This week brought two examples of D.C. education tax dollars at work. One case contained the stuff of which voter cynicism is made. The other could renew even the most pessimistic person's faith in spending on public education. You decide which is which.
Case No. 1.
In one of its first public displays of collective judgment, the school board's six-member majority elevated Ward 6 representative Benjamin Bonham to the board's vice presidency. Dear reader, this is the same Benjamin Bonham whose devotion to the public schools gave way to his love for the D.C. Council smack dab in the middle of his first board term. He was overcome with desire for the council seat held by Ward 6 incumbent Sharon Ambrose.
Ward 6 voters didn't return his affection. Ambrose wiped him out last November, winning 56 percent of the vote. Bonham limped in in last place, left in the dust by the Rev. George Stallings, who polled 28 percent of the vote to Bonham's 16 percent.
But while Bonham proved to be no great shakes with Ward 6 voters, he's turned out to be a good match for the board's new insurgents. Westy Byrd, Don Reeves, the Rev. Robert Childs, Tonya Kinlow and Dwight Singleton wanted to purge Wilma Harvey from the presidency and overhaul the board's governing structure. To pull it off, they needed Bonham's vote. They got it. But it came with a price: the board's vice presidency.
Don't believe it? A leader in the group, begging anonymity, disclosed the deal on Wednesday. On Thursday, Westy Byrd confirmed the arrangement. "That's exactly right," she said.
It apparently didn't faze the new majority that after Bonham's '96 election, a published report disclosed his failure to pay more than $20,000 in support of a child he fathered with a teacher while working as a high school coach. Perhaps they didn't know that a portion of Bonham's $15,000 school board stipend has been ordered garnished by the court for monthly child support. Maybe they wouldn't have cared anyway -- his vote being all that mattered.
Defending their support of Bonham, Byrd said, "I do not know about his personal issues. . . . He has an excellent record with the superintendent, an excellent attendance record and a record of being fair."
Byrd's view is not universally shared. Larry Gray, legislative chairman of the D.C. Congress of Parents and Teachers, and a likely Bonham opponent next year, told Post writer Debbi Wilgoren: "As far as I'm concerned, [Bonham is] a deadbeat dad and scum of the earth" ["For Bitterly Divided D.C. School Board, No Business as Usual," Metro, July 27].
Case No. 2.
By the time you read this, Philip Russell, Sylvia Sherman and Sherti Hendrix will be within a month of embarking on an exciting new phase of their young lives. Philip is off to Montgomery College to begin his freshman year. Sylvia is leaving the District for Atlanta and her freshman year at Spelman College. Sherti strikes out for Bennett College in North Carolina, where she also starts her freshman year.
Two years ago, these three teenagers were on probation, caught up in the D.C. court system. As a group, they had also hit bottom in the D.C. Public Schools. Their combined grade point average was the pits: 1.1 on a 4.0 scale. Individually, the picture was worse.
Philip's GPA was 0.0 -- he had failed everything. By his own words, he attended school about 10 days a month.
Sylvia's record was hardly better. She had compiled a D average -- a 1.2 GPA -- and had missed more than 80 days of school. Sherti estimates that she had attended school less than half the time before the fall of 1997.
You wouldn't know them now.
Yesterday was their commencement from the See Forever-Maya Angelou Public Charter School, one of the first applicants to be granted a charter by the D.C. Public Charter School Board (not to be confused with the elected school board).
Since joining See Forever two years ago, Philip, Sylvia and Sherti have made remarkable progress. Philip attended school 98 percent of the time. Sylvia and Sherti achieved 94 percent and 96 percent attendance records, respectively. Each made the dean's list four times. Their SAT scores went up by an average of 150 points during the past two years. Their average GPA: 3.45.
By definition, they were past the "at-risk" stage when they entered See Forever. They were caught up in the juvenile justice system, ripe for the cycle of recidivist behavior common to youth offenders: detention, bad schools, mean streets, return to detention. But instead of getting locked into that system, they were steered toward the See Forever in September 1997. And probably for the first time, they were made to work -- 11 hours a day, 12 months a year. And when a school has a 5 to 1 student-teacher ratio, it's not easy for a kid to hide.
When they weren't busy in the classroom, they were working part-time in the school's catering business or technology shop or in group activities that build teamwork and leadership skills. They also had plenty of time for counseling and loads of teacher-parent conferences. And the school's teachers and administrators don't mess around. I can attest to that because for nearly two years, my wife, Gwen, has been mentoring one of the 40-plus girls and boys attending See Forever.
See Forever didn't get that way by accident, either. Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder and Washington lawyer Reid Weingarten were the moving forces behind the idea.
They tapped two energetic, deeply committed lawyers, David Domenici and James Forman Jr., to run the program. At first blush they seem an odd couple: Domenici is the son of conservative Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.); Forman is the namesake of former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee executive director James Forman. But their dads are both strong men who are driven by their principles. So it's no surprise that their sons would be hard chargers too. They just happen to see eye to eye on the need to help save children who wish to turn their lives around. And unlike so many of this town's politicians, Domenici and Forman aren't talkers; they're doers. Both gave up good legal careers to practice what they preach.
Although in their early thirties, Domenici and Forman aren't newcomers to the youth reclamation effort. They have been conducting after-school tutoring programs and teaching business skills to youth offenders and at-risk kids in the District for quite a few years. And through the See Forever-Maya Angelou Public Charter School, they've assembled a highly regarded staff of teachers and social workers, tutors and a broadly based core of institutional support and corporate sponsorships. With the help of D.C. public school funds and private grants, See Forever is giving students like Philip, Sylvia and Sherti a second chance to become responsible, contributing citizens.
Now, taxpayer, here's the question: Between Case No. 1 and Case No. 2, which do you favor?
You may reply to: firstname.lastname@example.org; (202) 334-6000; or Colbert I. King, Editorial Department, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.
The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.