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SCHOOL WITHOUT BOOKS

Charter ‘designed to ensure...enough qualified personnel’

for hospitality industry falls short of students’ expectations

(Published May 22, 2000)

By JOHN DeVAULT

Special to The Common Denominator

Carolina Green was looking for something better when she placed her granddaughter in a brand-new charter school last September.

Bright but rambunctious, the 15-year-old was talking back to her teachers at Francis Junior High School and hanging out with friends who were, Green asserted, "brainwashing" her. "The public schools have some students who are very rude," she said disapprovingly.

So the new Marriott Hospitality Public Charter High School seemed perfect to Green, who is raising her granddaughter and asked that the girl’s name not be used in this story.

Marriott Hospitality High, established to "promote hospitality careers for D.C. residents," is funded with millions of dollars from Marriott Corp. and other hotel and restaurant industry leaders. Its brochure promises "a progressive academic curriculum that promotes high levels of student effort and academic achievement." The school is located at 410 Eighth St. NW, near MCI Center.

"They said they are very particular with the students," Green recalled.

So she was shocked when she learned that Marriott Hospitality High lacks just one thing: books.

On June 9, Green’s granddaughter and her schoolmates will complete an entire academic year without a single book in any class – textbooks included.

Green now says sending her granddaughter to Marriott Hospitality was "the biggest mistake I ever made. How can the students develop their brains without any books?" she asked.

The school touts high academic goals for its students. The school’s full-color, professionally produced brochure says that Marriott Hospitality will prepare students for "management careers" and "academic advancement in a competitive post-secondary institution."

"We’re not looking at this as a vo-tech," said Principal Flossie Johnson. She said she expects "most" of her students to go on to college. Johnson said the school is setting up partnerships with the Culinary Institute of America and the hospitality programs at Cornell University, Howard University and other colleges.

"We’re preparing (students) for higher education," she said.

But the only place that books are currently found at Marriott Hospitality is in photos in the promotional brochure: students were given books just for the photo shoot. Green’s granddaughter said that when visitors come to the school, administrators tell students to "keep your notebooks open" – to hide the absence of books.

Nazanin Samari said a visit to the school late last year aroused her suspicions about its mission. Samari, a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute who has been a longtime volunteer tutor of a Marriott Hospitality student, said the school’s guidance counselor, JoAnne Hurlston, told her that the school was established "because Marriott was having a hard time finding properly prepared employees" in front-line positions like desk clerks, waiters and housekeepers.

Samari pointed out that Marriott Hospitality’s student body is entirely African-American and Hispanic, and that the school recruited the majority of its 65 students from minority-heavy neighborhoods like Shaw and Columbia Heights.

"It seems that way too early, these kids are being put on a track that’s much too limited as to their future lives," she said. "My assessment is that they’re getting D.C. public education dollars to train Marriott employees."

In an interview last month, guidance counselor Hurlston seemed to confirm that description of the school’s goals. Hurlston, who came to her current job from the personnel department at the Bethesda Hyatt Hotel, said Marriott Hospitality was "designed to ensure that we have enough qualified personnel....The hospitality industry needs people with the right personality."

"You need to smile and greet people willingly, not like it’s a chore," she said, "It’s extremely difficult to find a good server. Nothing is more difficult than to have a server and you can’t understand them. So you need to learn English grammar."

Hurlston said she sets a monthly career focus for the students, such as, "If you’re a door person, how do you stand? You can’t stand like you don’t care. I have them put their hands behind their back," she said. Other lessons, she said, have included how to prepare for a job interview and on-the-job etiquette.

Asked if the school’s sponsors, which include at least two hotel chains and Washington’s hotel and restaurant associations, had a bigger interest in producing well-mannered waiters and desk clerks for their industry than in preparing students for college, Hurlston replied, "That’s probably fair."

Emily Vetter, head of the Hotel Association of Washington, strongly disagreed. "I can’t believe somebody at the school told you that," she said. She called Marriott Hospitality "our baby" and insisted, "This (program) isn’t about producing happy waiters."

Vetter said that every graduate of Marriott Hospitality is guaranteed either a job or a college scholarship. She said that a scholarship fund is currently being developed for the students, who are all in either ninth or 10th grade this year. "They’ll get whatever we have in the kitty to give them," she said.

