In 2005, Suzanne Wells became president of the Parent-Teacher Association at the Capitol Hill Cluster School, where her son was a student. The unique three-institution campus—made up of Peabody Early Childhood Center, Watkins Elementary School and Stuart-Hobson Middle School—has long been considered among the best D.C. Public Schools has to offer. And Wells took office thinking there weren’t many substantial problems she would have to tackle. Still, she says, she wasn’t quite satisfied with the status quo.
Once upon a time, parents on Capitol Hill either accepted the occasional blemish or ponied up for private school. Not Wells. Two years before Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and his schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, arrived on the scene, Wells helped ignite an education revival that was led by parents, not politicians. The EPA scientist reached across race and class boundaries to launch the Capitol Hill Public School Parents Organization. The group renovated eight elementary school libraries, then pushed for significant academic improvements at several of those same schools—including the introduction of a language-immersion curriculum and expansion of a Montessori program.
Later, Wells and her allies developed their own plan to dramatically reshape nearby middle schools. With only a few modifications, that proposal was adopted by DCPS; it’s scheduled for implementation during the 2011–2012 school year. Earlier this year, the group helped beat back a D.C. Council redistricting proposal that, if approved, would have redrawn the political map in a way that moved two of its schools out of Ward 6. The activism also improved further-flung Ward 6 schools such as Maury Elementary School, at 12th and Constitution Avenue NE.
“Before Maury took off, it was good, but none of the neighborhood kids would go there,” says D.C. Councilmember Tommy Wells, who calls the group’s impact “profound.” “Now it’s highly sought after....The Cluster School isn’t necessarily the favorite school anymore.” Today, Suzanne Wells’ daughter goes to Tyler Elementary. By most accounts, it had been one of the worst schools on Capitol Hill. These days, it’s receiving praise.
“It has a citywide special-education program, Spanish immersion, and arts integration,” says Wells (no relation to Tommy). “[Tyler’s] got this great welcoming feel to it. It’s a wonderful place.”
Capitol Hill’s schools have improved for a lot of reasons, from an economy that’s made private school tuition tougher to pay to a systemwide revival that’s made out-of-boundary spots in traditionally stellar Upper Northwest schools even scarcer. But neighbors attribute a major chunk of the change to volunteers like Wells. Daniel Holt, former PTA president at Brent Elementary, says his school benefitted from “Suzanne’s pioneering spirit.” More middle-class families, he says, are enrolling their children in Capitol Hill schools, which are among the highest performing elementary schools east of Rock Creek Park. “Economic integration is the quickest way in our lifetimes to make schools better,” he says.
“A lot of families come to Capitol Hill,” says Suzanne Wells. “[They are] white and black families, and they are committed to living in the city and sending their kids to public schools.”
The proof is in the numbers: At Maury Elementary, student population increased from 263 in 2009–2010 to 289 in 2010–2011. During that same period, Tyler went from 300 students to 348, according to DCPS. Enrollment at nearly every elementary school in the ward has increased, too. DCPS is projecting a total population hike in Ward 6 of 727 students.
“We’re spending more this year in Ward 6 than in any other ward in the city,” says current DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson.
Here’s a blunt truth: Nowhere in Wards 5, 7, or 8 has there been activism like Wells’ that has made a difference in the public schools.
Some people might argue that’s because Wells is a gentrifier, tapping reservoirs of wealth to magically alleviate previously intractable problems. But that’s not the case. She’s actually lived in the District since 1983, and had been on the Hill for 20 years before taking on the Cluster School. She may share a skin color with a lot of D.C.’s gentrifiers, but her federal-government CV wouldn’t necessarily look so out of place in some of the tree-lined African American neighborhoods in Wards 5, Ward 7, and even Ward 8. Nor would her politics: She’s an avowed admirer of Diane Ravitch, perhaps the highest-profile critic of Rhee.
As someone who’s spent much of my career writing about black leadership in Washington, I know it’s frequently a critical element of many issues in the city. And in the case of schools, its absence is the thread connecting the various reasons why Wards 5, 7, and 8 haven’t seen transformations like the one in Ward 6.
This void has three major elements: Too many parents in those communities don’t want to speak out because of a cultural affection for teachers. Others are discouraged from demanding change because they’re afraid of being aligned with Fenty-era reforms. And still others have simply abandoned their neighborhood institutions and gotten their kids spots elsewhere.