School serves as D.C. neighborhood’s anchor

Abig bomb with a short fuse is how Vincente Weaver describes himself a year ago. With each of life’s disappointments, he ticked away a little more.

A field trip for his sons that he couldn’t pay for. Tick.

A string of decent-paying jobs that didn’t come his way. Tick.

Another night of watching his family live in government-subsidized housing, knowing he couldn’t afford to move them. Tick.

“It got to the point where I was bitter,” Weaver, 32, says. “I started seeing it bleed into my relationships.”

Desperate, Weaver walked into an unlikely place, but one where he says he knew he could find help: J.C. Nalle Elementary School.

The school, perched on a hill in a part of Southeast Washington where gunfire is common, holds a unique place in a city where schools constantly struggle to counter the chaos beyond their doors. For years, Nalle has been the District’s sole community school, partnering with a nonprofit group and a private corporation to serve not only the children who walk its halls but also adults in the area in need of food or job assistance or simply a sympathetic ear.

The D.C. Council has decided that the city needs more schools like it. Council members this week gave preliminary approval to spending $1 million in the 2013 budget for a pilot program to establish five yet-to-be chosen community schools.

“Schools have always traditionally been the anchor in the community,” says Michael A. Brown (I-At Large), who sponsored the measure. “And you can’t be an anchor if you’re just open from 9 to 3.”

In the council’s vision, he says, schools would serve as neighborhood beacons, catering to the needs of their communities. One might offer an adult literacy program, another a job-training services. At Nalle, adults have been offered everything from conflict resolution classes to help with obtaining their GEDs.

The day Weaver walked into the school, he found a social worker who sat with him for an hour and a half, leaving him with a list of phone numbers and a renewed sense of hope. It wasn’t the first time, nor would it be the last time that his family sought help at the building on 50th Street. They, perhaps more than most, understand how at its best, a community school can change not just a child, but also a family.

A safe place

Kaedun Brown-Weaver is the talker in the family, speaking in wise nuggets that make him sound much older than other third-graders.

“It’s going to get harder,” he says of school, thinking ahead to college. “My mom says, ‘If you can learn more, you can do more.’ There are no shortcuts to life.”

Without prompting, he excitedly pulls from his backpack a report card. “Four is the highest grade you can get,” he says, showing off mostly fours. “I want to be an engineer. I don’t really know what it is, but my teacher says I should try it when I’m older.”

He and his brothers watched one day from their bedroom window as two neighborhood teenagers were gunned down — a fact that pains their mother, Octavais Brown. She knows she can’t control everything they are exposed to, but she says she can influence how her children see their place in the world.

“If I can’t change what they see every day, I can at least change their mind-set,” says Brown, 33. “That’s what I teach my boys. We live here, and it may not be the best, but there’s more out there.”

She feels fortunate to have her three sons — Pierre, 10, Kaedun, 8, and Jubei, 7 — at Nalle. The school has given her money for field trips and taken her to see a doctor when she didn’t have a ride. The school also offers a free after-school program until 6 p.m., and Brown says that knowing her children were safe there allowed her to go back to college, get a degree in business management, and leave behind a trail of dead-end jobs and welfare benefits. A regular volunteer at the school, Brown was hired last year as a part-time teacher’s aide for the after-school program, earning $13.50 an hour.

“You have people that treat you like family,” Brown said. “There are way more communities that need this, whether they know it or not.”

More than test scores

Sirens blare outside the school one afternoon. The sound occurs frequently enough that no one stops talking to let them pass. A few staff members recall standing outside when an ice cream man was shot within view of the building. In 2005, just before Christmas, a woman was found dead on the school’s playground, lying in a pool of blood between the monkey bars and the hopscotch squares.

This is what the school tries to counter every day, Principal Kim Burke says. “I cannot imagine where this school would be without the community school model,” she says, although Nalle’s test scores have not shown dramatic improvement.

Fewer than a third of students at the school met or exceeded math and reading standards last year, but Burke says the community school model has changed the atmosphere at Nalle and improved the lives of its students. Children who might not have otherwise received attention have been able to spend time with a social worker. More than a third of the student body received mental-health support during the 2009-10 school year. On any given day, parents can also be found walking the halls or on field trips.

“How many schools [in poor neighborhoods] can say that out of 300 kids, 150 parents are involved?” asks Tanya Sherman, Nalle’s director.

Unlike the District’s new pilot program, which will be paid for with city funds, Nalle operates through a 12-year partnership between the school system, the Freddie Mac Foundation and the National Center for Children and Families. Freddie Mac has contributed nearly $8 million to the school, and the National Center for Children and Families oversees the after-school program and employs four day-time staff members, including Sherman and two social workers.

Building connections

Weaver says that if he could give any advice on how to create a successful community school it would be this: “Don’t make it feel like a handout.”

He says he believed for a long time that the only way to provide for his family was through work, which over the years has been difficult to come by, even after serving in the military and getting a special-police officer’s license. (He currently works part time, earning $9 an hour). But he says now, in large part because of the encouragement he’s received from the school, he sees how he can contribute to his children’s lives in ways that aren’t just financial. With some prodding, he even played an elf in the Christmas play.

“I did it just to see the laugh on my kid’s face,” Weaver says. “Next thing I knew, I was going on as many field trips as possible.”

Just last week, he accompanied Pierre on a bowling trip. Later that night, Pierre stood by the dining room table, bragging about how their team had made the most strikes.

“No parent wants to look small in front of their child,” Weaver says. “That burns inside. But to look and see pride when your child looks at you, parents crave that.”

Theresa Vargas is a reporter for the Post’s local enterprise team.
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