Jonetta Rose Barras: Relisha Rudd and the unbroken cycle of bad D.C. schools

April 24

“The school system had failed them,” former Post reporter Leon Dash wrote in his book “When Children Want Children,” about teen parenthood in the District.

“All of the adults and adolescents I met started elementary school as enthusiastic children,” continued Dash. “But by the second grade, academic deficiencies appeared and remained uncorrected. By the sixth grade, these children knew that they would not finish school.”

The cycle continues: In 2011, there were 54.5 pregnancies per one thousand girls, ages 15 to 19 years old, according to the D.C. Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. In 2013, more than 40 percent of black students failed to graduate high school on time, according to the Office of the State Superintendent.

Shamika Young is testimony to the devastating and cascading consequences of family deterioration. She was placed in foster care at age 6 and moved around in that system until she was 18. A year later, Young gave birth to a daughter: Relisha Rudd, the 8-year-old who has been missing for two months. Young, now 27, subsequently had three other children.

Government social workers reported signs that Young’s children were neglected and abused. She certainly didn’t care for them properly. Neglect breeds neglect. Given her background, who would expect Young to know about family and good parenting, really?

Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) recently said he continues “to be distressed” about Relisha’s disappearance. He asserted there was “no indication that District government agencies or staff failed to fulfill their duties.”

Did the government fail its duty years ago? Is it doing the same now with other Shamikas and Relishas? If you believe securing a quality education is a key element in becoming a contributing adult in society, then the answer to those questions can only be yes.

Too many D.C. children, especially those in families in which the parents are undereducated, are trapped in poor-performing public schools. Most of those children are destined to become adults stuck in low-wage jobs or relegated to some abandoned public hospital warehousing homeless families. Was Relisha on the path to becoming Shamika?

The city has the resources to help redirect children’s lives. Gray proposed spending $1.5 billion for public education — charters and traditional schools — in fiscal 2015; $63 million of that money is supposed to help schools that serve a preponderance of at-risk children. As currently written, the mayor’s proposal doesn’t offer many specifics about how those funds will be spent,

Next week, the D. C. Council’s education committee is expected to discuss the mayor’s proposal with D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, whose operation will receive $44.5 million of that $63 million for at-risk students. In an April 22 letter posted on the DCPS Web site, Henderson said, “We have ensured every dime of that funding went to students who need it most.” She also promised the instructional day will be extended at all 40 low-performing schools. But what does that mean?

The council is expected to explore in depth how Henderson intends to use those new funds to improve academic achievement for low-income children in underperforming schools. It may also want to determine how that mission could be affected by the boundary and student assignment recommendations offered by Abigail Smith, the deputy mayor for education. She and her team deserve credit for creating an inclusive process for examining the city’s public education delivery map. But let’s be clear: The crowding that prompted the boundary proposal is a symptom. The disease is insufficient high-quality schools, particularly in low-income communities.

Gray shouldn’t take action on Smith’s proposals — not because he’s a lame duck or because of any other political consideration but rather because it’s time to end the madness.

District families don’t need any more school lotteries — not mini, neighborhood lotteries, not citywide lotteries, not combined DCPS-charter lotteries. They need — and the council should demand — a specific, prescriptive Marshall Plan for public education that does not rely on contrivances. Residents in each of the eight wards must be guaranteed quality, matter-of-right neighborhood facilities — from elementary through middle and high school.

City leaders might consider deploying their arsenal of incentives, frequently provided to developers, to help transform underperforming schools by encouraging economic diversity; reports have shown that the achievement levels of low-income students can increase in such climates. For example, tax credits could be offered in targeted education zones to middle-class families who enroll their children in neighborhood schools while investing time and expertise. The faith community could be urged to create a mentorship system matching low-income public school families with middle-class or upper-income families.

With the steep increase in public school funding proposed in the 2015 budget, education reform should take on a new urgency. It may be too late to rescue Shamika Young — and, unfortunately, Relisha. But there are others.

We know education is a powerful elixir. If the system works, it can help strengthen the family structure, deter crime, end poverty and change values.

jonettarose@yahoo.com

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