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A Visit to D.C. Schools Headquarters

Edward Cowan is a retired New York Times reporter who takes an active role in District affairs. He's also my neighbor. A true reporter never stops reporting, and Ed acts on his concern about the state of the District by heading out to the scene and reporting to his friends. In his latest report, sent to a couple of hundred D.C. voters who are on Ed's email list, he recounts his visit to D.C. schools headquarters, a revealing journey that tells much about what's wrong with the system, but finds a glimmer of hope as well:

Retrace with me my visit to DC Public Schools headquarters (825 N. Capitol Street) on Thursday to attend a monthly meeting of Parent Watch and to hear the new Director of Special Education, Marla C. Oakes. She came to Washington from a similar job in St. Louis in August, to fill a post that had been vacant for more than a year.

I wanted to hear Dr. Oakes talk about her goals and how she would reform the costly program of Special Education that has been breaking the DCPS budget.

The meeting was scheduled for 5:00 to 7:00. At 6:55, I left. Dr. Oakes had not showed up. Nor had another announced speaker. But in ways I didn't expect, it had been an instructive two hours. I heard some things about DC public schools that I would not have heard from Dr. Oakes.

The e-mail notice said the meeting with Superintendent Clifford B. Janey and Dr. Oakes would start at 5 p.m. on the 9 th floor. After a lobby security guard casually waved me through with a distant, cursory glance at my ID--and ignored the racket the metal detector emitted as I passed through it with a cell phone-- I took the elevator to the 9 th floor. It turned out that is the lair of the Superintendent, his general counsel and the other bigwigs who run DCPS.

At 4:55 the corridor was deserted and quiet, the security desk unstaffed. A woman in an office pointed to a double door and said, "They usually start late."

Inside I found an oblong conference table--and no one else. The wall clock showed 1:30.

At 5:00, a woman entered. We introduced ourselves. She was Carlene Thompson and she said she was the mother of former DCPS students. I asked why she was there.

"I advocate," she said.


"My children were abused."

What had happened to them?

Ms. Thompson hesitated. "They were physically beaten"--pause--"or held," she said. And that led her into several, nonstop stories about the danger to teachers of grabbing children by the wrists to break up fights. The teachers could be, and had been, threatened with arrest for assault. In the District, she said, the meaning of "corporal punishment" had been stretched so far that teachers are powerless to intervene when children are hurting others or themselves. (Story of a disturbed boy who was hitting his head against a window and a principal who refused to do anything except call 911.)

At 5:17, a pair of women entered. They are contractors with DCPS who are setting up a Parents Resource Center at a school in Southeast.

Its mission, Karen Wills-Henry explained, was "to interface" between the school and parents. "Our vision," she said, was to train parents in "a hierarchy of parental involvement." That meant training them to see that their children get immunization shots, go to school, arrive on time and dressed properly, have breakfast first, are rested and have done their homework.

That, I thought, was promising. They are addressing what I regard as the root of the problem of poor student performance, parental indifference. They are trying to get parents engaged.

Mrs. Wills-Henry took it up a notch. "We want to train a cadre of parent leaders," parents who will train other parents.

After the 5:45 arrival of Sheila Carr, the unpaid volunteer who organizes the monthly Parent Watch meetings, I learned that the Board of Education has allocated money--possibly $2.5 million, Ms. Carr was uncertain and I couldn't verify the sum over the holiday weekend--to fund five of the centers. The first is to open by the end of this month, in Ward 7.

Ms. Carr, who brought her three-year-old grandson to the meeting in a stroller, explained that she organizes the monthly Parent Watch meetings "because children in this city has been wronged too long." Sometimes as many as 20 parents have attended, she said.

For an hour, the four women swapped stories about things gone wrong in DC public schools and about staff comings and goings. Mrs. Wills-Henry related that her son, a 10 th grader at Cardozo high School (13 th and Clifton Streets NW), had "expected challenging discussions, interactivity" when he got to high school. "The best he can get is at lunch they talk about football."

