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UDC Counteracts Damage Wrought by D.C. Schools

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By Marc Fisher
Sunday, October 7, 2007

A study commissioned by D.C. public schools last year found that an appalling 29 percent of their graduates enroll in college in the first two years out of high school. But for a complete picture of the devastation wrought by the District's schools, look at what happens when those hardy few get to college.

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Daryao Khatri has taught physics at the University of the District of Columbia for 34 years. He has been consistently frustrated to find that hardly any students coming from D.C. schools could make it through a first course in a hard science.

In his colleague Mahdi Hajiyani's organic chemistry course, the dropout rate regularly topped 50 percent. Of those who did make it through the year, a third would get F's.

Year after year, more than 80 percent of UDC's freshman class -- almost all UDC students arrive directly from the city's public schools -- must take remedial classes in math, reading and English composition. That's more than three times the proportion of students placed in remedial courses nationwide.

Two summers ago, distraught over the college's failure to recruit and retain science majors, Khatri and a retired UDC statistics professor, Anne Hughes, went to their bosses with a proposal: Give us money to set up an intensive summer course on math to see whether we can make up for the damage done by the D.C. schools. (There's more compelling evidence of that damage in today's installment of The Washington Post's continuing series on the city schools.)

With $38,000 in grants from the federal government and The Washington Post Co., Khatri and Hughes sent invitations to a random group of 260 D.C. school graduates who were about to enroll at UDC. This was the deal: Give us four hours a day for eight weeks, and we will try to get you up to college level -- and pay you $1,200 to ease the pressure to earn money over the summer to pay for college.

The blind invitation and a subsequent placement test resulted in a class of 17 students who were headed toward a full menu of remedial classes. The students entered an academic boot camp unlike anything they had ever seen. On the first day, Khatri announced the rules. No cellphones in class. No napping. No eating. You may not leave the room. "No closing eyes, head on the table or putting feet on a table."

Then they started, from the beginning. Addition, subtraction, division, fractions . . .

"I never saw anything like it," says Kafayet Olayinka, 19, who came to UDC from Spingarn High School in Northeast, where, she says, "you can walk around and do whatever you want. You can sleep or eat in class. Here, if you didn't follow the rules, you had to stay after and sharpen all the pencils or arrange the folders. Professor Khatri would call you up to the blackboard every day. At Spingarn, the teachers didn't care if you never said anything."

In the two years Olayinka spent at Spingarn after emigrating from Nigeria, she never took a math or science course. This summer, she learned math from addition to algebra. "What I really appreciate is the multiplication tables," she says. "Now I calculate everything I see at the store, without using a calculator. I use my head."

There are no calculators allowed in the summer course, no electronic devices. "Just the mind," Khatri says. He tested students on those multiplication tables every single day.

Olayinka is taking physics this semester. For the moment, at least, she is majoring in physics.


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