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to value our children
(Published March 8, 2004)
By DIANA WINTHROP
Roseline Zigomo is a 33-year-old human rights lawyer from Haarare, Zimbabwe. She is one of eight Hubert Humphrey fellows at American University College of Law.
The program, under the auspices of the State Department, was established to honor the late Minnesota senator and to continue his advocacy of human rights and international understanding. These year-long fellowships are offered as mid-career programs for individuals who have made a commitment to public service. While there are only eight at American University, there are others locally at the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University in the District.
Since Rosie’s arrival last summer, she has participated in a number of community service projects in the District and, along with many foreign students, has been a volunteer speaker on Zimbabwe in D.C. schools.
As a first time visitor to the United States, Rosie and I have talked often about her observations and experiences in the District during the past seven months. I have found it extremely difficult to explain to a person from a developing country why the nation’s capital does not value its children. Rosie is not alone in her assessments of her visits to Charles Young Elementary School and Eastern Senior High School in Northeast Washington. The other fellows have visited different schools throughout the city, and some regularly tutor in a few of these schools.
Last August Rosie, along with some other local college students, participated in a cleanup at Charles Young before the school opened in September. Rosie said the discussion afterwards was surprising. Most of the area college student volunteers were "surprised" and "horrified" about the physical conditions at Charles Young. Rosie said the building itself didn’t look too bad – at least to her, coming from a developing country where money is always an issue. But, she added, "if we were richer, our children would be receiving the best."
It was not easy explaining that, routinely for years, our local officials have taken money away from maintenance and repair of older schools and delayed the construction of new schools. The excuse has always been that there is not enough money to go around – not enough for a tax cut, not enough for a stadium, not enough for bringing the Olympics to the District, just not enough money to educate the District’s less-well-off black children.
Rosie’s observations about her visit to Eastern Senior High were not all that different from those of outgoing D.C. school Superintendent Elfreda Massie, who has voiced her opposition to the mayor’s plan to have school security handled by the police department.
Rosie said she found Eastern to "look quite nice on the outside" but was "shocked" when she entered the building.
"I was shocked by the metal detectors and the way the girls were separated from the boys," she said. "The girls and boys were patted down. It seemed like you were going into a prison and not a school. Some of the children looked resigned and others looked rebellious."
In our recent conversation, Rosie reiterated many times she was extremely disappointed that in one of the richest countries in the world children are not the top priority. Rosie added that "it shows that the priorities in this country are not what one would expect. I expected that investing in children would have a high standard in America."
Rosie’s visit to the classroom was more uplifting. She observed that the teacher was quite good and cared about her students. "My heart went out to the teacher, because it was obvious to me she was trying very hard despite many obstacles," Rosie said. Rosie observed that the Eastern students she talked with about Zimbabwe were willing to listen. "They were really interested to learn about other cultures," she said.
In January, Interim Superintendent Massie took herself out of the running for the permanent superintendent’s job. She did so, she said, because the mayor and city council along with education officials were more concerned with power and control over education than providing a quality education for students who lack basic skills.
Rosie and Massie have a lot in common. Their priority is not providing lip service, but putting children – all children – first.
Listening to Rosie, I know that if Zimbabwe had more resources, children there would be first. Americans have always been imbued with a sense of being "number one" in the world. We have a lot to learn from poorer countries who value their children more than we value our own. In college I remember one of my anthropology professors said that societies that value their children and elderly are the most advanced cultures.
In this instance, we have a long way to go.
Diana Winthrop is a native Washingtonian. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2004, The Common Denominator