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D.C.'S LEARNING CURVE

I Just Couldn't Sacrifice My Son

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By David Nicholson
Sunday, October 21, 2007

When a high school friend told me several years ago that he and his wife were leaving Washington's Mount Pleasant neighborhood for Montgomery County, I snickered and murmured something about white flight. Progressives who traveled regularly to Cuba and Brazil, they wanted better schools for their children. I saw their decision as one more example of liberal hypocrisy.

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I was childless then, but I have a 6-year-old now. And I know better. So to all the friends -- most but not all of them white -- whom I've chastised over the years for abandoning the District once their children reached school age:

I'm sorry. You were right. I was wrong.

After nearly 20 years in the city's Takoma neighborhood, the last six in a century-old house that my wife and I thought we'd grow old in, we have forsaken the city for the suburbs.

Given recent optimistic news about the city's schools, this may seem the equivalent of buying high and selling low. And though I don't know new D.C. schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, what I know of Mayor Adrian Fenty and Deputy Mayor for Education Victor Reinoso (a former neighbor) tells me that real change will come, sooner or later, to D.C. public schools.

The thing is, with a second-grader who has already read the first two Harry Potter books, I can't wait the four or five years it will take to begin to undo decades of neglect and mismanagement of District schools, much less the additional time needed to create programs for the gifted and talented.

What Reinoso and his team have done so far -- making sure that students have textbooks on time and that long-needed school repairs are made -- was comparatively easy. Ridding the schools of unproductive workers who've stymied previous attempts at reform will be harder, although recent proposals to make it easier to fire teachers and other staff members are promising.

But other fundamental problems in a school system that seems to ask "Why?" far more often than it asks "Why not?" seem almost intractable.

In the course of advocating for my now 21-year-old godson from 1999 to 2004, I visited public schools that were scenes of barely controlled chaos. I walked halls that teemed with students 15 minutes after the bell had sounded for the start of class. I choked on the smell of marijuana in the stairwells. Little had changed when I visited a District high school last year.

I've listened to teachers and principals talk about students with barely disguised contempt, heard teachers gossip about students' sexual activity and had others refuse services or accommodations that they were legally obligated to provide. It took a year and the help of a court-appointed attorney to get the school district to agree to provide services such as speech therapy for my godson; when we reminded his biology teacher that he was entitled to extra time to take his tests, she refused to give it to him.

Despite these dismal experiences at three schools, I was still willing to consider sending my 6-year-old to the neighborhood elementary school.

Call me crazy, but I believed in the city. My family has lived here for nearly 80 years -- my sister still lives in the house my grandfather bought in 1928. Walking or driving through town, I sometimes feel as though there's hardly a street without memories. And there was this: Our neighborhood had so many families with children, I thought we might finally have the critical mass we needed to help make changes at the school.


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