall.  They have ‘lights out’ at 9 pm or 10 pm.   They have no TV’s in their rooms, and no Facebook.  They have to read 45 minutes a day.  And they are taught not only ‘stuff’, but also life skills:   communication, speaking, social interaction.

The aspirations of the children are unlimited. But so are those of their teachers, who put in long long days, sometimes until after 10 pm.  And the principal is often the last to leave.

Many experts will say that an expensive model that costs $35,000 per child does not scale.  For poor neighborhoods, I believe I can prove that in the long run, social saving on prevented crime, drugs and incarceration more than justifies the investment.   But the issue here is not even economic or budgetary.  It is immoral to permit neighborhoods to exist where those born into it have zero hope.   Especially in wealthy countries like America.  Put a SEED school into every inner city slum.  Then another.  Then, watch America revitalize itself with the energy of those born into despair who suddenly are given hope by an understanding innovative society.