Standing at the podium to give his high school valedictory address, Village Academy graduate Hosea Watson raised his arms like a boxing champ and soaked up the cheers. His mother, Darlene James, was looking on from the audience, but she should have been up there with him — receiving a medal.
Hosea was expelled from public school for misbehavior when he was a sixth-grader. And James mounted a heroic effort to get him enrolled in the Village Academy, a special-education school with campuses in the District and Prince George’s County.
The District, like all school systems, must pay private-school tuition for special-education students when the schools cannot provide needed services. But parents say that some at-risk students are being kept in public schools, even when the appropriate services are not yet in place there.
To D.C. lawmakers — and no doubt many taxpayers, too — the streamlining and cost-cutting measures make sense. For now, though, parents must cope with frustrating delays and rejections, the latter sometimes accompanied by the discouraging words of school officials who believe that when a child does poorly in school it must be the parents’ fault.
“I have to pat myself on the back,” said James, who works as a school bus monitor for D.C. Public Schools. “Hosea had a learning disability, and people were saying that he was too troublesome and there was no help for him.”
Hosea, 18, has been accepted into St. Augustine University in Raleigh, N.C., and will work at a Harris Teeter store this summer to help pay his way.
Franklin Campbell, 17, also received his high school diploma at the Village Academy ceremony last week.
“Hallelujah,” said his mother, Christine Coney. She deserves a medal as well.
Franklin had started out as a bright and promising student. But when he was 8, a television toppled over and killed his 2-year-old sister.
“He just withdrew into a shell kind of thing,” Coney said.
As Franklin’s schoolwork began to suffer, Coney became determined to get him into a school that provided the appropriate therapeutic services.
The task was made all the more difficult because some private special-education schools in the District were under investigation for failing to deliver on services as promised.
It would take Coney five years to get Franklin into a special-education program that worked, all the while coping with the loss of an infant daughter and the inconsolable grief of an adolescent son.
“You have ups and downs,” said Coney, who works as a nurse’s aide. “But by grace, we made it.”
Franklin, who has been accepted to 13 colleges and universities, chose the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, where he plans to major in accounting.
He shared salutatorian honors with classmate Rashawn Brown, who won a $16,000-a-year scholarship to the Johnson & Wales University College of Culinary Arts in Miami.
Of the 12 Village graduates this year, six have been accepted into college so far and three have won scholarships.
It should be noted that both Hosea and Franklin have men in their lives who care about them and who share, to one degree or another, in their success — a father who is separated from the mother, along with mentors and coaches.
The Village Academy has an impressive on-time graduation rate of 85 percent. Even students who are performing below grade level make quantum leaps in academic achievement.
“Patience and persistence, that’s how we do it,” said Dawn Kum, who founded the school in 2007 and serves as chief executive. “We let the students know that we believe in them and will not let them stop trying.”
That means a teacher and teacher’s aide for a maximum of eight students to a classroom; a cadre of therapists; and the same academic curriculum as D.C. Public Schools, along with art, music, auto mechanics, culinary arts and carpentry, spread over an extended, 11-month school year.
Per-pupil expenditures may be higher than for most public school students, but they are not nearly as high as for a lifetime of incarceration. The chance of a black male high school dropout going to prison is roughly 70 percent, according to a report by Brookings Institution last month.
Hosea’s mother was not taking any chances.
“I felt that if he didn’t make it, he’d end up getting involved with crime and drugs, and I couldn’t let that happen,” James said.
She was standing in the aisle with a cellphone camera as Hosea began his speech. He was thanking those who had helped him when he saw her and fell silent. The pride on his face was reflected in hers, both streaked with the sweetest tears.
It was all the reward she needed.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.