Washington isn't the only city whose public schools are turning in a disappointing performance. You take any urban system in the country and you've almost surely got the makings of low test scores.
Much of the investment necessary to produce good educations has been drawn out of the nation's big city schools. Washington follows the pattern; poor scores are the checkbook balance.
When a city and its schools are largely black, as they are here, the problem compounds. It means kids are growing up in a school system and town where the population is racially divided. Blacks eat, sleep and learn in an almost totally black, disadvantaged environment. Whites are just as isolated.
Rock Creek Park divides blacks and whites in Washington as surely as the Capitol faces the mall. It's a fact, but in this town black and white adults don't talk about it much to one another. They come together on the job, but somehow the racial state of the city doesn't come up in polite black-white conversation. It's simply the way things are in Washington.
Last week, I witnessed something that argued well for the city. Something that said there's a chance a change is gonna come.
D.C. public schools held a mini United Nations for 5th and 6th graders. The kids represented some 20 countries, and debaded and presented resolutions on two issues of international concern: diplomatic immunity in regard to the hostages in Iran, and national sovereignty in regard to Russian intervention in Afghanistan.
That, in itself, was impressive. Ten and 11 year olds debating two of the most complex foreign issues facing our country with all due diplomatic aplomb.
Their schools had each adopted an embassy around town and the kids had become familiar with various cultures. Embassy officials had visited their schools and the kids had trooped to the embassies.
The mini U.N. capped the cross-cultural program. Many of the kids came with well thought out ideas and resolutions. It was part of a federal program, the federal Emergency School Aid Act (ESAA), designed to put youngsters of different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds in touch.
It brought together kids of every hue, culture and socio-economic background in Washington.
Helvinskis, Murphys, Rajamanis, Cohens -- Torrijos, Oshikis, Delaneys, Sterns and Peabodys -- Gerstens, Contes, Glantzs, Sulaimans and Williams.
The Iranian ambassador was just that, not a Jewish kid from Murch Elementary School. Nor was Cyprus' ambassador a black kid from Adams. And they all paid more attention to the votes cast by the Turkish ambassador from Oyster School than to her accent.
Last Friday, they'd come together to represent their country's policies and point of view. And they did it superbly; momentarily, at least, turning a blind eye to race, where the other kids lived or what their parents did.
It accomplished exactly what the setting and activity were designed to do, provide a common experimental base. An ESAA coordinator explained:
"You can't expect children to interact unless their experiences are similar. Obviously, a child who goes to Europe every summer has a different experience from one who hasn't seen all the museums in town."
So, ESAA does it. Its coordinators specifically plan activities to integrate children. In this instance, the common experience was the third annual mini U.N. And the kids took over from there.
State Department treaty adviser Arthur Rovine, who spoke to the youngsters about the history and purpose of the U.N., said afterwards potential leaders in world peace-keeping were being groomed there, and lamented it had not begun sooner.
He urged the students to write creatively. Someday, he said, they might contribute to a peaceful world order.
This, in the D.C. school system from students who haven't given the divided city much thought yet or inherited the notion that only one color is right and all others are wrong.
They don't live next door to one another, but they just might someday.