Inner-city prep

SEED’s public boarding school in Washington, D.C. is profiled in The Inner-City Prep School Experience in the New York Times Magazine.

Every Sunday night, 325 students in grades 6 through 12, most of them African-American, most from single-parent, lower-income families in Southeast and Northeast, pass through the gates of SEED — the first inner-city public boarding school in the country, with admission by lottery. And for the next five days they do what other prep-school kids do: in uniforms of pressed khaki pants and polo shirts, they take classes in Spanish, precalculus, U.S. history and other subjects. They meet with staff members at the school’s College Café to talk about college applications. They spend their afternoons in chess clubs, on the basketball court or in poetry workshops.

They go home on weekends to neighborhoods where their friends are dropping out of high school, joining gangs and raising babies.

SEED spends $35,000 per student to cover teaching plus five days a week of room, board and extra supervision and mentoring. I wonder if that’s really cost effective. There are “no excuses” schools that teach values and academics for a lot less. Most extend the school day but not to 24 hours.

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  1. It’s hard to tell if the $35,000 per student is cost-effective though it’s certainly comparable to the cost of private, residential prep schools on the east coast. If the majority of students at SEED go on to lead productive lives then the costs will be well worth it.

    Many of the kids from their neighborhoods will end up incarcerated. The cost to incarcerate someone these days is close to that $35,000 per year figure.

  2. I think it is money well spent. Teaching in an inner city school, I know what happens day in and day out. These students will be successful.

  3. I agree it is money well spent.

    Are there other programs like this across the country? If yes, how are they doing getting kids to complete the program?

  4. It’s really apparent in urban ed that unstable home lives produce unstable children. The boarding school environment can create the stable home environment that so many students are lacking. It would be great if it was cheaper, and perhaps it can be, but I think it would be worth it even if much more was being spent. It’s completely true that spending the money now will cheaper for us all in the long run- perhaps we’ll be able to reduce the number of inmates rather than increase it as we have for so many years. What is more, these students won’t simply stay out of jail, they’ll thrive and will likely contribute quite a bit to society.

  5. –It’s really apparent in urban ed that unstable home lives produce unstable children.

    Why is this causality apparent? Why isn’t it just a correlation, with other factors as the source of the instability?

    My bias is with your statement, but I like to challenge my biases. What’s the evidence that you can take the kid out of the ghetto and keep the ghetto out of the kid? What’s the evidence that they will thrive? What’s the evidence that a boarding school without parental support is enough? Are the unstable homes the ones likely to put their kids in SEED?

    What kind of parents would support a boarding school? What kind of parents would think that a boarding school is offering an important structure? The kind that don’t care?
    “Tolya Elliott-Chandler was in the minority of SEED parents who had graduated from college, and she pushed her sons academically, but she was not convinced that she could outweigh the forces at a traditional public high school and the neighborhood. She knew there were worse fates for her sons than feeling homesick.”

    So here’s at least one example of a parent whose self-selection bias seems strong in the first place. Good for her and her kid, but it undermines the argument that all you need to do is create a stable home environment for success. This child had a whole lot of good home environment in the first place.

  6. Soapbox0916 says:


    Since you mentioned incarcerated, I happen to have some figures on that. In Indiana, for state prison it is $74,000 for the first year and $57,000 for each year after that. D.C. would be considerably higher than that. Those are just the base costs too. There are ton of other hidden costs as well that are not in those figures.

    Institutional care varies widely, but it is often over $100,000 annually according to my friends that work in the mental health/assisted living fields when everything is figured up.

    Frankly $35,000 seems really cheap for the DC area and for what is being offered.

    I get the adults to help transition back into life after they have been incarcerated, homeless, and basically gone through hell on earth, prevention would be so much kinder and less expensive.
    So anything that can help those most at risk while still kids is worth every penny and then some.

  7. Nick and Allison have introduced the topic of whether unstable home life has a causal relationship to school achievement. Let me suggest that, as both an urban parent and as a social worker with considerable neighborhood experience, few urban teachers have much factual information about the home lives of their students. I would suggest that few urban teachers live within the same neighborhood as their students. Home visits are the exception rather than the rule, with the vast majority of parent-teacher contact, when it occurs, happening on school turf.

    As an example–when a teacher observes a student falling asleep in class, is this seen as avoidance behavior, evidence of boredom, a medication side effect, or the result of staying up too late in a chaotic home? As Allison points out, one’s bias may color the assumption.

