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.
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