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For D.C. Schools, Race And Class Still Define The System

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There are no white students at Sousa Middle School in Southeast D.C.
Jacob Fenston/WAMU
There are no white students at Sousa Middle School in Southeast D.C.

One of the issues that consistently shapes politics in D.C. is education, and how to improve public schools that were long among the worst in the nation.  

And as the debate continues, the reality is that many D.C. schools have long been separated along race and class lines. So the key question we’re posing today is: How did they get that way, and what does that mean for the future?

Sousa Middle School in Southeast D.C. looks like a regular 1950s-era red brick building. But this school was once an education battleground. In September 1950, 11 black students tried to enroll in what was then an all-white school. Back then, D.C. schools were segregated by law and schools were not equal. The students were turned away. But they took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court, and in 1954, the court ruled in their favor. The ruling in the case, Bolling v. Sharpe, came down the same day the court struck down segregation in the rest of the country in Brown v. Board of Education.

But today, this school is still not integrated: Now, 99 percent of Sousa students are African American — there are no white students. So, in some ways, things haven’t changed so much in the 60 years since desegregation. In 2005, one local group issued a report looking at what exactly had changed in the years since 1954.

“Where are we, 50 years, literally, after desegregation?" asks Rod Boggs, executive director of the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, the group behind the report. "Unfortunately the conclusions were, and I think they’re pretty well documented, is that if you had to really look at the education the average child in the city was getting, particularly an African-American child, the education was considerably inferior to what was being offered during the era of segregation. It was a shocking indictment of the neglect that had taken place.”

Linda Brown Smith, Ethel Louise Belton Brown, Harry Briggs Jr. and Spottswood Bolling Jr., for whom the Supreme Court case was named, during a press conference at Hotel Americana. (Library of Congress)

Some of the very basics were missing, such as safe school buildings. At one point, there were close to 6,000 fire code violations at schools.

Maria Tukeva is the longest-serving principal in DCPS, at 34 years. She founded Columbia Heights Education Campus because of the inequities she saw in the educational system.

“From a school point of view, there were very low expectations for African-American and Latino students," she says. "And this was reflected in the number who were taking college courses, who had access to special programs. That was one of the inequities I wanted to change.”

Her first school recruits were poor minority students who were pushed out or were on the verge of dropping out of other DCPS high schools. She says school buildings all over the city were crumbling, including hers. “Well, we never had a building, we were given spaces in other buildings. We had to move four times in five years and when we finally got a building it was built in the early 1900s it didn’t have a cafeteria, it didn’t have a gym.”

In 2007, Columbia Heights Education Campus got a brand new facility. Tukeva is trying to level the playing field academically as well. Students go on study abroad trips to expose them to a different world, literally. All 11th and 12th graders have to take AP English; there is no regular English. And she has started hiring teachers much earlier so she can recruit the best for her school.

The Rhee Effect

In 2007, Michelle Rhee was brought in to turn around D.C. schools. She was viewed differently by different groups. For some, she was standing up for poor kids who were stuck in an ineffective bureaucratic system. She famously or infamously appeared on the cover of Time, starred in a popular documentary on school reform and attracted millions of dollars in private funding. At the same time, she fired hundreds of teachers and closed dozens of schools. There were also those who would scream at her during public meetings and protest whenever she went. Posters read “Rhee-ject her" and “Rhee-diculous.”

“Her central argument was that the children of the District were being shortchanged in many fundamental ways. One of her biggest issues was that teachers overwhelmingly got very good evaluations either met or exceeded expectations," says Bill Turque of the Washington Post, who covered Rhee for many years. "At the same time the students in the schools they worked were failing miserably. And it was hard to argue with the disconnect as she explained it. And that was at the core of her intolerance for things as they were. I think she also felt was the system and it was hard to argue with her again, was that a student in Anacostia was not getting the same education as a student in Tenleytown and that made it a civil rights issue in her way of thinking.”

Turque says Rhee was blunt about how she used to explain things — and that became her political problem.

“She, as a change agent, didn’t think about who she was offending. And what set her apart was she immediately called out a very powerful political constituency: organized teachers, the teacher’s union," Turque says. "By making it clear that she thought they had failed at their jobs, she was not only taking on a union, but she was taking on really what was the core of the black middle class in the District."

Turque says she did understand how race and class plays out in the District but he says she didn’t think it was important. “What was more important was to see the performance of the schools rise,"  he says. "She was aware that the optics did not work in her favor. She was a very blunt spoken, very impolitic Korean woman calling out an African-American dominated political system and that was bound to cause sparks.”

