A real-life civics lesson for Alice Deal Middle School students

February 9, 2014

The citizens who testified at city hall last week were far younger and, arguably, far more persuasive than those who usually come before the D.C. Council.

The four of them, officers of the student council at Alice Deal Middle School in Northwest, had resolved this year to take on something bigger than parties, spirit days and other typical student government fare.

They wanted to effect change, leave a legacy.

Very specifically, they wanted to give their classmates a covered Metro bus shelter on Nebraska Avenue near Deal, a place where students could get out of the wind and driving rain while waiting for a ride home each afternoon.

“When we were elected, we said, ‘We want to make some change,’” said Ben Korn, an eighth-grader and the council’s president. “We didn’t want to take on something too big, but something big enough to make a difference.”

Speaking before the D.C. Council’s Committee on Transportation and the Environment at the John A. Wilson Building on Thursday, Ben told of a cold and rainy fall afternoon that found him waiting more than an hour and a half for his M4 bus. Unlike the region’s suburban school systems, the District’s public schools do not have their own fleet of buses, and most students take public transportation to and from school. “By the time I got home, it was dark, and I was cold and wet,” said Ben, 13. “I know my fellow officers here today and the rest of the Deal student body have faced similar situations. That is why we are here.”

Ben and his colleagues came up with the idea for the bus shelter and approached the D.C. Council with the guidance of their principal, James Albright. The students met with Andrew Newman, a staffer for council member and transportation committee chairman Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who suggested that they present their case at a public roundtable downtown.

“At that point, all of us looked at each other, saying, ‘No way.’ We had no idea what was ahead of us,” said Ben, adding that the experience taught him a lot about how to steer a proposal through bureaucracy.

“I’ve really learned that you’ve got to talk to the right guy, and that was Drew Newman,” Ben said. “And you just can’t let it get lost into the stack of paper that I bet they have there. You’ve just got to go when the ball’s rolling.”

Following their principal’s advice, the students collected data to bolster their case. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority says a bus stop must be used by at least 40 people a day to justify installing a bus shelter. The Deal students counted at least 100 each day at the Nebraska Avenue stop, and they clocked the average wait for a bus at 15 to 20 minutes.

Aysha Nunes, 14, the student council’s vice president, presented those statistics at the roundtable, but she emphasized that bus wait times at that stop are sometimes far longer. “Personally, I’ve waited for a bus for nearly an hour in freezing, rainy weather while on crutches,” she said.

Joe Inglima, 13, Deal’s treasurer, presented a bird’s-eye view of the proposed location for the bus shelter, which is along the northbound side of Nebraska Avenue, near the intersection with Fort Drive.

He also illustrated the possible ramifications for students who have no choice but to stand out in the open, describing one kid’s long wait in the rain that resulted in soaked, ruined homework assignments that couldn’t be turned in. “His teacher didn’t believe him,” Joe said. “He got in a lot of trouble for that.”

Secretary Isaac Frumkin, 13, offered one final argument proven to sway many lawmakers: “The shelter would come at no cost to D.C. taxpayers.”

The District struck a deal with Clear Channel Communications in 2005 that calls for Clear Channel to build up to 788 bus shelters in return for the right to advertise on them. So far, they’ve built 745, leaving room for the Deal shelter. “It’s a win-win for all parties,” Ben said.

Clarence Jackson, an associate director at the D.C. Department of Transportation, testified in response to the students, explaining that the agency had studied the site and determined that the Deal students were right: It meets all of the criteria for a covered bus shelter.

So, Jackson announced, the city will give the Deal students what they’re seeking. The shelter is scheduled to be completed by mid-March.

“You should be proud of your kids,” Jackson told the students’ parents afterward. “They did a good job of doing their homework.”

Aysha’s mother, Charisse Carney-Nunes, said she snapped a photo of the students with Cheh. “I’m so proud,” Carney-Nunes said, adding that she hadn’t helped her daughter at all. “I didn’t do anything. I didn’t even read over her speech, so I’m even more proud.”

Cheh, who represents the neighborhoods around Deal and was the only council member at the roundtable, praised the students’ effort. “It’s never too early for people to care about their community,” she said.

She asked whether the students had any other concerns to share, and Ben brought up the student council’s fizzled campaign to bring back chocolate milk, which recently disappeared from the cafeteria. Cheh, the author of the 2010 Healthy Schools Act that helped rid school lunches of flavored milk, didn’t bite.

It was a lesson in not getting everything you ask for, but the students were unfazed. They had also learned another lesson, how to identify a problem, find a solution and take action.

“We did something,” Isaac said, smiling.

Emma Brown writes about national education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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