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What Never Seems to Change for D.C. Schools

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, February 3, 2007

"Here in the District of Columbia, the public school system must look to the Congress of the United States not only for Federal aid but even for the appropriation of local funds. . . . As usual, the bulk of the hardship will be borne by Division II, the Negro schools."

-- Washington Post editorial, Aug. 31, 1953

That editorial was published when I was a student at Francis Junior High School, a Division II (Negro) school in Northwest Washington. The Post got it right. School governance was unfriendly to African American students. Our facilities were inferior, our classes were larger, and we were an afterthought on Capitol Hill.

Yet in that racially segregated and politically unaccountable school system, my high school alma mater, Dunbar, produced future black doctors, lawyers, scientists, a U.S. senator, two members of the House of Representatives, a Cabinet officer, dentists, professors, generals, admirals and even a literary prize-winner or two. True, a number of students didn't fare so well. But not for lack of trying by teachers who believed we could learn and excel.

The governance system was of little help, but we had accountability where it counted.

Our principals and teachers, shortchanged on resources, still accepted responsibility for giving us the most rigorous education possible. As students, we were answerable to our parents for what we did or failed to do in school. And the black civic community and the educators in charge of "Negro" schools, even with limited clout, still tried to hold white city leaders to account for their actions or inaction.

Fast-forward to today.

The D.C. Board of Education is about to get fired for a job deemed badly done. The drive to get rid of the school board -- or at least to emasculate it as a governing body -- has taken on a desperate tone, with some takeover advocates going so far as to brand D.C. public education a "failed system" (a label usually reserved for a country such as Somalia).

It may well be, as takeover proponents claim, that nothing short of giving Mayor Adrian Fenty control over the schools, and granting the D.C. Council unprecedented intrusion into the school system's budget and operations, will raise student achievement. However, one question cries out for an answer:

If governance and lack of accountability are the main problems, why do students attending Lafayette and Murch elementary schools, which are west of Rock Creek Park, exceed proficiency targets in reading and math by wide margins while students at Ketchum and Stanton elementary schools, east of the Anacostia River, fall far short of the mark?

The four schools are in the same governance structure. Their principals report to the same superintendent and are guided by the same school board policies.

True, Lafayette and Murch, located in middle-income neighborhoods, have more white students. But before going off on a racial tangent, consider this: Black students attending Lafayette and Murch, in contrast to their counterparts in Southeast, also excel in reading and math.

D.C. school governance may stink, as critics assert. But its stench apparently is not an equal-opportunity offender, at least not where elementary school test scores are concerned.

The takeover would indeed marginalize the school board and give the mayor an opportunity to whack an ossified school bureaucracy (which in itself is not a bad thing). The critical question, however, is: How will a Fenty takeover boost student achievement, and when?

To answer that question, I caught up with the mayor this week outside the 4th District police headquarters on Georgia Avenue, where neighbors had gathered to discuss two recent homicides, both within blocks of the mayor's home. (The bodies were actually found closer to my house, but I'm not bragging.)

He was asked about the striking performance of elementary schools west of the park in a "failed system." Fenty said he agreed with the assertion in an earlier column of mine that talented and motivated teachers and principals, better classroom resources and students who are eager to learn can help raise achievement levels, but that schools can go only so far without help from the home ["The Breakdown That Really Needs Fixing," Dec. 9, 2006]. He acknowledged that now, as in my day, a supportive home environment makes a big difference in student performance.

The message drawn from our discussion, however, is that Fenty believes the school system needs sustained high-level attention and direction and that parents must become involved with their children's education. His bottom line: He has the energy, determination and sense of urgency that he feels are missing among school leaders to make those things happen.

And the bench strength of Fenty's education team? Big talk, little track record.

So here we are, nearly 54 years after The Post's editorial: Congress is still appropriating funds for the school system; motivated parents, teachers and principals are still the ones carrying the ball; and the governance system -- and the debate over it -- is still contributing the least to educational progress in the District.

kingc@washpost.com

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