She told of students who fail gym because they don't bother to put on gym togs and others who got a U (unsatisfactory) in citizenship. "How do you get a U in citizenship?" she asked. "That's home room. You sit down, shut up and say 'present' when your name is called."

"I have no idea how you get kids to care," Mrs. Wills-Henry lamented.

Her consulting partner, Laura Abdelaziz, who said she was herself a product of DC schools, commented, "It starts in the home. To change a whole mindset" by the time a youngster arrives at high school, "it's a little too late." Which is the problem the Parent Resource Centers will seek to attack.

It was 6:55. Where was Dr. Oakes? She had not showed up for a Parent Watch date once before, Ms. Carr reported. "But afterwards she apologized profusely to me."

The other speaker was to have been Toni Thomas, on the staff of Reading for the Blind and Dyslexic, a private group, who was going to describe a new program to give reading-disabled pupils devices that would play books on tape.

By Marc Fisher |  November 20, 2006; 7:38 AM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Failing to respond to emails and phone calls also is typical. I hope that their doctors and plumbers treat them the same way.

Posted by: Chuck Samuels | November 20, 2006 9:46 AM

And this, my friends, is why it does not pay to live in DC. I can only hope that the incoming Dan Tangerlihni gets the power to fire swaths of the DC government. DC spends more per pupil than any jurisdiction in the nation, but can't even teach the kids to read....lets just give every parent $17k a year (the current budget per pupil) and let them do what they want with it....even if the buy a Hummer, it cant be any worse than it is now.

Posted by: 20902 | November 20, 2006 10:40 AM

I appreciate the look into an aspect of the 'everydayness' of DC schools - the ways consistent human failure is thwarting even good ideas. I have seen the school I used to teach in get 'tricked out' for site visits by various officials, etc., yet fail children on the everyday things, like having enough teachers for the classes. I much appreciate the work Superintendent Janey & his team are doing, but there is so much needing to be done. Thanks for the word picture into one facet of the whole, and for humanizing the issue.

Posted by: J Bowers | November 20, 2006 12:36 PM

Three of the four people who are written about got to the 5 p.m. meeting extremely late. And only a few people showed up at all. This is disgraceful--hardly anyone attended, and even the "good" guys showed up way after they should have. By the way, did Superintendent Janey ever show up or not?

Posted by: jaded | November 20, 2006 1:28 PM

I know full well the successes and failures of our schools and the community however some of the comments and this "day in the life" expose are hardly indicative of the real struggles and goodness.

"Good football conversation"? says Mrs. Wills-Henry, is the best her child can get?? I beg to differ. If that's all she hears about then that's on her. And one receives a "U" (Unsatisfactory) during Homeroom if they are frequently absent, often tardy, disruptive during announcements and poorly behaved during activites like assemblies or test taking in HR. Don't pretend to understand... it sours of the same disrespect others give teachers; everyone thinks they can do it. I dare all to come try!!

You commentators have no idea how teach the basic skills to children who do not get the basic needs to survive: lack of food, clean clothing, a home, lack of love, lack of family..... Get off your slick laptops and come make a difference with the rest of us... Yes, we bring big $$ per pupil- start solving problems then... Get the money in the schools- fix the schools

And why doesn't Fisher cover the positive sides of the DC student more often instead of the same ole' song and dance, very original reporting??

Posted by: DCPS teacher | November 20, 2006 2:46 PM

To DCPS teacher:
I think you might need to learn a few things before you shoot off at the folks mentioned above. The lady's point wasn't that she literally didnt know how one recieves a "U" in homeroom. All of your explaining is the long version of her saying "sit down, shut up and say 'present' when your name is called".
But more to the point, riding Fisher for not talking about the good stuff is counterintuative. Talking about the good doesnt begin to fix the bad, but continuing to keep the failings in the discourse is the only way to even begin to fix it.

