For the past three years, Melissa Brantley has been a second-grader in D.C. schools. In June, at last, she passed. But for those now taking up her cause, it's no time to celebrate.
That will have to wait at least until the school system assures them it will help Melissa avoid the fate of so many other District students kept repeatedly in one grade: They drop out.
The story begins in Shaw, with a group of community activists who are angry at school officials for apparently not showing much alarm that Melissa had been in second grade since 1987. They are feuding with Superintendent Andrew E. Jenkins about how best to educate her in the future.
"It's like she has been only another little number in the system," said Milli Edwards, the director of Shaw's Project Area Committee, a neighborhood development group. "What we're afraid of, because it happens so much around here, is that a child like Melissa could end up easily on the street."
School officials do not release the grades or exact attendance rate of any student, but this much is certain: Melissa, a 10-year-old whose mother is a recovering heroin addict and whose father is in prison, has drifted through three elementary schools. Some of her academic records were lost. She was not tested for any learning problems until this spring, upon the demand of a member of the Shaw community group, Ron Drake.
He requested tests in February, then waited months for a reply. Last week, as the dispute between Drake and school officials intensified, the system mailed Melissa's mother a letter. Margaret Mayes read it with disbelief; it said her daughter had a learning disability and should attend a D.C. school with special education programs.
"All this time in the same grade, and no one said anything like that about Melissa," Mayes said. "This is messing with her real bad. I think she got a raw deal from the schools." Melissa is an energetic, lanky little girl who squints when she laughs. Her good humor -- and rough luck -- are well known to Drake, Edwards and the Shaw group. She has slept in their homes, been surprised with birthday parties. Melissa, her mother and two older brothers lived for years in a one-room apartment.
She missed class chronically, but the school she attended this year, Bruce-Monroe Elementary, had little clue of her past. The principal, J.L. Barnes, spent weeks tracking her records. He has since kept close watch on her.
"She has some good people really fighting for her," Barnes said. "She's a bright little girl, but she needs that kind of help now."
Drake, a lawyer, is leading the charge. He and others want Melissa to attend the Lab School of Washington, a private school for children with learning problems, for the summer. He made the request through D.C. school board member R. David Hall (Ward 2), who told Jenkins. No one agrees on what occurred next.
Drake says Hall told him he could enroll Melissa and the system would pay the cost. Two weeks ago, he took her to class. Hall says he didn't think the plan was certain. Jenkins says he agreed to nothing.
Melissa, meanwhile, is not sure what's up. She said she is just glad to be past second grade. "I didn't want anyone to know how old I was there," she said the other day on her front porch. "I was embarrassed."
Neither the school system nor the Shaw activists appear to be willing to budge in the dispute. Drake said they want Melissa to stay at the Lab School until she gains ground academically. But Jenkins, who was not available for an interview, said through a spokeswoman that the system could not pay for Lab School costs (which exceed $2,000), and that she should attend a D.C. public school.
Hall faults the school system for not assessing Melissa. He said keeping her in the second grade three times -- a rare practice -- may prove to be a tragic mistake. "This goes straight to the heart of why we have so many dropouts," Hall said.
Nevertheless, he sides with the system. He said Drake has twisted his words and wants to force Jenkins to send Melissa to a private school. Such a move, Hall said, would set a troubling precedent for disputes with parents.
The battle over Melissa's next move, it seems, has angered everyone but Melissa. One evening last week, after another day's work at the Lab School, she raced up to greet her mother at the rental home they recently moved to in Petworth.
School went well, Melissa said. There was reading, dancing, singing. Margaret Mayes, whose forearms bear evidence of her past addiction, smiled as her daughter joked and spun across the bright green carpet of their porch.
"No time to stop and give your mother a hug?" Mayes asked.
"Oh yeah, I forgot," Melissa said. "I was just being excited about school."