Public School Woes Force a Look at Alternatives

By Hilda Labrada Gore
Thursday, January 1, 2004

My daughter and I went to a private school open house recently. A private school education for my children is not something that I have ever considered seriously. As parents of four school-age children, my husband and I are strong proponents of public schools. We have two children at Oyster Bilingual Elementary, one at Hardy Middle School and our oldest at Wilson High School. In recent years, I was the co-president of Oyster's Community Council, the equivalent of a PTA. I have taught at Oyster as a substitute. My husband is now PTA president at Hardy.

Perhaps it was curiosity that compelled us to visit the private school. Or perhaps it was the influence of so many others around us. I have countless friends in the District who send their children to private schools. I do not envy the tuition fees they pay, but I see their children and observe that their knowledge base seems broader than that of my own children.

Other friends of mine in the District have children in charter schools. Some have had positive experiences. Personally, we had a very difficult experience with a charter school some years back.

My oldest was in first grade at the time. A charter school seemed to offer the possibility of a stimulating education in a setting that would be somewhat autonomous from the D.C. public school system. That intrigued us. But we quickly discovered that many of the teachers were either inexperienced or overwhelmed by the workload and lack of structure at the brand-new charter.

I also distinctly recall the D.C. public school system's inability to get the promised funds to the school for it to run properly.

We pulled our daughter out midyear and transferred her to Oyster Bilingual Elementary School, which we were fortunate to enter out of boundary.

We never even considered our neighborhood elementary school, H.D. Cooke, though it is just two short blocks from our home. I would have chosen home schooling over sending my children there. Cooke had a reputation for violence (an elementary school -- can you believe it?), and its broken windows and shabby appearance told us what we could expect inside.

So, why consider a private school? Why now, when our children are doing fairly well in public schools? Was it really a casual curiosity that had us second-guessing the choices we have made for our children?

I do not think it is a coincidence that we attended the open house just as another superintendent announced his departure from the system. The truth is, I have not been particularly dissatisfied with my children's schools. On the contrary, the children have had some extraordinary teachers and administrators who have stretched to give them the very best education possible.

However, I am dismayed by the myriad problems afflicting the D.C. public school system. The mismanagement of funds is the first. From what I understand, the D.C. system has approximately the same ratio of funding per pupil as some neighboring, thriving counties do. Where it goes is a mystery to me. I see my children coming home from school with photocopies of pages and assignments because books are unavailable.

Another pervasive problem is lack of structure and accountability at the management level. How many years has it taken to identify the exact number of personnel on the school system payroll? I not certain that simple task has ever been accomplished.

That leads to the question of compensation. I know excellent teachers who have left my children's schools because they were not paid. I do not mean to imply that they were not paid a competitive wage, though that is also an issue. I mean that they simply did not receive paychecks on a regular basis. I know of one fabulous teacher who left the system because the retirement package was not something she could count on. I know another teacher who just began this year, but was paid nothing for the first six weeks of employment.

Finally, the turnover of leadership is discouraging. As football fans know, when the coaching staff changes, new plays are developed and must be learned. The D.C. public school staff must be constantly learning new plays under each new head "coach." At this rate, how can we expect to win any games? How can we keep and retain excellent, experienced educators? How can we give our children the education they deserve when our leadership is constantly in flux? No wonder the teachers and support staff feel uncertain about the system's future.

I want my children to be a part of a system that exudes and demands excellence. I also believe that every child in the city school system deserves the same. The public school motto is "Children First." I would like to see that motto become more than a catchy slogan. It needs to be a motivating principle beneath every decision made -- for our children first!

Hilda Labrada Gore has been a D.C. resident for 15 years. She lives in Adams Morgan and is the contemporary worship leader at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Arlington.

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