November 23, 2012

A death wish is unfolding before our very eyes. A generation of youth in this city is self destructing. These youth, mostly black, are wandering aimlessly toward a cliff’s edge.

Headlines tell the story.

Truancy problem growing in D.C.,” WJLA.com, May 11, 2011. “School and city officials address truancy rates in District,” The Post, Nov. 8.

Seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders by the thousands are finding trouble to get into, drifting toward that army of D.C. youth who have quit school and now face lives of sporadic, low-wage jobs, government handouts, hustling, living off the labors of others and keeping one step ahead of the sheriff.

A disaster.

At a time when young people around the world are absorbing all the education and technology they can get, and learning to compete on a global scale, many District youth are in full retreat. They are headed toward a life where success is a word without meaning. They are headed toward a life in which crime, violence, drugs and defeat are as common as the air they breathe; a life where they are of little value to their community or to themselves.

A few leaders — too few — in this city are aware of this calamity.

D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, Superior Court judges, the mayor and a couple of D.C. Council members have weighed in on this long-standing crisis.

Henderson has seen students, years behind their grade levels in reading, throw up their hands. “Why would I want to go to school if I can’t read the book, I can’t do the work, I’m 17 and in the ninth grade?” Henderson recently said at a D.C. Council hearing. “It should be no surprise to us that students we have failed for many years are now failing to come to school.”

To their credit, Henderson and leading figures such as Superior Court Chief Judge Lee F. Satterfield are sponsoring programs to reduce truancy rates. But they are fighting a losing battle. The key factor failing the students, the one that allows them to skip school, is beyond the control of Henderson and courts: namely, the parents.

How times have changed.

From 1944, when I entered kindergarten at Stevens Elementary School, until I graduated from Dunbar High School in 1957, I never missed a day of school. Neither did my sister or brother. Were we Goody Two-Shoes? Hardly.

Stevens School was three blocks east of our home. Francis Junior High was two blocks north. School started at 9 a.m.

By 7:30 a.m. the King kids were washed, fed and ready to leave for school. Not our choice. Mamma and Daddy demanded it. So did the parents of most of our classmates.

Missing school was out of the question. And tardiness was a sin punishable by shame and a tongue-lashing. 

How dare we embarrass our parents, who, by the way, left home every day for work?

But wait a minute: What’s so old-fashioned about that?

That’s what parents are supposed to do, whether it’s the 1940s, ’50s or the 21st century.

What good is it if the city shells out millions of dollars for schools and the children aren’t there?

And whose responsibility is it to get them to school? A neighborhood collaborative? A city agency?

No, it’s the people who brought them into this world. And it’s time we stop letting them off the hook. Why should the rest of the city pay for their irresponsibility? The District should hold them accountable — in their pocketbooks or by incarceration, if necessary. After all, those parents are the ones who have, as council member David Catania (I-At Large) put it, “relegated their children to a diminished future.”

kingc@washpost.com