Sunday, December 18, 2011

Moving into Ward 8

I am typing in my unheated house, waiting for the gas man to come turn on the gas and so the furnace.  It has been four weeks since I closed on the purchase of a house in Anacostia, and it has taken this long for all the utility companies to help me get up and running.  Actually, the water company never did turn the water on, as they said they did.  I had to ask a friend to go underground and turn the valve.



The picture you see was a greeting card from a neighbor.  It was their way of saying welcome.  One of my students immediately saw it and asked if I was going to move.  Another student saw it, and shame was written all over his face.  Our students see their surroundings and are not proud.  There is trash strewn on the streets surrounding the local market, and a lot of that trash was on the property next to mine before I paid two students to clean it up.  Newt Gingrich mentioned lately that poor children do not have hardworking role models.  That is an exaggeration, but there are plenty of adults just hanging around.  Some are looking for work and have the potential to work hard, but others do not.  My students fear for my safety because they  see bad people on every corner.  They are used to the fact that violence is part of their life, and they don’t want it to be part of my life. 
“Crazy” and “I told you” (after the rock through the window) were some of the words my students have uttered about my move.  One student, P, paid me a compliment.  He doesn’t realize it, but students like P keep me going 12 hours/day every day, as I have since Thanksgiving break, including weekends.  P said to me, “You know, Mr Penniman, you have a lot of guts coming over here.”  P is one of our MATHletes, an eleventh grader who is absolutely brilliant but who reads at the second grade level.  We have a reading tutor working with him.  Our hope for P is to get him to a functional reading level by graduation so that he can have the option of going to college if he elects to, although my hunch is P will some day be running his own plumbing or electrician business.
We will see how crazy I am for living here.  Our students need to understand their neighborhood is not a war zone; it is a financial and intellectual poverty zone.  There are few college graduates compared to where I lived in Ward 3, where one out of every three adults has a graduate degree.  Our students need to realize their potential goes beyond this level of poverty, that they can increase their standard of living if they work to their potential.  It does not matter what they think they see on the corner or what Newt Gingrich thinks of their situation.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

"Five Unexcused Absences is a Little High"

This is about D, a MATHlete and the subject of "Breaking Into School."  I found out during the summer, when we would throw the football around for short periods, that D is an exceptional athlete, leaping a foot over everyone for the ball and easily bringing it down.

In late August, the Anacostia High football team had started practices on warm late afternoons after school.  I went up to D's house, 3/4 mile up the hill from the river where the school is, and asked his stepdad for permission to bring D down to school to meet the coach and to sign up.  Stepdad shrugged and said, "Fine," so I scooped up D and brought him down to practice.  Coach's eyes lit up when I brought D down.  "I've heard about you.  How are your grades?"  Ha.  D is second in his class.

About a month later, I ran into the coach and asked about D.  "He hasn't been coming," he said.  "He isn't even on the list [to play in the game]."   I poked around and talked to D's counselor from last year, who looked at his attendance and said, "Hmmm, five unexcused absences.  That's high for him.  But his grades are still good," she said encouragingly.

Not encouraged, I drove over to D's house.  His older sister told me he had moved in with his grandmother in PG and gave me the phone number.  As I started to drive off, stepdad drove up and said D had to move away "until he got his act together."  Uh, oh. 

The next morning I found D and asked him if he wanted to go out after school for pizza, his favorite food.  Easy sale.  Then I got a cell phone call from his grandmother, who said pizza is fine, but we would have to work around his appointment with a probation officer.  Wow, I thought, what has quiet, helpful D done to get a criminal record?

Out for pizza, I told him the chronology of the previous day.  He laughed when I expressed incredulity that he, D, has a probation officer.  But he turned serious when he explained why.  His stepdad had been verbally abusive to his mom, and D couldn't take it any longer.  He fought his stepdad, and both got arrested.  D has probation for six months, during which he must stay with his grandmother in Suitland, a long commute to Anacostia.

Here we have an incredibly gifted kid, both academically and athletically.  Staff at school are too busy to notice him, and he lives in cramped quarters with an uncaring, abusive stepfather.  Place this boy down in Ward 3 or Bethesda, and we have an Ivy Leaguer, almost guaranteed. 

