By Colbert I. King
Saturday, October 3, 2009
Students eager to learn, educators ready to teach, a
resource-endowed school. That winning combination exists within Friendship Collegiate Academy, a college preparatory charter high school on Minnesota Avenue in Northeast. The academy is one of five Friendship Public Charter School campuses in the District.
The academy also has an unwanted component: school dropouts who live in the nearby Mayfair Mansions housing complex and a gang called the 37th Street Crew. These rival groups congregate around the Metro station directly across the street from the academy at the end of school day, and they make the lives of students a living hell.
That is the face of urban education that cities don't want shown.
It's easy to sloganize about the need to build a world-class school system, to cast local education battles as a colossal struggle between the forces of reform and the status quo, to slice and dice school issues based on agendas related more to power than to learning.
Those adult quarrels have no bearing on the paralyzing fear of children who sit in class knowing that trouble waits outside at the end of the day. That dread of violence, not the District's standing in the academic world, is the reality with which Friendship's students must cope.
A disclosure: I'm personally acquainted with Friendship Charter School leaders and have served as commencement speaker at one of the schools.
Academy students, drawn from mostly low-income homes, are tackling tough courses, completing their diplomas, most going on to college. Last year, the College Board presented Friendship Collegiate Academy its prestigious Inspiration Award, which recognizes the nation's most improved high schools.
So, yes, I was angry Wednesday morning after reading an e-mail from Friendship's board chairman, Donald Hense, that arrived with the subject line: "HELP."
Mayfair Mansion toughs and the 37th Street Crew, mostly young men, have been feuding since a youth was killed walking across Minnesota Avenue, Hense said. The two groups congregate, he said, at the Metro stop about the time Friendship's students are being let out of school. They "bully, threaten, and sometimes beat up our kids, who are easily recognizable." He added, "It often comes with the fighters demanding to know where the kid lives, and if they live in the wrong neighborhood, they get beat up."
Girls, most of them dropouts, according to Hense, also hang out around the Metro stop, looking for rivals. Hense said he has videos of the altercations, which he described as "horrendous."
Hense explained that he was asking for help because the D.C. police officer assigned to the academy as a school resource officer had been pulled out because police headquarters believed only regular public schools, not public charter schools, were entitled to resource officers.
Left without D.C. police protection, Hense said Friendship has turned to Metro, hoping that the transit agency would send officers. "Will we have to have a murder like [the one] in Chicago before anyone listens?" he asked.
Hense was referring to the fatal after-school beating of 16-year-old honor student Derrion Albert by four teenagers last week in Chicago.
After passing on Hense's call for help to D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier, I spoke with the academy's principal, Peggy Pendergrass, and then went to the school on Wednesday as classes were being dismissed. Thankfully, a D.C. police officer and cruiser had arrived along with a handful of private security guards hired by the school system. Several anxious parents were in parked cars. No student was threatened or beaten.
I observed a similar scene when I returned to the school on Thursday.
In a follow up e-mail on Wednesday, Chief Lanier told me that D.C. police were "well aware of the problems and there has been and will continue to be involvement from my officers." She added that there had been a miscommunication that she will take care of. Thanks to the chief.
Problem solved? Not really.
The equity issue -- ensuring that public charter schools and regular public schools receive equal police protection -- can be resolved. Treat them equally.
That leaves a larger, more basic problem. Friendship Collegiate Academy students aren't alone in their fear. Too many children seeking an education in the nation's capital cannot go to and from school in peace.
And the threatening presence of gangs affects teaching and learning in the classroom.
The city's leaders know it's true. They also know that many of the gang members who beat and threaten students are veterans of the city's easily manipulated juvenile justice system.
Simply put, there's a price to be paid for the family breakdown and for irresponsible parents who let the streets raise their children. There's also a price to be paid when a city fails to hold young lawbreakers accountable. That exorbitant price is being paid by students like those at Friendship Collegiate Academy and by parents and teachers who are breaking their backs to help.
Last week, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty announced more initiatives to get at the problem of juvenile offenders, this time using a $9.5 million grant from the Justice Department.
A question on behalf of students: Will any of that spending make it safe to go to school?