Many people would say a major reason Mayor Adrian Fenty was voted out in 2010 was Rhee’s education reform. But much of her changes are still in effect. Now in D.C., a teacher’s evaluation is linked to students’ test scores. There are large bonuses and additional pay for top-performing teachers. There is also far more of the belief across the board that all students can, should and will learn.

But one thing that hasn’t changed as much is the demographics in schools. One report calls this “racial isolation.” In almost 95 percent of DCPS schools in 2010, white students made up less than 5 percent of the student body.

Richard Kahlenberg of the think tank The Century Foundation says that ratio is “hugely problematic.” He’s written several books about diversity in schools. Kahlenberg is critical of efforts to improve education in recent years — he says we’ve been “trying to make separate but equal” work.

“We’re all about let’s try to improve the high poverty schools, where we pack all the poor kids into one educational setting. But there is a half-century of research to suggest that probably one of the best things you can do to improve the education of all children is to give them access to an economically integrated environment.”

Class Matters

In fact, Kahlenberg says, low-income students who get the chance to attend more affluent schools are two years ahead of low income students in high-poverty schools. 
“So it’s not that low-income kids can’t learn. It’s that they will do better if given the right environment. An environment where your peers are academically engaged, where the parents are in a position to be actively involved in school affairs, and where you have strong teachers, is one where low-income kids will flourish.”

Race and class are often used interchangeably in the District because they overlap considerably in the city. But Kahlenberg says it’s really not about race.

“The social science research always suggested that it’s low-income kids who do better in middle-class schools, as opposed to African-American kids benefiting from the white skin color of their classmates," he says. "The research never backed up that notion. So to give you a couple examples, in Boston, there was an effort to desegregate the schools in the seventies, that mixed low-income whites and low-income blacks. There were no achievement gains there. By contrast, in Charlotte, North Carolina, low-income African American students had the chance to go to school with upper-middle-class whites, and did quite a bit better.”

DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson talks about the race/class divide in D.C. schools by noting her personal experience with a similar situation.

“I grew up in Mount Vernon, New York. My family grew up in the projects for 47 years. And education is what changed my family’s trajectory. We went from being very, very poor to being solidly middle class because of the public education system in Mount Vernon," she says. "My mother was the first person in our family to go to college, the first person to buy a home, the first person to become a professional. Part of the reason I’m so passionate about the work that I do is I do think it’s the great equalizer.”

Henderson talked about some of the systemic programs in place to try and close the race and income gaps among the city’s students. “We’ve put things in place like AP for all, I’m very proud to say we have the highest AP participation rate in the country. We believe that AP is not just for kids from Wilson, or [School Without] Walls or Banneker, but also for kids from Anacostia, Ballou and Roosevelt. We’ve put programs in place art and music and foreign language and library because those aren’t just things that should happen if your PTA can pay for them," she says. "For me a lot of the work we do is about raising the ceiling and raising the floor.”

She says it’s important that schools are diverse, and that every child should have a chance to go to a great school. “Would I love it if every single school was completely racially and socioeconomically diverse? Yes. But given that many of our schooling choices are made on housing, we know that there are many segregated neighborhoods and there are going to be many segregated schools. Since nobody is going to socio- engineer us into complete diversity, it’s important for us to focus on both.”

Still Talking

So this brings us back to the question we started with: Will we ever be able to get past race and class divisions in D.C. schools? Kaya Henderson says “no.”

“In America we haven’t moved past race and class in 200 years of the republic. So I’m not hopeful that in any short time race and class won’t be relevant in D.C.," Henderson says. "I think it’s complicated but it doesn’t have to be a barrier, people can be proud of who they are, but at the same time we have to equip our students to relate to folks in an ever increasing globalized world. While race and class aren’t going anywhere, the expectations as a result are something we can manage."

Henderson says D.C. classrooms are no longer just black or white. There are more and more Hispanic students, more and more international students from Somalia, Ethiopia and Vietnam. There are also more native-born whites as well as more affluent people are moving in, and many are sending their kids to public schools. She says schools are changing as well to meet these different needs.

While it can be challenging when politicians discuss education, Henderson says, at least elected leaders are talking about a topic that is crucial to the city’s future.

Music: "Alternate Ending Montage" by John Swihart from Napoleon Dynamite Soundtrack

These reports are part of American Graduate — Let's Make It Happen! — a public media initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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