Since I assumed the position of acting superintendent of the D.C. public schools, I have focused all my efforts in the areas of encouraging the pursuit of excellence among our pupils, parents and personnel. To this end we have secured the approval of the board of education to establish an academic high school, as well as to make realistic assessments for necessary remedial measures for those in need.
The presence of quality education in the nation's public schools is a vital component for cultivating citizen confidence in and commitment to urban growth and development. Most taxpayers become deeply disturbed with the policies of their local leadership when they are compelled to draw from their hard-earned, discretionary incomes and savings additional money to finance a private education for their children because the public education, for which they have paid and to which they are entitled, is, by local and national standards, inadequately preparing students to enter into the adult world of work, study and commitment.
The D.C. public school system is unique. Aside from being the nation's capital that houses all of the major departments and agencies of the federal government, Washington is also the oasis for lobbyists, corporate attorneys, doctors, management consultants and so on. The federal employees tend to be very well educated. For example, the campus of the National Institutes of Health employs more PhDs than most colleges and universities in the country; and there are more lawyers in the Pentagon than in the Department of Justice. Consequently, competition for professional employment and advancement is keen. Even among supporting staff, secretaries in particular, the Washington area employs the most education and specialized personnel in the country.
Washington is a two-industry town: government and tourism. The dominant mode of work is the processing of paper -- that must be written, typed, read, absorbed, cataloged, filed, packaged and then reproduced. In the past 20 years, a "grand canyon" of office buildings and assorted enterprises has been formed in the downtown sector bordered by Thomas, Logan, Dupont and Washington circles. Office complexes provide only short-term employment opportunities for manual laborers. They are constructed to house "clerical" laborers, i.e., individuals who can read and write. This further underscores the fact that unlike the case in most American cities, the working class (blue-collar laborers, so to speak) of Washington is comparatively small.
As painful as it is for me to admit, it is indeed a sad irony that in a city where possession of the literate skills is an absolute requisite for any kind of long-term, gainful, career-ladder employment, the local public school system continues to produce graduates who are functionally illiterate, and therefore incapable of being absorbed into the dominant sector of the local labor market. This is largely the result of a tradition of "social promotions" that we are seeking to eliminate, not without difficulty, through our Student Progress Plan.
Clearly, the mission of the public schools must be sufficiently elastic to encompass the preparation of their most promising students for admission into the best colleges and universities without sacrificing in any way their mission to provide the great majority of their students with the necessary skills and virtues to enter whatever is the prevailing local industry.
The student population of the D.C. public school system is more than 95 percent black, which makes it one of the most racially unbalanced school systems in the country. This is of great importance when one considers that the unemployment level among non-white teen-agers in the District has exceeded 50 percent. Furthermore, most of these teenagers are the products of low-income single-parent households where support for high self-esteem and success are often seriously lacking. Most of the black middle class, the former backbone and beneficiary of the system, disassociated itself from the school system as a source of instruction, although not as a source of income. In the wake of the abolishment of the track "ability grouping" system, many middle-class black heads of households continue to work in the public school system as teachers and administrators and then use a substantial portion of their salaries to exercise their freedom of choice to enroll their children in expensive local parochial and private schools. It is a simple fact of life that families are drawn to the public schools like bees to honey when these schools are equal in quality to their private-school competition. But, understandably, families lose confidence in the public system when these schools are not competitive.
The most important problem facing any organization, but especially a public school system, is the need to establish and sustain a climate of unity of purpose and a climate where excellence and achievement are equated with commitment and respect. The seeds for such change were planted during the administration of Dr. Vincent Reed, and we are just beginning to reap the harvest. I am confident that much more will follow, and with it will come a greater sense of community pride and respect for the work that we are doing to provide our families with quality education.
Twenty years ago, the D.C. public schools were a trophy to our community; I want to do all I can to help make that trophy shine brightly once again. Everything we do should be dedicated to the firm conviction that all of our children can learn if they are properly taught. It is incumbent on the total adult community of Washington to find the resources, the techniques and the will to accomplish this assignment.