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Each Tuesday evening, a yellow bus chugs down K Street amid the first wave of rush-hour traffic. Through the windows you can hear the teasing and laughter of nearly 15 Southeast high school students. Wearing backpacks and identical collared maroon shirts, they emerge onto the downtown Washington, D.C., street in front of Clifford Chance. The firm provides the school bus, the lawyers to individually tutor the students, and, of course, the pizza. The firm and the students are both part of a fledgling law-related charter school in Southeast Washington called Thurgood Marshall Academy. “I’m getting me some learning for real,” says one 10th grade girl who recently transferred to Thurgood Marshall from her public school. Three years after a handful of 20-somethings from Georgetown University Law Center’s Street Law Clinic presented a written proposal to the D.C. Public Charter School Board, the school is wrapping up its second full academic year. Besides Clifford Chance, several local firms have pitched in to make the education objectives of the school a reality. The firms include Ross, Dixon & Bell; Jenner & Block; Morgan, Lewis & Bockius; Fulbright & Jaworski; Williams & Connolly; Leftwich & Douglas; Arnold & Porter; and Sidley Austin Brown & Wood. Attorneys tutor and mentor the students, participate in school events, and serve on the school’s board of trustees. Some firms donated money to cover the high costs of implementing the school’s rigorous academic program. Although the D.C. government provided $10,000 per student, the school had to raise another $5,000 per student. The school is the first law-related charter school in the District, with 102 ninth and 10th graders. According to 28-year-old Director of Programs Katie Rusnak, the school aims to prepare the students for college and to “be aware of their place in a democracy … to be comfortable advocating for themselves and their communities.” To achieve this, traditional courses such as English and science emphasize such lawyerly skills as public speaking. The students are exposed to the law via Law Day, a once-a-year occasion when a local firm hosts the students with a curriculum developed by Georgetown University’s Street Law Clinic. The curriculum covers civil rights issues, such as school desegregation, and looks at legal issues that relate to gangs. The students also take law courses as part of their regular curriculum. The sophomore class, for example, studies constitutional law. The students have no shortage of homework to bring with them to Tuesday night tutoring. In one conference room, a 10th grade girl chatters on about Richard III and the First Amendment, while her classmates work on the final projects they must defend in front of a board of parents, school administrators, and others from the D.C. community in order to advance a grade. Progress at the school has not been without its growing pains for both faculty and students. The students say it has taken them a long time to get used to mandatory Saturday morning tutoring, the 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. school days, and the public speaking. For the administrators, Rusnak says, “It was a lot harder than we initially expected.” Rusnak and President and CEO Joshua Kern say that many of their students’ reading and writing skills fall between fourth-grade and seventh-grade levels. Incoming ninth-graders must attend summer school, where they are taught how to better manage their time and prepare for school. Kern says that only half of last year’s class was promoted to 10th grade. “When we first started, we did not expect we’d have to hold back all these students. For many of our students, it’s not going to be a four-year program.” But the students who remain at the academy are enthusiastic and hard-working. Rusnak says the students particularly enjoy going to Clifford Chance. “I get in trouble when we cancel. The students come up to me and say, ‘Why can’t we go to tutoring?’ ” Rusnak says of the few times tutoring was called off. Some students, such as 10th-grader Arthur Smith II, know that they are striding on untraveled ground. Smith recalls when Principal Joseph Feldman came to his middle school to speak: “He said, ‘There’s a new school opening, and you guys will make history being the first class.’ And that’s when I wanted to go to Thurgood Marshall.”

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