I'll feel good if D can move back home with his mom and be able to stay peaceful.  I told him I understood why he did what he did, but as has been too clear with other juveniles I know, it is too easy to build up a record as an African-American youth and end up in a revolving door of the criminal justice system.  D deserves all the enrichment programs I can find for him, all the opportunities to get his self-esteem back where it belongs.  Perhaps even a POSSE scholarship is in D's future.  We'll see in a year or two.  Stay tuned.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Unfairness of the Juvenile Justice System

When comparing the haves and the have-nots, the children of Ward 3 and the wealthy suburbs with the children of Ward 5-8, nowhere are the stakes the highest and the consequences the severest as when it comes to the punishment our government inflicts on our youth for committing petty crimes.
Two years ago, in the summer of 2009, I spent a month or so trying to find a runaway youth, J, one of the sweetest boys you would ever meet.  J had fled his abusive father in the beginning of June and had not finished his final exams.  I finally found J at a friend's house, safe but scared.  When I referred J to DC's Child and Family Services, the social worker interviewed J's mother, the main subject of the abuse, over the phone, and pronounced J fit and ready to return home, and with a police escort to boot.  Since then, J has continually run away and has committed the slightest of crimes.  The first was shoplifting.  However, when you start, you get a record, and you get probation.  Committing an offense while on probation gets you into serious trouble.  As a minor, J was housed at the Youth Services Center, which houses youths before they go to trial.  If he commits a crime after he achieves majority, his scenario might become one like W's.
W is 19.  He is another extremely sweet, gentle boy with a wonderful smile.  He is extremely dyslexic but is making progress with his reading.  He can graduate from high school in June, but this past August he was arrested because he was hanging with some friends who were shoplifting and had some marijuana.  He then neglected to charge the batteries on the bracelet which was used to monitor his whereabouts.  He is now in adult jail for six weeks until his trial.  Eventually, I wonder if he will end up like A.
A was a student of ours four years ago.  Then he disappeared, into the same cycle of petty crime that eventually became more serious.  It was so easy, living in PG County, to lapse into the culture of drugs and crime.  As with J and W, there was no resolution regarding A's crimes but to imprison him, something the United States does with astonishing frequency to its low income African American population--seven times the rate of incarcerating whites.
Place these boys in Ward 3, and you get parents with connections and time and savvy and money who would not allow their children to be in jail for more than a day, if at all.  Drug traffic is not tolerated in Ward 3.  Every apartment building has either security or a concierge or doorman.  In Ward 8, security is minimal.  Loitering and marijuana smoking is easy to do.  It is a different world for children to grow up in.  
Because of his name, A has been first in my cell phone directory of over 1000 names, more than half of which are that of students.  I called him during the summer and heard he was going to be incarcerated.  He arranged to meet with me at a McDonald's to discuss his future, but he never showed.
Perhaps A testified against someone to get out of being imprisoned.  I don't know, and the police are pretending not to know.  In any case, A was shot and killed a week ago on Monday night.  The police, who did a terrific job imprisoning A for all his petty crimes over the years, claim to know no motive or suspects.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

A Tribute to Our Summer MATHletes

In July, we piloted a program for MATHletes, proficient but underserved math students.  After the four weeks, I wrote these general tributes and specific ones.  I’ll put in the students’ first initials.

General thoughts—
I’m really happy we did this program.  I’m outraged that there are so few constructive things for kids to do during the summer.  (I am outraged about a lot of things.)  I’m really pleased we could pay everyone.

I really loved the work ethic I saw.  Everyone except one student faithfully did their homework.   My favorite time was when everyone was working quietly in class.  I feel really good that we could have such a good group together that would feed off each other so well—a really nice group dynamic.  You were silly at times, but if I had a real problem or issue, you always came through.

I love to say to our donors that our students are great kids but they haven’t been dealt a full deck of cards.  I don’t mean to make you self-conscious about this, but there is a lot of wealth out there, but that wealth is not around here.  But you do not complain.  

(Wealth is nice, but I can tell you that acquiring material goods or luxuries does not measurably increase your happiness level.  Except for my condo at the beach, I have very few material goods—an old car, old shoes, an old TV, no cable, no electronic games, etc etc but since I get to spend as much time with hardworking, grateful students whom I look forward to knowing for many years to come, I am quite content.)

I hear you guys talk about race a lot, but when you go off to college, no one will care what your heritage is, who your parents are, or where you grew up.  (If anyone really does “care,” they’re idiots.  Move on from them.)  They will immediately be able to tell the content of your character, however.

(Everyone, particularly teenagers, are self-conscious about something, whether it is their family, their home, their body, their race, etc. etc.  Part of growing up is learning that you are not perfect and never will be, and your parents aren’t perfect and never will be.)

There were a lot of times I don’t think I prepared everyone adequately for their daily tutoring sessions.  Part of the reason is we started preparing this program just a few weeks prior.  Another reason is I’m not really a little kid math expert.  You guys hung in there nicely, though.  

I felt like the matrices unit went the smoothest, if only because most everyone started with virtually zero knowledge about the subject.  With the other units—combinatorics, linear systems and linear programming, and exponents and logs, I went a bit too quickly and should have made sure students could do basic things like graph lines and solve equations using square roots.  Again, though, you guys did not complain and tried your best.

You are wonderfully hard workers, non-complainers, patient, flexible.  

Special accolades—

A—Pretty much a perfect student.  Asks good questions but is mostly independent.  Someone I never needed to worry about.  It’s great that a female was the top student in the class, since it has been hard to attract female MATHletes.  (A lot of girls are expected to do child care more than boys are—grrrrrr.)  I loved the fact that Ashanti took ownership of Stephon.  She really cared about him.

Q—Another super caring tutor.  She was so nice to Angelo, kind, patient, flexible, hard working, cared so much that he learn his facts.  She was a very good student, too.  Very patient with all the attention she received from the boys. 

R—Courageous to move to DC and “start over.”  Someone I really am rooting for to stay with his good habits.  Wonderfully mature and understanding of people.  A great person to work with younger boys.   Just off the chart people skills, really intuitive.  Math may not be his favorite subject, but he should and could excel in a lot of areas.

P—A great personality, someone whom I can envision having a large family and grand-kids who gather around him and hear him tell stories and joke with them.  Generous to a fault (walked over one night when I needed to move in the couch).  A great sense of humor and fun.  I understand why he feels college may not be right for him (does he realize college can be a social paradise?), but he needs to find out what he does love to do, and do it.

T—One of the funniest people I have ever met.  I love the way your brain works, a brilliant math brain.  You are honest without being hurtful.  Try not to worry about girls.  Just find one who is as smart as you and enjoy talking with her.  (Think brains first.)  Your sense of humor will carry you a long way, but try not to be too self-conscious about “who you are” and “where you’re from.”  (Like I said, if anyone cares too much about that, just move on.) 

D—Started to get to know you as a student and tutor, and I really liked what I saw.  Wonderful personality, wanted to learn what he missed, but it was a lot to bite off.  Always doing extra things to help me.  Too bad you missed too many classes.  The only student who could beat Mr P in a sprint.

W—I am in awe.  Anyone who can earn straight A’s without seeing the board (even while squinting) just defies explanation.  The youngest student, he “complained” but worked his butt off.  Very thoughtful, smart, witty, does not miss anything.  Asks really good questions, limitless potential.  Maybe interested in humanities more than math???  (Loves to read.)

E—One of the greatest in-class students I have ever had in 30 years as far as asking questions is concerned.  Great intellectual curiosity, loves to try different things (debating! Acting! Math contests!)   I envision him running his own business with four children and his wife out in the suburbs unless we convince him to stay in the city.  I would recommend you for anything.

Try not to worry too much about your future.  It is in your control if you work hard the next few years.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Moving Out of Ward 3

This might be an essay too much about me, but it is also a little a bit about the differences between Ward 3 and Ward 8 in Washington, D.C.  I have been looking for a rowhouse or townhouse in Anacostia to buy since last winter.  There are plenty of houses selling for about half price because the previous owner went through a foreclosure.  Either someone just beats me to the house, or the house is in such bad condition it should be razed.

I get a lot of, shall we say, quizzical reactions to my desire to move from Ward 3 to Ward 8.  Anacostia is synonymous with urban blight and decay.  In the company of RICH's MATHletes from Anacostia, our banker in Shaw remarked about how dangerous Anacostia is.  And then there are the statistics:  Only 10-15% of our student population at Anacostia High School, where we started working last fall, is on grade level in math or reading.  Only 15% of the students have a father listed on the student directory.  10% live with neither parent.  Unemployment in Ward 8 is officially 28%, the highest for any urban area in the country.  Nearly 5% of the adult population is HIV-positive.  There are similarly high rates of alcohol and drug addiction.

To buy fresh vegetables, the Safeway or Giant is over a mile away for most residents, most of whom do not have cars.  The Metro is also over a mile away for most residents.  There are virtually no medical professionals except for the clinic for which people by the dozens line up every day hours before opening.  In Ward 3, I can throw a tennis ball and hit the building where my dentist works.  Medical professionals are everywhere within walking distance.  There are five Whole Foods markets within 4 miles, three within 2 miles.

Now that RICH is working at the community space at the Oxford Manor apartments in Anacostia, I have learned the surrounding streets and neighborhoods.  I drop in on kids who have no phone to make sure our lines of communication are still open.  People see me walking, biking, and driving.  Some people are really friendly, but in others' eyes I see the fear of gentrification.  And why not?  There is no reason to trust a white person who says he is going to come in and do something good.  These people and their ancestors have been betrayed over and over again.  One friendly gentleman saw me walking around on July 4 and wondered if I was there protesting something.  I guess I looked like an aging hippie with my 70's haircut and cutoff shorts.  On the other hand, a bunch of men hanging out after dark saw me approach my car and thought of the first white bread name that came into their head.  "There goes Zach Morris," one of them said.

Is there a lot of crime?  Might a white person be a target?  Sure, but I need to be in Ward 8.  RICH needs to be in Ward 8.  Talk to our tutors who are also relatively new to working in Anacostia, and they say things like, "I really believe in this, Paul."  "You [They should say 'We'] are on a fantastic mission."
The beauty is that kids don't care what color I am.  The younger ones see me just as any other teacher, as someone to whom they want to show their good work.  The older ones, in high school, know by now they have not been dealt a full deck.  They might not have met someone like me before, but my race is the last thing they care about.  As I mentioned to Channel 9 last year, these kids are overwhelmed by the fact that we believe in them.  When they believe in themselves, then we know we have done our job.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

"I Was Going to Use My Pay Check for Eye Glasses"

As I write this, RICH is in the middle of its first serious summer program, at the Oxford Manor community space in Anacostia.  Oxford Manor is one of the wonderfully refurbished apartment complexes built and managed by the Community Preservation and Development Corporation.  One aspect of the program is the MATHletes, elite students, mostly from Anacostia High School, who help tutor the younger residents at Oxford Manor for two hours and then sit for two hours of enrichment learning on topics they should get in school but probably won't:  matrices, probability, linear programming, and financial literacy.

Where I live in Ward 3, most kids can either afford camp, swim clubs, or private school lessons.  In Ward 8, the swimming pool at Fort Stanton is closed.  The DC government has cut back on both summer jobs for kids and summer school classes.  I'm glad RICH can provide just a little bit for some of these children.

RICH is paying the MATHletes as well as the Word Stars, profiled in my previous blog post.  The MATHletes work 20 hours/week in addition to the homework they do for their enrichment class.  At $8/hr, that comes to $160/week, a small price to keep these diamonds in the rough doing something constructive this summer.  The best result of the program is that all 8 MATHletes are convinced they have bright futures, with college scholarships on the way as long as they keep working.

These are students who are broke, either with no cell phone of their own (rare these days for an adolescent) or home internet access.  Only one of them, E, lives with both biological parents.  It was he who had told me he was going to spend his first paycheck on glasses.  He was giddy when I told him and two others that I had found an eye clinic at the Lens Crafters in Pentagon City which provides free eye exams and glasses, courtesy of One Sight.  But it was really W who needed glasses the most.  W is 15 and last had glasses four years ago.  After one day teaching W, I realized he could not see the white board 10 feet away, even while squinting. 

The good folks at the eye clinic were shocked to see how neglected W's eyesight had been.  W lives in a dingy, dirty apartment building in Anacostia.  I know because I had to drop by when he did not show up to our orientation meeting.  (He had gotten lost.)  Four gentlemen were in the front hall of W's building smoking dope, loudly and profanely talking, in the middle of the day.  Trash was strewn everywhere inside and outside the building.  This is where a straight-A student lives, a boy who, I found out, would go up to the board to read what he had missed after class was over, who never complained about his eyesight but now, with his glasses, will be able to recognize me as I walk toward him on Martin Luther King Avenue, as he wasn't able to do back on July 4.

W is of slight build but has a voice like Denzel's in "Training Day."  Now that he can see, I am curious how strong his voice gets.  Will he rise to even greater heights as a student?  I can't wait.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

"All I Do Is F_______ Read Now"

That rather profane but welcome cheerful complaint was uttered recently by Donovan, a 17-year old who tested back in the fall as a kindergarten-first grade reader.  Our organization, RICH, targeted Donovan and several other low readers for our Word Stars program, which attempts to raise each student's reading level by two full grades each year.  Our ultimate goal for Donovan is to have him be a functional reader by graduation, so he can fill out a job application form and read what is on the supermarket aisle.

Let me tell you about our other low readers.  One lives with his aunt, who can't wait for the boy's 18-year old birthday so she can kick him out.  He is always starving for money, food, and clean clothes.  I met him my first day at Anacostia High School, and he was sitting by himself, not participating in class.  I was allowed to pull him out and give him a quick math diagnostic and a pep talk.

Another boy we targeted has a sleeping disorder and is also dirt poor.  Dyslexia runs in his family.  He can be cheerful and playful but knows down deep he struggles at something that most of the students can do. 

Another boy has had perfect attendance because his father smokes crack at home, and there is never money for food.  You can get breakfast and lunch at school, including the lunches from Subway we get him once/week as a reward for his attendance.  He has made a lot of progress this year, almost as much as Donovan.

Those are the Word Stars who have been coming to school and who have been succeeding.  There are plenty more whose attendance was never good or dropped off suddenly, and despite our efforts (See my other post, "He Was On Our List . . . ."), we cannot bring most of them back to school.  Some of them have parents who are in jail or otherwise absent, addicted, or ignorant.  Some live in group homes which do not make the students go to school.  There is one boy whose family is in the drug business.  Whenever I drop in, there is a nice, large crowd gathered outside.  Inside there is no furniture or light.  The boy is illiterate, and I imagine he will always be in the business unless he learns how to read.  That won't happen, it looks like, until he spends a few years in jail, like this man.  

There is the girl who had a baby.  She has been trying to read for many years but is very impatient with herself.  Now that she has a baby, she wants to stay home more and more, and her mother is not able to convince her to go to school.  There is another boy who has a temper and who is often getting suspended.  Why, you might ask, does a boy with attendance issues get suspended?  Good question.  I don't know.

These are the students who just disappear from school, from society perhaps, only to end up on public assistance for the rest of their lives, whether they are in jail or out of jail.

Then there is Donovan.  "My mother came in to my room because I was so quiet.  She said, 'What are you doing?'

"I'm reading.'", he said, with a big smile.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Breaking Into School

At 3:15 at Anacostia High School, most of the students who have not strolled out at 1:45 race out of the building almost as if tear gas has been set off.  Ideally, students should hang around, consult with teachers, make up work, get some tutoring, do some tutoring, or be engaged in a club or a sport.

You may have read about the baseball diamond in the rough who was without a team because not enough players were appearing for his team's practices or games.  DeAnthony Ellis, possibly the best ballplayer to come out of D.C. since Emanuel Burriss, is allowed to play for Cardozo High School this spring because his Anacostia team disbanded.

The teachers' union contract does not help, allowing teachers to hightail it out of the building soon after the 3:15 bell.  Metro does not help, only providing school buses in a 5-10 minute window after 3:15.  If students don't catch that 3:20 bus, they have to walk a few blocks further to get to the main line.  (Many of DC's high schools are more than a few blocks from Metro stations.  Anacostia's is a mile away from the Metro.)

But this story has a happy ending, sortof.  Last fall, I started a MATHlete club for the math students at Anacostia. Students were nominated by their math teachers for their performance in class as well as their potential.  We met at lunch since I was told that meeting after school was next to impossible.  We had a grant from the nice folks from the American Institutes for Research which enabled us to provide pizza at lunch, graphing calculators, and awards (see below).

So we met at lunch for 4-5 months, and in April I told the kids, "We are going to have a math competition against Cesar Chavez, [ RICH's other partner school], after school in May.  How many of you can commit to two practices after school and then a competition, all after school on Wednesdays, in May?"  Most of a dozen hands went up, but I knew I was swimming upstream, since the school tilts open when 3:15 hits, and the kids pour out regardless of whether there is an exciting math club meeting going on upstairs.  Sure enough, when the first meeting came, there was only Rob.  He and I had a good time, but it was not the same, and we missed the camaraderie.  I made a bunch of phone calls that night and the following Tuesday night, and the following week we had three kids until D showed up.  "I heard you were absent," I said.  "I was," he said smiling.  Nice, I thought.  He is gone all day (at the dentist) and comes back for MATHletes!  The week after that we had five students for the competition, and the team did well, losing 13-12 to Chavez.  Each school had an individual champion.  Alonzo is pictured with me with a $25 prize; he also won a TI-84 graphing calculator.

So what do we have here?  Is this anything?  I think so, and this summer I hope to find out.  We want to hire the Anacostia MATHletes to be tutors at our new site at Oxford Manor, the beautiful apartment building refurbished by the good folks at the Community Preservation Development Corporation .  After they do some tutoring, we want the MATHletes to stay and learn some topics that they won't get at Anacostia but would get at any competitive school in the region:  matrices, linear programming, trigonometry beyond right triangles, just to name a few topics.


From the beginning, we have wanted the MATHletes to feel differently about themselves.  In a year where they have lost a classmate to gunshot violence, lost a great math teacher (she didn't die; her husband got transferred) and see dozens of unemployed adults in the street every day, they have a bit of hope about themselves.  Thanks to the generosity of our donors, they may have an interesting summer doing math.  More importantly, if we can keep their interest up in school, they will work hard and earn significant college scholarships at good schools. 

Sunday, April 24, 2011

A Tale of Two Cities

I believe I have a unique perspective of having tutored several hundred children of millionaires in the 1990's and early 2000's and several hundred low-income students since then.  After teaching and coaching at the Edmund Burke School from 1980 through 1990, I started a tutoring business out of the basement of my house.  In 2003, I heard a speech by Irasema Salcido, founder of the Cesar Chavez Schools , and my life took a right angle turn.  I founded RICH.

I still tutor for-profit students, although that will greatly decrease for the first time this fall--a subject for another post.  These students generally attend schools with spectacular facilities and equipment--new sports fields, parking garages, Smartboards, and fundraisers that can pull in well over $10,000 in one evening.  Our inner city public school students attend schools with teachers who are just as good as their private school counterparts, but there isn't always money for graphing calculators or even graph paper.  Heck, even plain paper can be hard to find at Anacostia High School, where the teachers have learned to bring their own paper to the copier. 

Inner city school buildings are slowly being transformed into modern facilities, but some of the renovations took many decades.  In the meantime, students have entered dingy buildings with poor landscaping outside and rodent infestations inside.

And what are the academic expectations of the students?  The private school kids are expected to do 3-4 hours of homework/night, or they risk being snowed under in their work.  A low test score results in an email exchange between teacher and parent.  Tutors are often hired, sometimes as preventative measures.

The public school students need only show up to get a B in most of their classes.  Very little outside work is required.  There are exceptions to this generalization:  some of the better charter schools, like Ms. Salcido's Chavez Schools, do get a fair amount of work out of their students.  Even so, an SAT subscore above 500 is considered high, whereas a score below 600 for a private student is considered low and might deserve free classes from the SAT prep class the family no doubt hired.

Almost all the students I tutor from private schools get a 4 or 5 on their AP exams.  Among public school students, none have earned a score that high.

How big a problem is this?  As our ability to spend for our most needy students declines, what should our priorities be in the next 5-10 years of public education for DCPS students?

1.  Facilities are getting better.  But we need principals such as Chavez's Daneen Keaton and Yvonne Waller who are holding their students to higher standards than they have ever had before.  If we can continue to find such talented principals, then schools can be led out of the wilderness.  Ms. Keaton's Capitol Hill campus has an alley to serve as its playground and virtually no greenspace, but it is hard to find a more cohesive school community.

2.  We are attracting young, talented teachers in unprecedented numbers, but they need to know they are not going to change the world in 1 year or even 5 years.  Thanks to Michelle Rhee and other reformers, we are doing a better job of ridding ourselves of inferior teachers, although DCPS has a long way to go before their teacher evaluation system, IMPACT, makes sense across the city.  (You cannot evaluate a teacher at Anacostia High School in the same way you would a teacher at The School Without Walls.)  We need to be able to keep good teachers longer than 2 years.  Give them meaningful professional development opportunities, and make them feel supported.

3.  We need mentors for many more students than we currently have.  The mentors do not need to have the same ethnicity as our students, but it would help if they are young and can relate.  At some of our schools, one quarter of the students have stopped attending on a regular basis.  We need to better connect the school community with the community at large, with more home visits by teachers and mentors.  RICH is doing a small part of this, sponsoring monthly Friday afternoon home visits by the dedicated staff at Anacostia High School.

4.  We need to follow these public school students beyond high school, keep up with them, talk to them, direct them toward a college or career path.  Whether they are in selective colleges, like some of our POSSE scholars, or in community college, pursuing their GED, or just watching BET, we need to keep track and stay on top of these students.  Just in the past two weeks, I have visited one of our POSSE students at Pepperdine University and also talked with and met more than a dozen students who are either in college or looking for something better to do with their lives.  We need to know about programs such as Year Up, which can redirect students toward meaningful career tracks.


All of these students are at-risk, but they are also at-promise, and their story can end as happily as their wealthier suburban and private school counterparts.  They need to know it does not matter what happened before, that they can control their destiny from now on and make something out of themselves.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Our Invisible Children

We at RICH work with students who overcome a lot of personal and emotional hardship.  They come to school almost every day, do almost all of their homework, are respectful, and earn spots on their school’s honor rolls in disproportionate numbers.  These are our immigrant and first-generation students, almost all of whom are from Central and South America.  At the Cesar Chavez Public Charter School’s Capitol Hill campus, approximately 14% of the students were Latino when school started in August.  Now there are 16%, since 1/6 of the student body has left, but only a few Latinos have.

In 1982, the Supreme Court ruled that immigrant students have the right to attend high school, regardless of their documentation or status, overturning a law in Texas.  They  wrote that the law was "directed against children, and impose[d] its discriminatory burden on the basis of a legal characteristic over which children can have little control," ie that children were brought to the United States without their control.

Today, most of our immigrant students do not have access to college as we know it.  Our high school graduates with a few thousand dollars handy can pay cash for out-of-state tuition rates at community college, without financial aid, and work their way through college, but it takes many years to just get through two “normal” years of schooling.  

Students do not even have to be undocumented to face this issue.  Students from El Salvador, which accounts for 17% of the immigrant population in the District of Columbia (Urban Institute), are in an interminable queue for permanent residency.  They can use social security numbers for work, but they cannot use these numbers to apply to FAFSA to get Pell grants, federal loans, or work-study jobs. In the District of Columbia, you cannot gain access to funding from DCLEAP or DCTAG unless you have filled out the FAFSA form.

The end result is there seems to be as many legal as illegal immigrant children virtually shut out from college access.  Attached is a survey we have made of the last four graduating classes at the Chavez-Capitol Hill campus.  Included are students who are legally documented but whose parents do not have legal documents.  These students also cannot apply to the FAFSA form.  According to these data, forty percent of immigrant and first generation children are affected.  If we extrapolate that to the entire population of immigrant children in D.C., approximately 3,000 of the 8,000 children are affected.  About half are in the country legally.

