On D.C. schools

A day of service reveals troubling truths about our nation’s schools, but also gives hope for improvement

By: Alex Freeman

Washington, D.C. is confronted with some intractable problems within its school system. Some of these problems reflect a greater enigma throughout the country, while others are unique to D.C. public schools. In 2008, almost half of the District’s incoming freshman class went on to drop out of high school. Forty-three percent of students in D.C. schools are obese or overweight. Students endure violations of their civil liberties each morning as they pass through metal detectors and receive pat-downs at the front gates of nearly every school. Violence in and around some particularly under-performing schools erases any possibility of attaining a productive learning environment.

In an era when substantive education policy is not a salient issue to a large bloc of voters, it is convenient and politically wise to neglect educational afflictions with no clear solutions. “Bombing the hell” out of ISIS and embarking on clean energy crusades are both more salient and easily condensed campaign issue platforms than addressing systemic flaws in public education.

This general absence of education from mainstream debate can explicate, in part, the conflicts our nation faces in this policy sphere. While Democrats and Republicans do not share commensurate blame for setbacks in education improvement, both sides have recently been culpable of intransigence and issue avoidance altogether on the topic.


Alex Freeman screws the base of a sandbox together with the help of Logan Ketner in Bancroft Elementary School in Washington, D.C. Photo: Drake Students

Yet this lack of discussion is not always a requisite for a struggling school system. Washington, D.C. is a paradigm of this; Mayor Muriel Bowser has placed education at the forefront of her policy initiatives since assuming office in 2015. The city has thousands of volunteers working regularly in its schools, going to school board meetings, and laboring to improve conditions for the area’s young scholars. Despite their best efforts and the categorical salience of education as a policy initiative here in D.C., the area’s schools fall short of several national metrics of achievement.

Even nationally, education policy occasionally captures headlines. President-elect Donald Trump recently appointed Nancy DeVos to the position of Education Secretary. Her appointment ignited critique and praise as education advocates sparred on the merits of her “fundamentalist” assumptions about the role of government in education. The debate over DeVos as a nominee was ugly—but the glimpse of merit-based policy discussion that came of such infighting was a step in the right direction.

It is clear that discussing education is only part of the solution—both nationally and in D.C., specifically. What else can community and government leaders do to augment performance? Ensuring proper and sufficient funding seems obvious, although politicians debate vociferously about the definitions of both proper and sufficient when possible.

Otherwise, I suspect the answer lies beyond schools themselves. Educators cite the role of the family unit as integral to student performance—and data exists to confirm this. We must address high divorce rates, teen and unplanned pregnancies, poverty, and systemic disadvantages in how schools raise funds for operations and improvements.

Perhaps now it is clear why politicians have a proclivity to shy away from any substantive education debate. Most every problem D.C. experiences is a reflection of a more complex, nuanced social inefficacy or quandary. Our nation’s schools are a reflecting pond of widespread social shortcomings. Improving them happens at the grassroots. Improvement starts at the local PTA, not just the State House. It starts at the dinner table, not the principal’s office. It starts with meaningful conversations with our kids and parents about the value of education and the role of the family unit in unconditionally supporting a scholar in his or her educational pursuits. It starts with community.

Yesterday, I participated alongside 1,700 others in a City Year-coordinated service project that aimed to make a small contribution to the D.C. community. As I painted a sandbox inside Bancroft Elementary in Washington, D.C., I contemplated the status of education in America. Problems and solutions, some of which are listed above, ran through my mind. It was overwhelming. We are in deep, I thought. And we are. Fixing our nation’s schools—especially those in D.C.—is a two-fold process that involves both substantive policy discussion and action accompanied by long term community initiatives that target the social underpinnings of woeful educational outcomes.

Knowing this, I implore you to become a small part of the solution. As always, vote. Vote in school board elections and on every ballot proposal you can. Attend public events in your local district whenever possible. But also consider the invaluable resource you could be to a struggling elementary or high school student—even if you’re doing something simple, like building a place for them to play in the sand.

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