Posted by: aaron | November 20, 2006 3:20 PM

Is DCPS Teacher reading this from school? They posted at 2:46 which, correct me if I am wrong, is during the school day in DC.

Maybe if the teachers were spending more time teaching and less time surfing the 'Net, the students would be better served.

Posted by: Just Wondering | November 20, 2006 3:49 PM

To be a DCPS teacher is to know frustration. No one prepares you, no one hears you, few people help you, and everyone blames you. There are many reasons why DCPS is a failing school system, the bureaucracy and lack of effective management at 825 only being two of them. Yes, this is a business, but it is the business of education, and it has its human casualties, never fear. I decided to leave DCPS the day I looked into those eyes eight or ten years young and realized that I was powerless to help them. Powerless. I couldn't fight facilities to get their textbooks, their desks, their chairs. I couldn't step into their homes and convince their parents to support their efforts in school. I couldn't hire teachers who cared about the people they are inside and not just the paycheck they get every two weeks. I couldn't fight to get the teacher's union to hear me and help me, even after sending letter after letter and getting no response. I couldn't fight to be heard anymore, because there comes a time when self-preservation must prevail. And you want to know the worst part? Having to explain your failures to your students. Having to come up with reasons why they didn't have those things that they so richly deserve. These kids are not stupid; they know they're being failed. They KNOW. Don't bother to kid yourself that they don't. They've heard it from some parent or auntie or daddy, or scarily enough, have come to the realization themselves.

I don't envy the position that Mr. Fisher or even the Washington Post itself is in. Reporting failure is not fun - it hurts and disappoints you, even when you're not the one to blame because you realize that it's children who are being affected. Children. And it's difficult to invent a positive story, so let me venture to give one bit of advice: Seek out the people on the front lines of DCPS who actually live for their job. They are there, I promise. Teachers who pour their hearts and souls into educating these kids, who stay after school with them, who love them like they are their own. And as for us, the "commentators with slick laptops", I can only offer this: Some of us tried, grew overwhelmed, and left after six years. Some of us who are stronger are still trying, every day. Those are the people who have important stories to tell, and to whom we should all be listening.

Posted by: Former DCPS Teacher | November 20, 2006 6:11 PM

Oh Aaron, are you kidding? Tell me what I should learn??.... I sure do appreciate the efforts of the folks mentioned who are empowering parents and I agree with Fisher on his response to their program but that one comment raised my eye. They are doing great work, as I am and they know as well, how difficult it is.

And yes, media focusing too much on the faiures creates a mire of negativity and hopelessness. Read any psych text or check out a young person who's constantly told he's worthless and bad. Build off the postive.....For example, this current story about the great marching bands of DC is wonderful but how about reporting on where they are now. Ask principals if they can fit it into the school budgets. Many schools have dropped their bands b/c they can't afford them. The arts are cut everywhere!

And the amusing time checker..... Hope you are a DC taxpayer. I'll let ya know I was helping a kid with our big essay project after class from about 1:30-1:50 during my lunch, which I didn't eat. And then when my planning period began after lunch, I was busy for about 25minutes ushering kids to class, yes, 25 minutes....Then I introduced one student to a counselor whose mother kicked him out b/c his stepfather was beating him and now he lives with his godmother and he been noticably depressed over the past few weeks. Finally I got a chance to eat lunch and read the daily paper around 2:30..... How was your day?

Finally, thank you to the former DCPS teacher for explaining some of the complexities involved... it is a remarkable profession and I do it for the kids. Especially the silent majority who don't get into the negative headlines, but get into college and vocations. Those who are wonderful to work with and make my days meaningful.

Posted by: DCPS Teacher | November 20, 2006 11:38 PM

Fisher, the only thing sadder and that illustrates the situation at DCPS better than the details of this meeting is the limited response to the entry and frankly the tone of too many of the comments. Coffee shops and parking spaces are the concerns of DC now.....

Posted by: CW | November 21, 2006 1:08 PM

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