    If the issue is in fact an unstable home life, one has to wonder if the surplus $20,000 or so (the difference between residential and non-residential schooling) might make as much, or more, difference if handed directly to the family.

  8. We’re working our way, very slowly, through the Up series of videos by Michael Apted ( It follows a group of British citizens, from the age of 7, checking in every 7 years. The most recent episode was 49 Up.

    As an American viewer, I was fascinated that many of the children were–at 7–in boarding schools. The middle class and working class children were likely to be at home, but the upper-middle class children, and the children of the struggling poor, were living at school. For the London youths, that meant a 5-day boarding program, like SEEDS. I believe that Britain has tried this–and a few years ago, the Brits tried to institute a program of sending difficult youth to boarding schools, which doesn’t seem to have taken off. So, this approach has been tried, and it would be interesting to see if anyone has studied the British experience.

  9. “one has to wonder if the surplus $20,000 or so (the difference between residential and non-residential schooling) might make as much, or more, difference if handed directly to the family.”

    C’mon. Ever see what happens to lottery winners? They blow through it as fast as possible, and then sit around, waiting for the next check. This isn’t remotely logical, unless you moved the family out of the housing project, gave them some money management courses, and it’s still a crap shoot. Read Nicole Adrian Blanc’s book.

    And teachers are hardly welcomed in students’ homes anymore. Many people in the inner city consider home visits to be spying (by social workers, nurses, or teachers) and resent the intrusion.

  10. Well, Kate, I think that the welcome is a function of the relationship.

    However, be that as it may, if a higher income makes no difference to family stability and from thence to school achievement, then perhaps we would do better just to focus on improving schools. But, I recall a study (heard in on NPR–sorry I cannot provide a better citation) that was looking at mental health of native american youngsters. It happened to be a fairly small and isolated population in some town some where. Coincidentally there were two events concurrent with the time of the study. One was a settlement for some past wrong that was settled upon most members of the community. The second was the opening of some industry that provided much greater employment opportunities all around. This is the sort of naturalistic study that researchers dream of. But, guess what? The incidence of mental health issues in the population under study declined.

    BTW–as regards housing projects–my urban school district hired someone to study mobility and its effects on elementary kids in the 10 or so lowest income schools in the district. They had one outlier school–essentially no mobility. Why? because it sat in the middle of a housing project. There are many things that can be done better vis a vis public housing (such as not “ghettoizing” poor folks into great pools of similarly situated folks), but one thing is certain–it contributes to stability.

  11. $35,000 is about the tuition charged by private residential prep schools on the east coast, true; but!

    1. Those are some of the very best schools in the country;

    2. They likely need to manage excess demand by charging tuition in excess of what’s actually required to keep the place going;

    3. Many students at private residential prep schools aren’t paying the full tuition; Choate claims 276 of 831 students receiving financial aid (i.e. discounts) this year, with 115 students paying $300, and 197 paying $10,000 or less;

    4. But of course these places typically have sizable endowments, so attempting to calculate the *cost* per student from the *price* per student can be misleading.

    In any case, ~$20,000 to look after a child for a year seems a little excessive (and that’s if you assume that $15,000 is reasonable for the ordinary education component). This is about $110 per weekday for nine months.

  12. The excerpt below is the most important part of the article:

    “Some kids don’t last beyond the first year or two at SEED. Until recently, the school lost about 20 percent of the student body each year — mostly in middle school and mostly boys. The incoming class of 70 students slowly dissipated each year so that by senior year, the remaining students barely filled a gym bleacher. The high attrition made the school’s much-lauded college acceptance rate less impressive: If a class of 70 seventh graders fell to 20 students by the time of graduation, those remaining 20 students were arguably among the best — at least in terms of self-discipline and a willingness to stick it out — of the original class.”

    If a troubled public school could get rid of the most challenging 70% of its students and just keep the higher-functioning 30%, it would likely achieve miracle results — especially if it had $35,000 per student to spend.

  13. “One was a settlement for some past wrong that was settled upon most members of the community.”

    Yes, those are called casinos.Let’s see if tribal members actually do better in school after casinos are built. And tribal communities have far more cohesive social structure, even when decayed by alcohol, than do inner city public housing units.

    Taking kids away from dysfunctional households can give them a fighting chance, but who decides what’s dysfunctional? Are the Amish? Mackenzie Philips’ family?

    Getting out of an apartment when the TV is always on, where Mom’s boyfriends stray in and out, and where there’s never any privacy can be the best thing in the world. But how to explain to the kid with the golden ticket that the only home he or she has ever known is all f*cked up?