After Mayoral Control: What Mayor Fenty, Vince Gray, and Victor Reinoso Should Say About Schools

February 11, 2007

It is increasingly apparent that the D.C. Council, chaired by Vince Gray, is going to give Mayor Fenty what he wants. In one form or another, he’ll get control of the schools. Everyone has their own view on this matter. I think reasonable minds can disagree on this, but for me, a better governance structure is a necessary condition for fixing D.C. schools. It is not alone sufficient—it is no panacea. But it is a necessary step.

Ok, then what? A lot of people will want to focus on direct schooling reforms—things like accountability, professional development, special education (until that is fixed nothing else can be solved), and teacher and principal quality. That stuff is hugely important, for sure.

I want to talk about something else, however–something that can be done at the same time as these schooling reforms. I propose that the Mayor, his education team, and Gray announce a city-wide call for public support of D.C. schools. I don’t have a catchy title—the communications gurus can come up with one—but the basic idea is this.

First, follow up on Colby King’s excellent suggestion in yesterday’s Washington Post. In a truly inspired column, King wrote:

This is African American history month. Fenty and Gray should make history.

They should convene an emergency session with the heads of organizations such as the Links, AKAs, Deltas, Zetas and Sigmas and other professional and social women’s groups with rich experience in dealing with young women. Bring in Brenda Miller, ministers and college presidents. Tap the leadership of active high school alumni associations, such as Dunbar and Roosevelt’s.

Do the same thing with male professional and fraternal groups (Kappas, Omegas, Alphas, Sigmas, Peaceoholics, Elks, Masons, etc.). Make it racially inclusive.

Enlist from these groups an army of adult volunteers to serve under an official Fenty-Gray mandate to fill the gaps at elementary and middle schools deficient in parental involvement.

The District has a wealth of talented people who can serve as mentors, tutors and extended family for children whose parents are unable, either because of work or personal circumstances, or unwilling because of their own issues, to be on the school scene. A Fenty-Gray sanctioned volunteer corps, like Murch parents, can partner with principals and teachers as fundraisers, classroom monitors and helpers. They can also provide direct feedback to Superintendent Clifford Janey and school board President Robert Bobb, as well as Fenty and Gray, on what’s going on, good and bad, at ground level.

King is exactly right (and I would look even more broadly for volunteers beyond the groups he identifies–but his list is a good start). For too long, in my view, city residents have referred to the schools as if they were some entirely alien institution, for which we have no collective responsibility.

I will grant that some of this is the system’s fault. As a young public defender I tried to volunteer in an elementary school near my office. It was hard to get a call returned, but eventually, after much effort, I was assigned a student. All went well on the first day. But when I returned the next week nobody seemed to recall who I was or why I was there, and I was told that the class had gone on a field trip. The next week was more of the same—the kid I was supposed to tutor was there, but he had no work assigned. You get the picture. Already stressed at work, I gave up.

So many people I talk to report similar frustrations. Not with the kids, but with the system that seems incapable of accepting help. In at attempt to respond to this, at Maya Angelou we have always tried to maintain a high-quality tutoring program where volunteers are welcomed, supported, and encouraged. It does not always work—we have our bad days too—but it is overall a huge success.

And, as David always reminds me, the benefits of the tutoring go both ways. The kids get academic support and somebody who cares about them. But the volunteer tutor gets a lot out of the deal too. The college students and young (or not so young) professionals who come to our school get to have an authentic relationship with a teenager. The teens often can teach them a lot about what it means to be young, poor and struggling in the capital of the richest country in the world.

Maya Angelou is only one school. So Colby King is absolutely right that this needs to be massive. A high-profile, city-wide initiative to get people from all walks of life into our schools and helping kids would make a world of difference.

But I also want to talk about something we can do that is, in my opinion, more revolutionary. In King’s columns he describes a school—Murch Elementary—that is integrated by race and class, that is high-achieving, and that has tons of parent involvement.

Here’s Tracy Zorpette, a parent of a seventh-grade student at a charter school and two fifth-graders at Murch Elementary School:

“Our school crawls with parents. Parents at Murch partner with teachers and administration — as fundraisers, cheerleaders, classroom helpers, coaches — whatever is needed to support the children.”

The involvement is generally positive, Zorpette said. “But if things start to get off track, parents will notice and not let it slide.” Because of this parental involvement, she said, low-performing teachers interested in coasting until pension time are not likely to come to Murch. “It’s just too much trouble for them.”

Zorpette offered another key factor in Murch’s success. “Our [Home and School Association] raises over $150,000 every year.” The funds are used to supplement the school system’s resources.

And this:

Back to Zorpette: “Parents shouldn’t have to raise $150,000 a year to make up for improper funding.” She asked: “How can single parents or parents living at or near the poverty line pull this rabbit out of a hat?”

They can’t, of course.

Now let’s dispel a notion before it becomes an article of faith: Murch is not an all-white privileged school in Ward 3. About half of its students are white. A large number of African American students come from other wards. Murch students, however, have one thing in common (with each other and with charter school enrollees): parents who actively seek the best for their children.

I emphasize parents because there is an odd disconnect in King’s column. He says parent involvement is what makes schools like Murch successful, but then he calls for a volunteer corps of concerned non-parents.

The involvement of non-parents is important, but what about the parents themselves? Where are they? At the end of the day, most parents are going to invest most of their time in their own child’s school. If our goal is to increase the number of people who care about the public schools, we have to increase the number of people with kids in them. If our goal is to get more Murch’s, we need more parents of all races and classes to sign up for public schools.

