A high school band. More computers. Foreign-language classes beyond Spanish and French. Less teacher turnover. Sex education. Better cafeteria food.
Nearly three dozen high school students who met with D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson on Monday morning put these and other items on wish lists for their schools, part of an effort to help her shape the school system’s budget for next year. After years of concentrated investments in lower grades, Henderson has declared that next year will be “the year of the high school.”
Braswell Chappelle, the student body president at Anacostia High School, asked the chancellor for more opportunities to expose students to different careers and field trips to help them “get out of D.C. and see the real world.”
“We struggle to get students to know how college could be important in life,” said Chappelle, who donned a pink bow tie for the meeting at the school system’s headquarters.
Henderson announced her high school push for next year in a letter to the community last week, and she also listed three other priorities: giving more students citywide access to rigorous learning experiences, improving opportunities for young men of color, and increasing the number of schools that offer a longer school day.
The school system invested an additional $17 million into middle school grades to increase staffing and services last year, Henderson said. The previous year, officials shored up programs in elementary schools. Along the way, the city has continued to pour money into some of the nation’s most expansive public preschool programs.
“It’s time to focus on re-thinking high schools,” Henderson told the high school students Monday. “Are we ensuring that our young people are getting all the academic experiences they need? Are they getting the extracurricular experiences they need? The enrichment experiences?”
The student meeting, along with a public hearing scheduled for Monday night, marked the official beginning of the budget process for next year. More public hearings are scheduled for March and April, after the mayor announces revenue projections and funding levels.
The city has already made a highly visible start with improvements to high schools, investing more than $1 billion in renovations that have yielded some dazzling facilities. And this year, the city created an international academy at Cardozo Education Campus for recent immigrants and opened revamped career academies that aim to prepare students for lucrative jobs in growing fields.
But steep academic challenges remain. About 40 percent of the city’s ninth-graders do not graduate in four years. City officials released a report this year that examines the roots of the high dropout rates and promised to turn more attention to older students who need interventions.
Students came together Monday from 19 schools across every ward. They had four minutes to talk about five ways they would improve their schools. Many spoke about a need for more extracurricular activities.
A student from Cardozo, in Columbia Heights, said the band program had not been restarted after its director left. Students at Phelps ACE, a career-focused school in Northeast, asked for a Latin class and said they wanted to bring back some past programs, including for cosmetology and automotive skills. They also asked for a theater department and a JROTC program.
Dasia Kirkland said there are few elective courses at Coolidge High School in Ward 4. “We need more opportunities other than sports,” she said.
Students from School Without Walls, a highly regarded and selective school, spoke about overcrowding and how some classes have to meet in the cafeteria.
Keith Thomas and Taylor Lofton, students at Banneker High School, another popular application-only high school, said the school has no band program, few foreign-language classes and limited access to computers.
“They say we’re the best, but we don’t have what they think we have,” Thomas said.
Students from at least three schools asked for sex education or free condoms, as they said teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases are problems at their schools. One 22-year-old mother who attends Roosevelt STAY, an alternative school, asked for day care for students in night school.
Malik Burrell, a senior at Ballou High, spoke last. He said he is worried about his school in Southeast, which has long struggled academically.
“We’re losing our drive,” he said. “We know we can’t go to school with our heads held high because what is expected of Ballou is so low.”
He said the sinking morale is shared by many teachers, some of whom leave because it’s “too much” or because “they’ve lost their passion for teaching.”
Henderson thanked the students for their honesty.
She said she could address some of the concerns easily, such as setting up recycling programs, as some students requested. Other issues would be more difficult, she said, such as bringing a well-rounded program to every school.
“Putting every single thing you want in every single high school is very expensive,” Henderson said, particularly since most city high schools are small. Only three have enrollments of more than 1,000 students, she said.
Brenda Granados, a student at Roosevelt High School, said she’s hopeful about her school’s future. Roosevelt is undergoing a renovation and is slated to host a new global studies program.
“As we know, Roosevelt is not one of the best schools in D.C.” she said. But with all the investments, “why not make it outstanding?”