I Just Couldn't Sacrifice My Son

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.

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.

Its test scores were unimpressive, and many students received free or subsidized meals. I worried about discipline problems and teachers who dumbed down lessons. But the scores were better than those of many other District schools. And while parents we talked to said that the principal was hard to get along with and didn't believe that parents had any role at her school, they also admitted that they were satisfied with the education their children received.

When some neighbors considering the school called to schedule a visit, however, the receptionist was genuinely puzzled.

"Visit?" she said. "We don't do visits."

My neighbors and I kept calling. Two or three weeks later, school staff members agreed to let us in. I found the building clean and well-maintained. The classes were quiet and students attentive.

The next step was meeting with the principal. That took more letters and calls; so many, in fact, that Fenty -- then our Ward 4 council member -- offered to call on our behalf. I thanked him but said no. It shouldn't take a council member's intervention to get a principal to meet with parents.

The principal finally agreed to see us. Ten minutes into the meeting, faced with questions about the lack of a PTA and Local School Restructuring Team -- a committee of parents, community members and school staff members that is supposed to assess the school and make recommendations for improving it -- she excused herself to take "an emergency phone call."

Washington Post education writer Jay Mathews advises against sending your child to a school whose principal won't meet with you for at least a half-hour, but it was the combination of unexceptional test scores, lack of amenities such as art and music classes, and the principal's unwelcoming attitude that made my wife and me start looking at charter schools. Private schools were too expensive, and we didn't want to send our child to a school on the other side of Rock Creek Park. But we'd heard good things about the charters, and we were encouraged by their ability to operate outside the school system.

You see, we still wanted to stay in Washington.

We thought we were going to be able to when our son won a lottery spot in a bilingual Montessori charter school that was just starting. For three years, from preschool through kindergarten, we watched him thrive with the same teacher, who truly valued him. Early in his first-grade year, however, it became clear that while energy and passion were important in starting a school, they were poor substitutes for teaching and administrative experience.

The problems began when the school finally moved into a building of its own. Pepco and Verizon wouldn't start services because a clerk in the District's notoriously inefficient Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs hadn't completed the paperwork for the certificate of occupancy.

Staff members worked to correct this, but it took parents' writing the utilities (I asked Verizon's president how it would look if something happened to a child because no one could call 911) to get the lights turned on and the phones working.

There were other difficulties. My son's new first-grade teacher was at a loss when he went to read in a corner instead of doing his math, spelling or geography assignments. It fell to us to suggest that she tell him he could earn reading time by completing other work.

Instead of giving letter grades, the school evaluated children as having been "presented," "practicing" or having "mastered" material. My son's first report card said he'd been "presented" the short "e" sound. That seemed strange for a child already reading at a fifth- or sixth-grade level. The teacher agreed that it wasn't an accurate assessment of his abilities. But she said she'd had so many reports to do, it had been easier to assess every student as "presented" in all areas.

Then there was something that's uncomfortable to write about because it shows how diversity can be messier than most of us want to acknowledge. Half the children at the school were Hispanic, as were most of the teachers and staff members. In four years, four black teachers came and went, none staying more than a year or so. Administrators agreed that they needed to do a better job of hiring and keeping black teachers but said they couldn't find anybody qualified.

They should have tried harder. Those teachers might have been able to address issues that alarmed me and other parents of black and biracial children.

One mother in my son's class said her children came home crying because Latino children teased them about their skin color and their hair. Parents of black boys thought that their sons were disciplined when Latino children were not. Volunteering in my son's classroom, I watched a teacher's aide line up the students to go outside. She called them one by one, summoning the three black children last and grouping them together.

Was it deliberate, or did she just not see how it might appear, given the other problems in the class? I don't know. My e-mail to the principal expressing concern went unanswered.

Any one of these academic and social issues would have been problematic; together, they were reasons to start looking elsewhere. So in early September -- after putting our house on the market at the start of the mortgage loan crunch, after closing on one house in the morning and the other in the afternoon and then moving the next day -- our son started at his new school in Vienna. Fairfax County schools have consistently been rated excellent, and I was encouraged by the simple things that parents here take for granted, but that too often turn out to be impossible in Washington.

When I e-mailed a Fairfax principal one evening in May, I didn't expect a response before the morning. Ten minutes later, he replied with an invitation to visit his school. I said that I wanted to talk to a teacher or two. One called the next day. I couldn't return her call immediately. A day later, she left a message asking me to phone her at home that weekend.

When I called my high school friend to tell him that I was writing this, he was surprised to hear that we'd moved. "I'd always sort of admired you," he said, "for your commitment to the city." I felt as guilty as I'd probably made him feel years ago.

And yet, I'm surprised by how little I miss Washington. I put up with a host of irritants for years -- drug raids on nearby houses, teenagers smoking pot on the steps of the local library, clerks at the Department of Motor Vehicles who acted as though I were working for them-- accepting it all as part of life in a great city.

In the end, though, I couldn't sacrifice my son to an education system that seems at best inefficient and at worst willfully corrupt. As much as I admire Mayor Fenty, I can't help noting that his children go to a private school.

And if he doesn't send his kids to D.C. schools, why should I?

dnicholson6@excite.com

David Nicholson is a former assistant editor

of The Post's Book World.

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