Rahnell Jordan and Duane Funderburk, two students at the District’s W.B. Patterson Elementary School, have the same dream for when they grow up: They want to be football players.
But their teachers and school administrators want them to have a backup plan, so the educators are using grant dollars to teach the children to work with cameras, create artwork, produce music and direct plays.
“We want them to see that they can be more than just athletes or rappers,” said Fatima Johnson, an assistant principal at Patterson. “They can be producers, writers and creators. Those are the types of experiences we are trying to create.”
In January, D.C. Public Schools awarded $1.7 million to 16 schools — including Patterson, which got $200,000 — for programs aimed at addressing the academic, social and emotional needs of minority males in the school system. While D.C. schools have seen improvements in graduation rates and higher math and reading test scores, academic achievement for males of color remains extremely low, especially compared with white students.
The grants, part of the system’s Empowering Males of Color initiative, fund a variety of programs, including science-themed after-school courses and art therapy. While there is a strong focus on improving academic achievement, the schools also are using their resources to improve social and emotional skills that could reduce disruptive behavior and keep students engaged in school.
Though it will take some time for the school system to know if academic outcomes have improved, D.C. Public Schools interim chancellor John Davis said the programs have started “incredibly well.”
“Our schools are excited about the activities and the supports that they have for our young men of color,” he said. “It has generated an excitement and given them the support to be innovative.”
Johnson often hears the boys at Patterson say they want to play professional football when they are older, so she wants to expose them to other, more realistic, options. If they learn how to use a camera, she reasons, maybe they also will see the potential of helping broadcast those football games to millions of viewers.
Or instead of becoming famous rappers, they could aim to be the producers creating the music behind the scenes.
“This will open up their eyes to other things,” said Patterson Principal Victorie Thomas.
In the after-school arts program, Rahnell is working on a comic book that features a talking dragon and a hero who team up to stop bad guys from stealing from the corner store.
At home, the 8-year-old practices by drawing his mother’s face and creates portraits of his family going to the grocery store.
“I am practicing how to draw so that when I get older I can be a professional artist, and I also want to play football,” he said.
Duane, 9, is fascinated by the different angles he can use to shoot photographs of flowers, his school building and people. Before participating in the after-school program, Duane had never used a camera.
The photographs that Duane and about 60 other boys took through the enrichment program are now part of a mosaic on a wall of the Auto Zone store on South Capitol Street SE.
At Bunker Hill Elementary School, 10-year-old Dajuan Addison also is learning about art. After being in the arts program for a few months, Dajuan has learned the importance of “not making fun of other people’s artwork when it is bad.”
He said not long ago, when he saw art he didn’t like, he would make “little comments about it.” That has changed.
“If I know the person that did it, I say, ‘You did a really good job,’ ” he said.
Unlike the program at Patterson, the arts initiative at Bunker Hill is geared more toward building social and emotional skills for boys of color. Principal Kara Kuchemba said that, through art, students can learn how to better understand themselves and their feelings so that when they get into an uncomfortable situation they do not resort to fighting or other negative responses.
These sorts of skills are not easily accessed through a standardized exam, so Kuchemba said she will have to find other ways to evaluate the program.
“My measure of success is being able to see an increase in positive interactions between students,” she said. “We are looking to see if students are demonstrating that they do not need someone else to solve their problems.”