Schools Race Highlights City's Gaps
Thursday, November 2, 2006
To understand a prominent theme in today's school board race east of the Anacostia River, go back almost four decades to a time when everything was black and white.
In what was considered one of the most significant school cases since Brown v. Board of Education, a federal judge in 1967 ruled that the D.C. school system was committing "criminal" discrimination against black students by segregating them in inferior schools east of the Anacostia River.
The judge in Hobson v. Hansen ordered the system to integrate faculty, to dismantle "tracking" programs that kept black students out of college prep courses and to bus many black students from crowded schools east of the river to predominantly white under-enrolled schools west of Rock Creek Park.
Nearly 40 years later, the city's entrenched east-west divide has been the campaign theme in school District 4 (Wards 7 and 8), where four candidates are seeking to unseat incumbent William Lockridge.
Longtime residents say the busing plan that resulted from the 1967 case exacerbated the decline of schools in District 4. The transfer policy bolstered schools with low enrollment west of the park, they say, but left schools east of the river with the poorest and most academically troubled students.
For District 4 parent Wanda Morsell, the disparity plays out in a long commute for her three children. Rather than enroll her two daughters in her alma mater, Woodson Senior High, or in nearby Anacostia Senior High, Morsell sends them across the bridge to McKinley Technology High School in Eckington. And rather than enroll her son in nearby Sousa Middle School, she sends him to Julius Hobson Middle School on Capitol Hill, named for the civil rights activist who filed the suit that led to the 1967 decision.
Schools in District 4 "need a strong administration. They have to get high-quality teachers, offer a quality curriculum and get better security to get rid of the gangs," she said. "As a voter, I want [the candidates] to address that."
District 4 is a diverse area that encompasses middle-class neighborhoods such as Deanwood, Eastland Gardens and Hillcrest Heights and the city's most impoverished communities, including Anacostia, Barry Farm and Congress Heights. Many of the schools are struggling with low student achievement, deteriorating buildings, violence and little parental involvement.
Emily Y. Washington, a Ward 7 resident who served on the school board from 1996 to 1999, said that even though District 4 schools get more money for poor students, the school system never developed a plan to put the schools on par with those west of the park.
"We've let the schools deteriorate," said Washington, a literacy coach at Luke C. Moore Academy High School in Northeast Washington. "The schools have become a dumping ground for the poorest-trained principals and least-competent teachers."
The five candidates are the incumbent, an education activist, an advisory neighborhood commissioner, an investigator and a woodworker. They are proposing a range of ideas aimed at improving schools.
Saying he would fight to ensure that schools in the area would get their "fair share" of resources, Lockridge was elected to his first school board term in 1998. He helped develop school renovation projects for his district, which were incorporated into the board's master facilities plan.