One of the underlying issues in the District’s wards east of the river is education, or the lack there of. Last year, D.C. schools chancellor, Kaya Henderson, announced the closing of 15 schools for the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 school year, as part of a retrenchment amongst budget cuts, low enrollment and competing charter schools. 11 of the schools that were slated to be closed were in Wards 5, 7 and 8. The results of D.C.’s Comprehensive Assessment System (CAS) test show a gap in achievement between students residing in those wards versus schools in other neighborhoods throughout the District. The eleven proposed schools trailed their peers by more than 50 percentage points in math and reading.
In 2011 only 9% of the students at Anacostia High School, in Ward 8, were meeting or exceeding math standards and 13% percent were meeting or exceeding reading standards on the CAS test. Those numbers jumped to 12% and 17% respectively in 2012, but they were still extremely low compared to schools like Woodrow Wilson High School, in Ward 3, who scored in the 59th and 60th percentile. One difference could be that Wilson offers their students Advanced Placement (AP) college level courses in 27 subjects. They also have 26 varsity and junior varsity sports including cross country, basketball, lacrosse and ultimate frisbee, as well as 44 extracurricular clubs and activities including a TV and library media crew, a concert choir and the Urban Debate League, leaving wide room for parents to be involved in their child’s academic life.
While Anacostia offers AP classes, they are offered in only five subjects, compared to the 27 at Wilson and they offer only 12 sports and few extracurricular clubs and activities. “I want to see things like family reading nights and meet your child’s teacher nights taking place at my child’s school,” says Shana Tolliver, parent of a D.C. public school student in Ward 8. “There needs to be better ways for parents to get involved because honestly learning should begin at home,” she said.
One possible explanation for the wide achievement gap is truancy. Truancy is the unexcused absence of a minor from school, without the approval of a parent or guardian. School officials say regular school attendance is a key aspect of being academically successful.
Absences and tardiness in large numbers impact the number of instructional hours that students receive, which may result in poor test scores, failing grades, disengagement from the school environment, and, ultimately, students dropping out of school.
Law mandates students who turn five on or before September 30 must attend school on a daily basis until they have completed all high school requirements until their 18th birthday. At Anacostia, the truancy rate, students with 15 or more unexcused absences, was 53 percent for the 2011-2012 school year and 49 percent for the 2012-2013 school year. Only 65 percent of the students attended school on a daily basis.
On May 6, 2014 at 9:02AM, long after the opening school bell, shots rang out on the strip of storefronts along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue Southeast, the “Main Street” in Congress Heights, also in Ward 8. Two 17-year-old Ballou High School students and a former student injured in the shooting, which was the spontaneous result of an unrelated dispute.
Ballou and Imagine Public Charter School were placed on lockdown as police searched the two-block crime scene. Two elementary schools and one middle school were put on alert status, with their doors were locked and staff closely monitoring the students. Students routinely hang out in front of a carryout and other shops along the Main Street, lingering long past the 8:45AM start time at Ballou. Police officers and the school principals are often seen clearing the street and leading the truants back into class.
Another possible explanation for the achievement gap is the lack of a school bus system. Unlike neighboring cities, D.C. has no regular school bus system for its students. The only individuals bused to schools are those with special needs. With Ward 8 being one of those areas struggling economically, parents don’t always have the money or means of reliable transportation to get their kids to school. “I have three kids,” said Shantell Bryant. “Yes they can ride the bus or train at a discounted price, but with three kids going to and from school five days a week and me having to take them there, the money adds up. I honestly cannot afford to send all of them to school sometimes,” she said. In response to the hard economic times, Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser (D) instituted a bill that allows all DCPS students to ride the metro buses, including the Circulator, for free.
In some cases, children who attend schools who are classified as failing, under the No Child Left Behind Guidelines are permitted to attend schools elsewhere. If this happens DCPS provides transportation through a contract with private transportation companies. The Obama Administration granted one of thirty-three ESEA flexibility waivers to DC schools, which certifies that public schools in the District will longer have to adhere to all aspects of the No Child Left Behind Program. Under the program all students are required to be proficient in math and reading by 2014, D.C. students, however, must meet the standards set forth by school administrators. Their goal is to have 73 percent of their students proficient in reading and 74 percent of their students proficient in math by 2017. They would also like to improve their four-year graduation rate from 59 percent to 78 percent by 2017. If the funds permit them to, several students leave their neighborhood schools in Ward 8 and head to better schools throughout the city in efforts to receive a quality education.
“Come to Ward 8 around 6:00 a.m. and you will see an interesting phenomenon,” said Tijwanna Phillips, former Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner 8B05. “For 5 years my kids and I traveled from 23rd and Alabama Avenue SE to Friendship Public Charter School near South Dakota Avenue NE and Bladensburg Road NE. That trip was an hour and a half both ways, all for a good education,” she said. Phillips was one of nine candidates in the April 2011 special election running to fill the seat of late D.C. State School Board member William Lockridge. Trayon “Tray” White, endorsed by both Lockridge’s wife and Marion Barry, won that election and has been reelected for a full term seat to represent Ward 8 in the state board of education.
In March, White resigned after accepting a supervisor position with the Department of Parks and Recreation in their Roving Leaders program. In 2007, when the Board of Education was disbanded and replaced with a new, less powerful State Board, it was decided that elected members would not be allowed to hold city government positions. Veteran Gay rights activist, Phillip Pannell, who was defeated by White back in the 2011 race, is now running again to fill the vacant seat in a special election to be held on July 15. Supporters of Pannell say he has a long history of involvement in school and education issues in Ward 8 and is highly qualified for a position on the board.