Supporting our Schools

As a mom with a fast-growing daughter, I think about our public school system a lot. Both of my parents attended public schools. They were fortunate to build great careers, and by the time they had to make a decision on my schooling they probably could have afforded to send me to a private school like many kids in our neighborhood. They enrolled me in public school because they wanted me to grow and learn in - and from - a culturally, racially and economically diverse community like they did. Of course, they were right, and to this day I am grateful for their decision.

My husband grew up in a poor family and attended 8 public schools by the time he finished high school. He holds the same appreciation for his public education that I do. Regardless of whether we could ever afford private school, our experiences are the reason our daughter will attend public school, in Ward 6, from K-12.

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My personal experience included seeing classmates struggle to focus and thrive in school because they didn't have access to the resources or stable home setting that many of us had. It's one reason I joined the Peace Corps and went to Guyana to teach literacy to low-income children. Most of my students didn't have running water at home, let alone books to read. Many came from homes where food was scarce and domestic violence was prevalent, so they were not positioned to be successful when they arrived in the classroom each day. I’m sure the performance metrics in our community wouldn’t have looked great if measured by a standardized test, but everyone worked hard, and worked together, to drive toward real improvement.

We live in a city where many kids, families and educators face those same challenges. However, an increasingly large number of our neighbors do not consider schools like Eastern, Dunbar and Cardozo as options for their children, deciding at the outset that their child will attend a public charter or private school instead of our local middle and high schools. There’s nothing wrong with those decisions, because every parent simply wants the best for their child. Many charters play an important role in lifting our community by providing specialized course-work to students in need of specialized attention, and offering quality education to a large number of the city’s homeless students.

DC public schools are funded using a formula that is based on the number of students in a given school, without regard for whether a school is low-performing and needs additional attention, so when students in one neighborhood attend schools across the city it becomes a zero sum game that ends with local public schools losing access to funding. I've met many families who send their children across town every day  to schools in Northwest. That's great for them and their children, but we should all be mindful of the fact that the privilege to choose schools is not available to all families in our community, and when we segment the pool of students in our community we also segment the level of community engagement and attention that goes into those schools. Moreover, many less affluent families districted for Eastern, Dunbar and Cardozo live in other Wards, making it easier for Ward 6 leadership to avoid advocating on their behalf even though Ward 6 students live within the boundaries for each of those schools.

Parents, teachers and advocates have worked very hard, and our schools have improved. We can, and should, talk about the great progress while also acknowledging that there’s a lot more work to do.The graduation rates at Eastern, Dunbar and Cardozo are approximately 70, 65 and 50 percent, respectively. That marks real progress, but knowing that such a large number of students in our community are not graduating is staggering. And while standardized assessments are fraught with limitations, the English and math proficiency levels at these three schools are among the lowest in the city, and our college readiness assessments score as some of the lowest in the nation. We are navigating a DC economy where a college education or technical training is becoming a prerequisite to securing a job that pays enough to afford to live in our city long-term, and we’re not providing all of our residents with the tools to do so. Thankfully, we have charitable programs like Mary’s Center working hard to provide technical training to residents, giving them skills they can use in the DC job market, but the city needs to do more.

As a former teacher, I know teachers and administrators accomplish amazing things with limited resources, and in fact are often spending their own money on classroom supplies so students have what they need. I have listened to as many parents of Ward 6 public school children as I can, and will keep doing so. The theme I hear is that while DC officials show up for meetings, they aren’t necessarily there to take input from the community and adjust their plans accordingly. Many parents see overcrowding, high teacher and staff turnover, and a lottery system that doesn't seem to be giving everyone the same shot at access to a high-quality neighborhood school, but have trouble getting clear explanations or solutions.

When our children are attending middle and high schools across the city, we begin to lose the ability to speak as a community in order to influence policymakers and demand attention, funding and rapid progress in our backyards. A fractured constituency is relatively easy to ignore, especially in a city where political contributions drive local policy to an alarming degree, be it on issues related to development, housing, health or education. Moreover, the people who need to be heard most also happen to be those who struggle to take time off or afford the babysitter they might need in order to attend a community meeting. I have met with residents who live in Potomac Gardens and Greenleaf Gardens, and more often than not they’re not even receiving the meeting notifications.

That’s where we’re going wrong: leaders don't wait for people to organize and demand faster progress, they go into all corners of the community - particularly the areas we know are underserved - to identify the issues, listen for the solutions, and make them happen.  Our schools have made improvements, and I give the credit to the teachers, families and administrators who have demanded it and fought for it. I’m not going to give the credit to an elected official who has happened to see some of it happen on his watch, when that’s not the feedback I’m receiving from Ward 6 families. Appearing at meetings is one thing, but our elected officials also hold legislative and oversight authority. When used properly, those are powerful tools to drive change on behalf of the community. It starts with a proactive effort, in our communities but also in the Wilson Building.