My wife and I were extremely fortunate recently to have a personal tour of the brand-new Friendship Tech Prep Academy Public Charter School in Ward 8. Traveling south in our car on Martin Luther King Avenue in Anacostia away from Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter School we passed St. Elizabeths Hospital on a road that resembled one more commonly found in rural America as opposed to a street located just miles from the United States Capitol. Across from Gateway D.C., a park and hub for community activities, on our right appeared a modern blue steel and glass structure that looked like it sprang out of a wishing well. We were joined by Sean Gough, Friendship’s director of corporate and community relations. The visit was lead by Rusty Shaw, Jr., the man who designed the building from the firm Architecture, incorporated.
When you enter the 59,000 square foot building the first impression that you get is that the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) focused school was built to emphasize a feeling of community. The common areas are exceedingly large with many of the corridors measuring 20 feet or more. Adorning the walls on each of the three floors are the school’s core values. In extraordinarily tall letters are words such as “caring,” “respect,” “patience,” “responsibility,” and “confidence.” Mr. Shaw explained that these over-sized spaces are intended for students to be able to complete group projects together. I imagined that the concepts high in the air surrounding the young people as they work provide the ground rules for their collaborative efforts.
One of the goals of the LEED Silver certified project, according to Mr. Shaw, was to maximize the use of light. Boy, he was not kidding. Everywhere you go the giant windows let in an abundance of sunshine as if the rays themselves will elevate the academic level of the learning going on inside. On the entrance level we see a multipurpose room and the first of the specialized classrooms. This is the SMART (Science, Math, and Research Technology) Laboratory equipped by Creative Learning Systems, the same company that supplied the devices for the Robotics Laboratory on the school’s third floor. The lab is filled with computers and their associated equipment. Students will be able to share their assignments on expansive monitors, again reinforcing the team approach to learning.
The theme of cooperation extends to the 26 classrooms. Many are separated by sound-proof dividers. I pictured teachers working with their assigned group of 20 to 25 students for part of a period and then at some prearranged point throwing these partitions open so that kids can benefit from the knowledge of two instructors and the power of the collective contemplation of ideas. There are other exciting innovations here. Each space has a smart board but the technology has been upgraded to eliminate the need for a screen. The systems are operated by touching the projected images. The designers have also gotten rid of blackboards. Entire walls, some 40 feet in length, are white boards that work with dry erase markers. The fact that teaching can be conducted without boundaries is a constant reminder of the unlimited potential of each pupil in the room.
Another goal in creating this building, explained Mr. Shaw, was to create an atmosphere that is found at a typical college for the 650 six through twelfth grade students that will shortly inhabit this space. All I can say is job well done. When I entered the biology and chemistry laboratories that are found on the second and third floors it brought me right back to my undergraduate days at the George Washington University. However, these rooms are brighter, neater, and better equipped than I remember from my experience.
I was informed that Friendship has invested $18 million in Tech Prep and it was clear to me that each and every cent was spent intentionally. Teacher workrooms, offices, and conference rooms can be found on each level. The third floor has a roof top greenhouse to support those who choose a career in the environmental sciences.
The location was also purposely selected. Right next door is the new headquarters of the Department of Homeland Security, which will offer a ready-made location for future internships and employment. Also on this campus will be a college or university combined with a cluster of high technology businesses. Each student will be prepared to enter the workforce not only due to the school’s academic training but because all eleventh and twelfth graders will be dual-enrolled in college at no cost to themselves. Also found a few feet away is Friendship’s Southeast Elementary Academy, a pre-Kindergarten to fifth grade charter school that will act as a feeder to Tech Prep.
It is well recognized that children from this area of town have been under-served, as is often unfortunately the case with those living in poverty. It is impossible not to be optimistic regarding the future of kids from Anacostia when you see Friendship’s Tech Prep for yourself. The trip made me feel overwhelmingly grateful once again for the efforts to help others that characterize our local charter school movement, and it was clear from our time here that Friendship PCS is setting the standard in this regard.