Two issues dominate the Ward 8 D.C. school board race. The first is the state of the schools in the city's poorest ward, where absenteeism is high, teachers and principals complain of a lack of parental support, and almost everyone complains of being ignored by the officials downtown.
The second issue facing voters on Nov. 5 is the performance of the ward's well-entrenched, sharp-tongued incumbent board member, R. Calvin Lockridge, who is seeking to defend his record of advocacy for Ward 8 -- and his confrontational style -- against the attacks of five challengers.
In this far corner of the city, east of the Anacostia River and generally south of Good Hope Road SE, those under age 18 make up 40 percent of the population -- the highest youth concentration in the city. Half the families in the ward are headed by women who receive some form of public assistance.
"I've been trying for the past three years to get my building painted," said Isaac Jackson, principal of Douglass Junior High School, which sits at Pomeroy and Stanton roads SE amid a sprawl of decaying apartment buildings.
"A good school environment is important, but we have a leaky roof that has been leaking for the past three years. I've received promises on top of promises from administrators, but nothing's been done," Jackson said.
"Part of my frustration is our parents here," he added. "Parents should be at the school from day one and concerned about their children from day one, lending support to the school wherever that support is needed. Parents can carry a lot of weight as far as going to board members and making contact with administrators, and making sure that the job is being done."
In Ward 8, only half the 22 schools have organized Parent Teacher Associations, a PTA spokesman said. And most of these have few members and little money to buy supplies or hire specialists, activities that are common for better-funded and better-attended parents groups in other parts of the city.
"Some of the parents say they don't want any long, drawn-out meetings," said Betty Shirley, president of the Douglass PTA. "They say they have no time to come out and listen to people talking about long-range planning. In the past, the meetings have been boring. A lot of the women are working parents and say they just don't have time to come out."
Others agree on the need to get Ward 8 parents more involved in the schools.
"The number one issue is the lack of community involvement in the day-to-day movement of their children," said Robert Royster, principal of Hart Junior High School on Mississippi Avenue SE.
He said he has begun scheduling parents meetings on weekends to make it easier for working parents to attend.
"It's important that the community recognize that they have a lot of political clout, and they have to use that clout to pressure public servants," he said.
The statistics tell part of the reason for the minimal level of parental involvement in Ward 8, which takes in the Washington Highlands, Shipley Terrace and Congress Heights neighborhoods, among others.
Only 5 percent of the ward's residents have completed four or more years of college, the lowest percentage among the city's eight wards, according to city statistics. The ward has the city's highest concentration of tenants and residents receiving welfare checks, and the second highest percentage of food stamp recipients.
In standardized test scores at Ballou, the ward's only high school, ninth grade students in the school's special mathematics and science program scored several months above their grade level on standardized tests in May.
But 11th graders, whose scores are relatively low throughout the District, scored 18 months to two years below their grade levels in Ward 8.
Eighth and ninth graders at other Ward 8 schools scored low on reading tests, while in mathematics they are doing much better, scoring in most instances close to or above the national norms.
Incumbent Lockridge's opponents contend that he has not done enough to aid the ward's schools, particularly in the area of organizing parents into effective lobbying groups like those in other parts of the city.
William Brown, immediate past president of the D.C. Congress of PTAs, said that he agrees.
"It's one thing to give lip service to parental involvement, and another thing to really get in there and support the parents organization and help them to move in a positive direction," Brown said. "It would be very, very helpful if Lockridge would play a part in that in Ward 8. But we haven't seen much."
Lockridge responded: "That's not my job. It's the principal's job. That's one of the things we evaluate them on. I'm not paid as an administrator."
In response to charges that he failed to maintain the highly touted math-science program at Ballou, which attracts students from all over the city, Lockridge said that school officials have been preoccupied with Banneker, the new model academic high school across town, but they recently allocated $300,000 for improvements to the program at Ballou.
"I kept telling them what was going on at Ballou, how the program was deteriorating, and I couldn't get any support from the board or the superintendent until recently," Lockridge said.
Four years ago, Lockridge faced six challengers and handily won a second term. This year his challengers include Absalom Jordan, an Advisory Neighborhood Commission member who has faced Lockridge twice before but lost both times; Virginia Howard, a member of the board of trustees of the University of the District of Columbia; Frank Sewell, a former apartment manager; William C. Lewis, a mail carrier, and Lin Covington, a businessman and substitute mathematics teacher in the D.C. schools.
Jordan, who is executive director of the D.C. Unemployment Compensation Board and who ran fifth in the 1981 race, with 290 votes, said he considers the major issue in the race to be "the lack of trust and confidence in the current board member's abilities."
"Years ago, he started out with good support," Jordan, 44, said of Lockridge. "He was chairman of the finance committee and once served as president of the board. Now he keeps talking about how he needs six votes of the 11 school board members to do anything. Why doesn't he have those votes? We need someone who can work with the board in solving problems for the children in our ward."
For Howard, who teaches English at UDC in addition to serving on the university's board, the major issue is improving achievement in reading.
"The schools need to be improved, and I would start with an intensive reading program for the schools," she said. "Improving reading skills would improve overall performance."
Sewell, 32, who has run unsuccessfully for the City Council, said: "From drugs to teen-age pregnancy, there are a number of challenges. However, a board member with the right kind of organizational skills can make a big difference in improving the situation. I would bring together as many people as possible to discuss ways to improve the schools."
Sewell added: "We've got to look at each individual school and determine what the needs are. At some schools, classrooms are so overcrowded and disruptive that it's difficult for students to learn anything."
Lewis, 39, also emphasizes the theme of leadership.
"I don't have all the answers, but I feel this is something I have to do," he said. "There is a lot of apathy among residents, although there are serious problems in the schools, including drugs, teen pregnancy and truancy. These kids don't have a chance, with the current leadership. My goal is to give them a chance."
Covington, 50, who ran unsuccessfully for the City Council, said: "The school board leader from this ward has to get into contact with other good leadership and use a personal touch in the community, reaching out to people and developing programs that give kids useful knowledge. We have to stress math as the key to learning and living."
Lockridge, 50, has been one of the school board's most outspoken members in the past eight years and is one of the few current board members who often are harshly critical of the generally popular school system administration led by Superintendent Floretta D. McKenzie.
He disputes his challengers' assertions that he has done little for the ward's schools, maintaining that the schools are getting better all the time.
Over the past four years, said Lockridge, "The schools in Ward 8 made the biggest overall increase" in scores on standardized tests in the city, although last year the figures slipped somewhat.
"Granted, they had the farthest to go, but still that's improvement," he insisted. "I have struggled to make the schools in the ward better. My biggest problem has been the administration."