So I want to have a city-wide conversation with the parents who have left public schools. I’m talking about the parents of all the kids who have taken their children out of the schools. Who have left for Maryland, or Virginia, or private school.

I want to have a city-wide conversation about how our schools have gotten so segregated by race and class. More importantly, I want to talk about what we can do about it.

Most people I talk to say they don’t like this state of affairs; many people want integrated schools. But most people say they do not know how to achieve it.

I believe our response has to be collective, which is why it cries out for the leadership of Fenty, his team, and Gray. My colleague at Georgetown and former school board member Chuck Lawrence has written about this. He says parents with options almost always take their kids out of D.C. schools, because they make the decision in isolation. They are afraid that doing otherwise would be to sacrifice their own child’s education because of a philosophical belief in the importance of public education. Realistically they know that alone, they won’t really be able to improve their local school.

But what if all these neighbors, who are all struggling with these decisions, knew that they would not be alone? What if they knew that around the corner, down the block, next door even . . . other people were making the same commitment to the public school? Of course, not everyone is going to choose the public schools. Some have religious reasons to choose a private school. Others want what they perceive as being the absolute best for their child and have $20,000 a year to spend on it.

But the point isn’t to convince everybody. Even if we got half, or a quarter of parents, to make a different decision we could increase the number of people with a direct investment in the schools.

So we need a city-wide movement (which could be a model for a national movement). And the movement needs leaders. Any takers?


7 Responses to “After Mayoral Control: What Mayor Fenty, Vince Gray, and Victor Reinoso Should Say About Schools”

  1. Kelley Says:

    As far as parent involvement on an institutional level, what about organizations such as Parents United, which is already doing a lot of what you are suggesting in this article? Fenty and Gray would be well served to support efforts like this that are established, have local traction, and are focused specifically on D.C. schools issues. Enlarge them, help make them more community based, link them up with other isolated groups, get a dialogue started.
    Other than the edification of wanting to improve a failing education system, what incentive would parents whose children are not in the D.C. school system have to work on this? I agree that communication with these parents is necessary to spark a movement of the magnitude you describe, but there may need to be incentives.

  2. James Says:

    Regarding Parents United and what is going on now, yes I agree that some people are doing this. But not on the scale that could happen if the city’s leadership made this a major priority.

    As for incentives, you are partially right. Which is why I argued that more parents should put their kids in the system. That would give them a stake. For those without kids, or kids who are in other schools, only enlightened leadership that makes the case for a communal investment will persuade. I believe that people have a great capacity to give. But you have to inspire them and show them why it makes a difference to do so.

  3. dave Says:

    I agree wholeheartedly that inspiration has some utility, but second Kelley’s concerns about incentives. Thus, I think that a PR campaign of the magnitude you seem to be calling for must include a broader range of issues so that the otherwise (seemingly) unaffected feel they have a real stake in the performance of DC schools. Of course, this is the greatest creative (and political) challenge and too much would be just as bad as too little. Perhaps I am stating the obvious, so dont respond until I come up with something more concrete …

  4. James Says:

    This just in from a reader of the blog:

    As I was reading the part about the volunteer parent corps, I started thinking about my experience in working with at-risk youth and a lesson I’ve learned (and still struggle with) in doing so. That is, what happens when, with good intentions, we begin to fill the roles parents, even single moms, are not playing in their children’s lives. No doubt, the children desperately need those roles played, but I’ve started to see that my eagerness to play those roles has sometimes led to more disengagement by the mom/parent, which has complicated and long-lasting effects.

    Secondly, as a teacher at Wilson, which is supposed to be a top DC school, I have actively sought out parents, even talking to the hispanic parents in Spanish…and yet, the struggle is tremendous. As passionate as I am about kids, especially poor kids and education, having seen the mess, I wouldnt sacrifice my own children for the sake of having a place at the table of parental involvement and I doubt we will ever be able to convince enough parents to do so. After all, there is nothing more dear to us in this life than our children.

    But perhaps that is the key? There is nothing more important to us than our children…so parents (at least the kind we are trying to get to the table) will act in the best interest of their kids. Therefore, if public schools aren’t performing to the best interest, parents will send their kids to private ones, etc. If public schools are performing, parents will likely send them there. So, we are back to the question of how to get the public schools to perform, which to me, is finally putting the horse before the cart. I’m certainly no expert, but I think good old competition would be a good place to start. If poor kids were given the same bargaining power that rich kids have with chips such as school vouchers, public schools would truly be forced to compete and could not hold the poor in an educational cage.

  5. Neil Richardson Says:

    There is no challenge more important than fixing our schools. For years, we have watched our schools underperform, in almost every critical category we come in last. It’s time for change. The other point and I think this is what Mr. King and other people are getting at…is “relationship”. Volunteer efforts, PR campaigns and engaging parents groups are ways, at least in my mind, are indications that our schools have become disonnected from the rest of our community and government. In the near future, a new compact will be formed with our schools and the foundation of this will be based on…relationship. Together will we succeed.

    Neil Richardson
    Deputy Chief of Staff
    Executive Office of the Mayor

  6. James Says:

    Neil: I couldn’t agree with you more. Keep up the good work.

  7. […] conclusions are unsettling for people like me, who generally support that race and class integration. While there is plenty of evidence to support the idea that race and class integrated schools are […]

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