Lakia was ready for seventh grade.
So when her mother woke her up at 6 a.m. Monday in a cousin’s home, Lakia quickly dressed, laced her gray-and-purple Nike high-top shoes and posed for a first-day-of-school photo in the hallway.
Lakia is homeless and hasn’t had a permanent bed to sleep in for years, bouncing between friends’ and relatives’ homes. But each day, the 12-year-old completes her homework and prepares for school in the cramped room she shares with her mother and two sisters.
And the first day of school was no different. By the time the bus arrived at 7 a.m., Lakia was ready — and slightly nervous — to travel across town from the District’s Fort Totten neighborhood to Friendship Tech Prep Academy, a charter school in Congress Heights that greeted students with exuberant songs, chants and dances.
“It feels great to go back,” Lakia said. “I like my homeroom, I like math, science, social studies and English.”
Lakia and tens of thousands of other D.C. students who attend traditional public schools and charters started class Monday. And Lakia was one of about 6,000 homeless District children to embark on a new academic year — a number that has nearly doubled since 2014 amid skyrocketing area housing prices, according to government data from the 2017-2018 academic year.
The mission for the city’s public schools this academic year is to push children like Lakia — African American and low-
income — to perform on a par academically with their wealthier peers and be prepared for college and careers by the time they graduate from high school.
National standardized test scores released last week showed that, despite modest improvements across all demographics, a massive achievement gap persists between white students and students of color.
One of the bright spots in the batch of standardized test scores released last week: Homeless children appear to be learning. Their scores improved at a faster rate on the English portion of the exam than students citywide, with nearly 19 percent of homeless children passing — an increase of about 6 percentage points from last year.
A year ago, Lakia, who has special-education needs, entered sixth grade at Friendship Tech reading at kindergarten level. School officials say she made significant progress last year and starts the seventh grade reading at the fourth-grade level — a feat that has rendered her more confident and her mother proud.
“She just did a 180 last year and turned around,” Malonda Mines, her mother, said. “I’m so happy she’s doing well. It’s amazing to me.”
At Friendship, Lakia meets with social and mental-health workers regularly. The school provided her family with free uniforms. And she has intensive and personalized academic assistance so she can attend mainstream classes while an aide helps tailor the lessons to her level.
She has a longer commute than most of her classmates, so the school coordinates transportation, which allows her to participate in the dance team’s evening practices.
Because of all of this, Lakia’s first day of school Monday played out like that of any other student.
There were nerves, of course.
“I feel a little shy because there will be new kids who don’t know me, and some kids can be bullies,” she said.
And after a summer apart, there was the thrill of being reunited with her two best friends.
“I’m excited to see them,” Lakia said.
When she arrived at the raucous morning assembly, she sheepishly resisted her teachers’ nudges to join in the first-day-of-school cheers. But the shyness dissipated when she saw her best friend, Amazing Fultz. The two girls scoured each other’s schedules to ensure they had some of the same classes.
They at least have band and math together — the first two periods of the day. And the year was off to a strong start for Lakia. She would subtly dance in her chair, shimmying her shoulders and giggling with Amazing as her teacher prepped for the start of the period.
D.C. school officials said the year started strong across the city. D.C. Public Schools has high hopes for Excel Academy — an all-girls charter school in Southeast Washington that the traditional system reopened Monday after the D.C. Public Charter School Board closed the school, citing poor performance. Five other schools will open with new buildings and facilities. And four campuses have expanded and start the year with new grades.
Three charter schools opened for the academic year, including Digital Pioneers Academy, a middle school focused on computer science in Southeast Washington. Thirteen other schools are adding grade levels this year.
But D.C. traditional and public charter schools are also starting the year reeling from controversies and setbacks. D.C. Public Schools is still without a permanent leader after Antwan Wilson was forced to resign as chancellor in February amid revelations that he skirted the school lottery rules to transfer his daughter to a high school with a waiting list. The scandal also cost the deputy mayor for education her job, which hasn’t been filled.
The process to permanently fill the positions is underway.
The city is under pressure to improve its high schools after a citywide investigation earlier this year revealed that one-third of D.C. Public Schools graduates in 2017 received their diplomas in violation of city law.
And experts said there’s no denying that the school system faces a complex set of demands and needs when trying to serve the District’s most vulnerable children.
Diana Sisson, an attorney with the Children’s Law Center — a nonprofit group that works with low-income D.C. children to ensure they receive the special-education services required by law — said she is worried that homeless children like Lakia, who often have special-ed needs, won’t get the services they need because they are often so transient.
“Parents without stable housing often struggle to keep their children on track,” Sisson wrote in an email. “Unfortunately, every move often results in delays or gaps in the student getting the services they are legally entitled to, or long delays in being identified for the services they need.”