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Class Notes
DCPS is hemorrhaging students
(Published February 21, 2005)

By MATT WENNERSTEN

"I started my life in an old, cold, run-down tenement slum." – Diana Ross, "Love Child"

Across the street from my school is a tenement – four stories of crumbling brick, some of the windows covered with plywood, some sealed by cheap paint over peeling trim, others propped open by 1970s style box speakers with Reggaeton music leaking out into the night. Often on Friday nights as I leave work, I see small groups of Bell students hanging out on the front steps, shooting the breeze.

Next to this building is an another building of the same era – red brick construction, formal entranceway, four stories, low and solidly built like an old workman squatting on his heels as he contemplates retirement. Over his shoulder peers a new addition made of angular steel and glass. In the yard, the mud churned up by new construction is slowly setting around a renovation. This building, last year identical to the tenement, is a luxury condominium conversion, with units selling for upwards of $400,000.

All across the city, this scene repeats. Next to subsidized housing, luxury townhouses. Next to tony "Capital Hill East," rambunctious Trinidad. Anyone earning less than $100,000 a year who wants to buy property in the District is looking in Eckington, Deanwood, Fort Lincoln, Congress Heights, as houses in once-affordable neighborhoods like Shaw, Columbia Heights or Petworth now start at $300,000.

My kids’ families, and therefore the kids, are being pushed out to Prince George’s and Montgomery counties in Maryland, or some of the few affordable areas left in Northern Virginia. Per capita income has gone up in the District, but the population has gone down; working families are being forced out and professionals are moving into the clusters of luxury condos and townhouses being built or renovated to attract them.

As a teacher, these demographic changes demand my attention. The D.C. public school system is hemorrhaging students. Wealthier residents are sending their kids to private schools, and a voucher program forced on D.C. by Congress is assisting them – 208 of the 1,300 voucher recipients were enrolled in private schools already, and only 75 of the 1,300 came from public schools designated as "needing improvement." (Sources: People for the American Way and The Washington Scholarship Fund) Poorer families are moving out of the school district. Charter schools are draining students out of the public school system, with mixed results. (On average, D.C. public charter schools are no better than the traditional public schools.)

I’m not saying this out of self-interest – there is plenty of demand for certified teachers in the metropolitan area. I’m saying this because unless we respond to the changes, public education in D.C. will vanish. Unless we act, D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) will consist of large, decaying school buildings rattling at half their capacity of kids, closing one by one as we slowly abandon the idea of free and fair public education for everyone.

In the medium term, the kids who remain in DCPS will be those who attend their neighborhood school out of family loyalty to an alma mater, convenience, inertia or because they are not accepted by a selective school. Motivation and parental involvement among students in DCPS will probably drop. It’s very likely that the proportion of kids in DCPS requiring special services will go up, as private schools and charter schools will try to avoid enrolling them. The cost of public education will increase (as operational and maintenance costs increase for aging buildings and special needs students) while the revenue dries up (as dollars follow students into other school systems). This will hurt the quality of DCPS and drive more kids out of the system.

I don’t see this vision as inevitable. (Note that I don’t believe the answer to improving DCPS is to just try and attract rich kids. Our mission is to educate the public, whoever it is.) What we need to do is provide opportunities for all D.C. citizens to continue to participate, to advocate for better public schools and to take the energy, good ideas and good intentions that are being funnelled into vouchers, private schools and charter schools and start applying them to DCPS instead.

We need to advocate for affordable housing. I believe that our community is richer when we have a mix of residents. We need firemen, police officers, janitors, check-out clerks, plumbers and nurses in D.C., yet we’re moving toward an era where we will have to import everyone but doctors, lawyers and professional basketball players from Virginia and Maryland. A vibrant and healthy city is a city that provides opportunity for all.

We need to continue to raise the quality of DCPS, so that parents get the best value for their tax dollars. We also need to get parents interested in their public schools. Frankly, bringing back students whose parents are most concerned about their education makes teaching and learning easier for everyone, since motivation is infectious.

We also need to remind ourselves that there is nothing being done in a charter school that we can’t do in a public school, and we need to take the ideas that are working and apply them to DCPS.

By the way, the three things a private school can do that DCPS can’t are (1) hire unqualified teachers, (2) keep certain kids from enrolling and (3) avoid federal or state accountability or standardized testing. I don’t think we need any of that in our public school system.

We also need to get the word out that it is possible to raise great kids in D.C., and that lots of kids get a good education through D.C. public schools right now. Last week, while at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, I ran into a young woman I taught three years ago in ninth grade at Eastern. A senior now, she’s applied to colleges across the country, has a 1080 SAT score, a 3.5 GPA and great prospects. The best part is, there are kids like her all across the city. They deserve a chance – a place to live and a place to get a good education. Let’s work on housing and education today, unless we want to be driving past penthouses and closed public school buildings on our commute from Largo tomorrow.

***

Wennersten teaches mathematics at Bell Multicultural High School in Columbia Heights and a graduate of the D.C. Teaching Fellows program (http://www.dcteachingfellows.org). Please send stories, comments or questions to mwenners@yahoo.com.

Copyright 2005, The Common Denominator