"We want to work with Southeastern University in Southwest D.C., which is basically a business school, on a two-year program. For a lot of kids, a two-year program will do it," Vetter said.

Green’s granddaughter, a ninth grader, said she has a tougher time at Marriott Hospitality High than she did at Francis Junior High because she doesn’t have books now.

"Some of the things I don’t understand, and I can’t go back and try to learn it my own self," she said.

"I don’t feel like I’m ready at all for next year," she added. "I feel like I’m still stuck in the same grade as last year."

Green said she has called the school repeatedly to complain that her granddaughter has no books in any of her classes. She said that when she first visited Marriott Hospitality before it opened, it lacked desks, chairs and books. She said school officials promised they would have all three when the school opened. The school got chairs and worktables, but it never came through with books.

Principal Johnson gave seemingly conflicting explanations for the lack of books in a mid-April interview. At first she said the school lacked books because of a funding hold-up by the D.C. government. "You think you’re escaping politics when you get into a charter school, but you’re not," she said.

Johnson also said she "could easily have selected books, but I wanted our teachers to have a chance to preview materials." Later in the same interview, she said, "We’ve ordered books." And finally she claimed, "We have them, but we just haven’t passed them out yet."

Johnson defended the school’s failure to provide books to its students by calling them "just supplemental materials."

"It’s a poor teacher if you have to depend on books to present your lesson," she said.

Asked last week to clarify her explanation for the absence of books, Johnson repeated her claim that the school does have books but has chosen not to give them to students.

"This is the end of the school year," she said. "Next year we’ll pass out the books."

"It was decided to see where our students are, where their needs are, before passing out textbooks," she said. "Our teachers are using other materials to meet their objectives. They’re using their creativity."

Nelson Smith, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, said last week that his group was required by law to inspect each charter school before it opened to ensure the school had "the necessary things like teachers’ lesson plans on file, classroom furniture and textbooks."

"I’m not aware that they have no textbooks," he said of Marriott Hospitality. "I’ll have to check on that."

The absence of books seems surprising given the school’s heavy-hitting sponsors. The school, one of almost 40 charter schools in the District, is a joint project of the Hotel Association of Washington and the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington – the leading promotional groups for the hospitality industry in the city. The school was established with a $1 million grant from the Marriott foundation, as well as a $250,000 grant from Hyatt Corp. and $100,000 contributions from Loews Hotels and MeriStar Corp., the largest hotel management firm in the United States.

Some students said the lack of books is a serious roadblock to learning.

Victoria Scott, 16, a ninth-grader, said, "I have trouble with math anyway. And then when I get home, my mind is like a blank. If you didn’t understand in class, you don’t have any references to help you with your homework."

Other students said not having books isn’t a problem. Kenneth Jackson, 16, a ninth grader, said that his teachers hand out packets of photocopied material to make up for the lack of books. "The teacher goes over everything we need to know," he said. "And if we don’t understand, she goes over it with us (again)."

Said Kenneth Butler, 16, a 10th-grader, "It’s easier with a book, but the packets are okay. I feel as if we learn." Still, he said that he would return to Gonzaga High School next year. "At least we had old, dilapidated books there," he said.

Green’s granddaughter said inexperienced teachers, several with more experience in the hospitality industry than in a school, make things worse.

According to Principal Johnson, the school’s English teacher is a one-time chef and its Spanish teacher, who has a limited teaching background, is the wife of the general manager of the Omni-Shoreham Hotel.

"At Francis, they made us do work," Green’s granddaughter said. But at Marriott Hospitality, she recounted, teachers often give in to student requests for a free period. Her math class, she said, is "just like a play-time period. You can do anything you want – you can curse, you can sleep."

She added that when she asked her math teacher for help, "She was like, ‘Whoa, girl, you ask so many questions.’ I’m like, ‘That’s my job to ask questions.’"

Green said that after working as a housekeeper at the Washington Hilton for many years, she wants a better future for her granddaughter. "I don’t want her to work in a restaurant or a hotel," she said. "I want her to continue with her schooling." Both Green and her granddaughter agree that June 9 will be the teenager’s last day at Marriott Hospitality High.

"She’s not going back to that school," Green said.

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator