D.C. Schools Folly: Near-Adults In 9th Grade
Wilson High School in the affluent Tenleytown section of Northwest Washington, home to some of the D.C. school system's highest-achieving students, is not accustomed to a stream of fights and arrests. But this year, the school's online bulletin boards are ablaze with accounts of unprovoked assaults, some with video (everybody's a documentary filmmaker these days).
Blame for this year's spike in violence has been placed squarely on the arrival of a group of students who nearly everyone agrees should not exist: Ninth-graders who are 16, 17 and even older, students who supposedly came to Wilson from the city's Oak Hill juvenile detention center in Laurel, boys who were left back or missed so much school that they tower over their classmates, a perfect recipe for frustration, shame and a desire to show who's boss.
Except for one thing: The kids who've been making trouble did not come from Oak Hill.
Wilson, like other District high schools, did add a lot more ninth-graders this year, as the system dismantles its junior high schools and moves to create middle schools limited to sixth through eighth grades.
"Everybody's quick to say, 'Oh, it's Oak Hill kids, those Oak Hill kids,' " says Vincent Schiraldi, the city's director of Youth Rehabilitation Services. "It's just shorthand for, 'We're scared, and we need someone to blame it on.' "
That's a bit much. The fights did happen, and someone is responsible for them. The school must hold those students accountable and ensure a safe environment for the majority of kids who want nothing to do with hallway battles. But Schiraldi has a point. In the assault case that most upset Wilson parents, five students were arrested. Not one came from a city-run group home near Wilson that parents were quick to blame. Only one had ever set foot at Oak Hill, and that boy was there two years ago for one week of detention.
But the offending kids came from somewhere, and although the city isn't saying exactly what path the troublemakers took, everyone agrees that a toxic mix of classroom failure, juvenile crime, dysfunctional families and a broken vocational education system has produced a cohort of kids who are way too old for their academic levels.
And the school system inserts those older ninth-graders into buildings such as Wilson with wholly inadequate preparation, either for the new students or for those in the school.
"Being behind in school contributes to being marginalized, which contributes to not showing up, which contributes to delinquency," Schiraldi says. "Now you put a bunch of 17-year-olds into a ninth grade in a high school where they hardly know anyone else, and what's going to happen? They could invite each other to a prayer group, but that's not typical in my experience."
Schiraldi and Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee have decided that Wilson will get no more transfers from group homes this year. The administrators are looking for smaller, specialized settings for those who cannot handle a big, anonymous school.
What would that setting look like? Oak Hill Academy, the detention center's school, is no academic nirvana, but it is showing how to connect with troubled teens. Inside Oak Hill's classrooms the other day, a few kids snoozed at their desks. Others struggled to read even the simplest of words. And this is still a correctional facility; stuff happens.
A gut-wrenching thud broke the students' concentration as, in the hallway, a body was thrown against the classroom door. We heard a child's outraged shout and then an adult asserting control and ushering the boy away.
Inside Burt Odom's English class, the teacher decreed that the reading of the next scene from "A Raisin in the Sun" would be postponed to make way for a bit of grammar. More than a bit, actually: "We are going to conjugate the verb 'to be' every day until people learn that you do not say 'I be, you be, he be,' " Odom said.
Applause greeted that announcement. "All right," said one of the security guards who watch over these students. "About time."
The 11 students in the room ranged in age from 14 to 17. They're not in ninth grade or 11th grade or any grade, really. Some can barely read. They are cons, although the juvenile system cooks up more genteel names for them. These are the kids who make people afraid of the city. They steal cars, mug strangers, sell drugs.
In a few weeks or months, they will step free of the razor wire. Some will enroll in a D.C. public school, maybe even Wilson, places that don't know how to deal with such kids. At least, not yet.
Oak Hill is a school transformed. Not one of the D.C. public school teachers who worked there last year remains. Schiraldi booted the D.C. system from the building and brought in David Domenici, whose See Forever Foundation also runs the Maya Angelou charter school. Recognizing that his students come and go constantly, Domenici reorganized the curriculum into four--week themed units that end with award ceremonies, extended the school day, hired dynamic teachers, installed flower boxes along the halls, and added a debate coach, a literary magazine and a woodworking program.
Some kids say it's the first time they've had individual attention from a teacher.
The boys in social studies teacher Emily Chiariello's class span five years of age and at least double that in ability. The class roster can change daily. Yet here she is, leading an animated discussion of the Second Punic War and the reasons why Hannibal led his army across the Alps.
"Is this happening on home turf, or is this an away game for Hannibal?" the teacher asked, and four voices rang out with answers and discussion. Each correct response is rewarded with paper tickets: collect enough and you win a prize. The boys compete for rewards but seem most motivated simply by being taken seriously.
"We have kids who are so grateful that someone is finally taking the time to teach them to read," Domenici says. "And then we have to send them out, and a 17-year-old gets placed in ninth grade, so he drops out of school rather than take that humiliation. No principal wants to put 17-year-olds with 13-year-olds. And they shouldn't have to."
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