Amazingly, or perhaps not so amazingly, Mayor Gray has no clue that this problem exists.  Appearing on WAMU's Kojo Nnamdi's show on January 7, 2011, Mr. Gray said, referring to recent applicants at the University of the District of Columbia, "There were very few people who did not qualify either for a loan or some kind of financial aid."

The D.C. City Council has also shown virtually no interest in this issue.  We have made several trips to the Council's offices, most recently to Council Chair Gray's Committee of the Whole last year, with no results.  The OSSE, which prides itself on providing information on financial aid, has shown little initiative in trying to make college financial aid more available to Latinos.

Lawmakers in Maryland have shown more interest than those in D.C.  Governor O'Malley is expected to soon sign a bill that would allow Latino immigrant children in Maryland, no matter their status, to pay in-state rates for community and state colleges and universities.  These students would still not get financial aid, but paying half-price out of pocket is better than paying full price out of pocket.

So what gives, D.C.?  Do we want to continue to disenfranchise thousands of innocent children?




Friday, April 22, 2011

He Was On Our List. They Are All On Our List

After eight years of RICH's existence, Garey Gordon was the first student of mine to die suddenly. As you can read here, his death was unnecessary.

Although Garey's death does not haunt me, I often ask why he died.  I think first of the facts:

1.  He was an 18-year old tenth grader at Anacostia High School who just barely passed geometry in the fall semester.  I had called his house in January to try to get him to do more geometry work to get his grade up to a C.  He seemed willing to meet me at the library to do this if he could get a ride from his uncle, but he did not show up.

2.   Garey stopped coming to school in February.  During this time, we at RICH met several times with the attendance counselor at the high school and other neighborhood groups to brainstorm on how to get more students to come to school.  The best tactic we came up with was home visits by teachers on Friday afternoons.  

3.  Garey was not the only truant.  By January, fewer than 60% of the students at the Matthew Henson Academy, the subset of Anacostia that he attended, were coming to school on an average day.  School-wide, there are approximately 200 students who have stopped coming to school on a regular basis.

4.  On February 25, about a dozen families had meaningful visits from teachers.  Other families were not home.  About half of those students started coming back to school.  Not a huge number, but a start.


Garey was on my list, but I did not get around to visiting him and his mom.  There are a lot of students whose parents I would like to meet to either tell them how smart their child is or tell them that their child has not been coming to school.  Time and money constrain me and RICH from visiting everyone we would like.  Most of the phone numbers we have for these students are inaccurate.

The word on the street is that Garey had eight friends at home at the time of the shooting, that there was an argument about shoes, that he was shot in the back, that he was propped up against a window to make it look like a drive-by before someone called 911.  He was shot by his girl friend's friend.

For the younger teachers, some who are less than half my age of 53, Garey's death was difficult to handle.  It is hard for them to fathom the massive financial and intellectual poverty in their students' community, and hard to appreciate the incremental progress that they are making with their students.  I like to tell them they are moving the ball slowly down the field, that they are building great relationships with the students who do come to school, but it is hard for them not to think of the negative outcomes they see.

Garey needed almost daily mentoring.  I did not know him well, but there is a reason most students stop coming to school.  They might be depressed; they might have to take care of a relative; they might not have any clean clothes; they might have an addiction.  The other 199 truant students at Anacostia also need constant mentoring.  Multiply this number by approximately 20, and you have, citywide, a rough number of students who are close to the edge of dropping out.

What happens to these dropouts?  The American Youth Policy Forum, in documents such as this , tell a grim story.  Half become incarcerated by age 35.  Deaths such as Garey's are not uncommon. 

Is RICH helping?  Yes, and that is what keeps me going.  It is a tremendous challenge to try to figure out how to best use our time and resources.  We are at war on this poverty, forty-plus years after LBJ popularized the phrase.

Another boy, whose initials are PH, is back in school because of our intervention.  When we visited his home, we found out his mom had not paid the water bill.  No water means no clean clothes, and while some students do not mind wearing the same pair of pants two weeks in a row, not every boy will do this.  Now, every time I see PH in school, I smile and punch him in his stomach, gently.