The D.C. Board of education recently rejected a proposal to establish a model academic high school, mainly on the grounds that such a school concept is "elitist" and that its adoption would subsequently compromise the public school's mandate to "take care of the masses." This is a shortsighted view.
I am a third-generation native Washingtonian and a product of the D.C. public school system. Twenty years ago, the system was certainly not in the mess that it finds itself in today. Surely, there was student violence, teacher and parental apathy, administrative insensitivity, inadequate and insufficient school supplies, vandalism, truancy and other maladies that plague schools, especially those in large metropolitan areas. But there was a strong sense of purpose, sustained by performance, and a belief that academic achievement was not only important, but attainable. Such schools as Western, Wilson, Dunbar, Roosevelt, Coolidge, McKinley, Anacostia and Eastern sent a substantial number of graduates (many of whom earnedacademic scholarships) to some of the most prestigious colleges in the country. Such achievements were a source of school and community pride, and were accomplished in an era absent of affirmative action programs and special admissions criteria for minority students.
One of the reasons such achievement was possible was the large representation of middle-class households in the public school system. The abolishment of the ability-grouping, or "track," system in 1967 marked the beginning of the exodus of the middle class-both black and white. The track system, though occasionally abused, was an effective placement tool because it recognized the differences among students in both their interests and their abilities. Furthermore, contrary to what many have been led to believe, the track system was not applied rigidly, and its application varied from school to school. A student's placement in a lower track was not necessarily frozen; movement between tracks was possible, depending on a student's improved performance or change of interest.
Within a short period of time, the effect of this middle-class exodus was noticeable in a dramatic change in student performances and teacher attitudes that became evident in declining school spirit and discipline and in results on national achievement-test scores.
Also, one cannot overlook the mixed impact of the black pride, back-to-Africa revolution that was occurring during the same time. This black "identity" movement exercised a profound influence on a majority of blacks, but especially on the young. Many students from low-income households began to see themselves as the proud, militant, unintegratable descendants of "field nigger" slaves. They looked upon the middle class as modern-day bourgeois equivalents of Uncle Tom, "house nigger" slaves. In the minds of many, serious study and social advancement were synonymous with "trying to be white," and were therefore condemned and avoided.
The loss of the middle class to a public school system is analogous to the loss of industry to a city. When industry leaves, the city's tax base shrinks, costs of social services escalate, crime increases, fear replaces faith, and those who can afford to do so relocate to more hospitable and accommodating environments. When schools lose the middle class, they lose children from families with high educational expectations; they lose their parents at PTA meetings, teacher conferences, school outings, fund-raising projects and other activities designed to support what is supposed to be taking place in the schools between nine and three; and they lose the political clout, concern and know-how of educated and motivated parents.
Saying that the public schools' mandate is "to take care of the masses" leaves on to conclude that at present only middle-class white and black students should be encouraged to attend Harvard, Yale Stanford or MIT, and such encouragement should not be awarded to the talented and highly motivated student who just happens to be from a low-income or "culturally disadvantaged" household. Which, in other words, is to say that the public schools should be in the business of encouraging the development only of those with average intelligence and ordinary ability. It is difficult to believe that a predominantly black school board elected to serve an overwhelmingly black student population, could be so shortsighted in its vision and so far-reaching in its misjudgment.
An academic high school would service the entire city and would serve as a strong motivational tool for all academically gifted students by enabling them to study and be challenged by their peers. Furthermore, the "masses," within the past decade, have become the minority. The black middle class of Washington, which is the largest of any city in the nation, far out-numbers the black poor.
The industry of Washington is government, which is essentially the processing of paper -- papers that must be written, read, absorbed and cataloged: the great majority of wage earners make their living sitting behind a desk. It is a sad irony that, in a city where possession of literate skills is an absolute prerequisite for any kind of long-term, gainful, career-ladder employment, our local public school system-while producing many qualified and indeed outstanding students-still continues to produce too many graduates who are functionally illiterate and incapable of being absorbed into the local labor market.
Our social system is predicated on the proposition that there is such a thing as a "natural aristocracy," which consists of individuals with God-given gifts who are scattered throughout the country and found in every social class. Obviously, this is not an aristocracy of pomp, pedigree, family name or inheritance, but an aristocracy of ability. It is from this bank of talent that we draw leadership, energy and vision. Public schools have contributed greatly to the resources of this bank, but will not continue to do so if the District school board's decision is an accurate reflection of constituent views.
On the other hand, if citizens of the District are opposed both to the board's rejection of the model academic school, as well as to its members' overall performance, then a petition for recall (which is permissible under the existing home rule charter) should be circulated to bring about the removal of those board members whose behavior and points of view no longer reflect the interest of the community. In addition, it might well be time to include on the November ballot a place to vote for or against the retention of an elected school board.
Finally, the precedent for adopting the model academic school was established with the creation of the Ellington School for the Arts, which serves the special needs of the more artistically inclined members of the student population. If we are willing to serve the special needs and interests of artists, why discriminate against the special needs and interests of the academically gifted student?