The Breakdown That Really Needs Fixing

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, December 9, 2006

From Jan. 2, 1999 -- the date Mayor Anthony Williams was sworn in to office -- to yesterday, more than 1,700 people, mostly young black men, have been murdered in the nation's capital. That horrible statistic has an impact far beyond the grave.

Living within the city's borders is an army of survivors: broken-hearted parents and grandparents; traumatized single women facing an uncertain future with fatherless children; bitter young men, undereducated and unskilled, scarred by violence themselves and roving the streets with hair-trigger anger. They are a part of the city that Adrian Fenty will inherit when he is sworn in as the District of Columbia's fifth elected mayor in January.

It's not all bleak. Fenty also gets to preside over a D.C. treasury flush with cash and a downtown featuring new department stores, multiplex movie theaters and condos. Once inaugurated, Fenty can travel to the top floor of the John A. Wilson Building, gaze out the window and marvel at the visible signs of prosperity across the horizon.

But Mayor Williams is bequeathing more than a city on the economic rebound.

Fenty will also become chief executive of a city in which only 22 percent of households consist of families headed by married couples -- lowest in the nation. He will become mayor of a city with an HIV death rate 10 times the national average and a school system in which 62 percent of the children are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. Youth problems? During the Williams mayoralty, the city has referred more than 15,000 juvenile cases to D.C. Superior Court.

On the face of it, those statistics may seem to have no connection to one another. Taken together, they tell a story.

Many of those young black murder victims were enrolled at some point in the D.C. public schools. Quite probably they were eligible for free lunches and lived in single-parent homes. They were among the juveniles turning up in court. Some were fathers who never married their children's mothers.

Tragically, their stories don't end with their deaths. Hundreds of other D.C. youths are growing up in similar circumstances. Besides their socioeconomic link, the deceased and the living have something else in common: their source of public education.

I also am a product of the D.C. public schools, from kindergarten through 12th grade. The schools were legally segregated until I reached 10th grade. Desegregation made little difference. The 11th and 12th grades at my high school, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, were as racially exclusive as my kindergarten class.

But Dunbar students never considered themselves inferior to anybody. During Jim Crow, Dunbar produced generations of high-achieving students who held their own anywhere they went. Why? Because our parents and teachers had high expectations. Poor outcomes were unacceptable, period. That is not the prevailing attitude in today's D.C. public school system, as shelves of studies attest.

Which gets us back to Mayor-elect Adrian Fenty.

High on his to-do list are the public schools. Fenty's plan for improving the lives of our city's youth, especially those at risk, is to improve the delivery of social services and to "fix the schools," as he puts it. How, he hasn't exactly said. But he seems fascinated with the New York City school-governance model, in which the mayor runs the schools.

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