In many black communities, schools are considered sacred institutions; reverence for teachers is similar to that for pastors. That relationship is rooted in an important reality for the black middle class. Before integration expanded their career opportunities, African Americans could rely on teaching as a prime pathway to success. Consequently, many have been reluctant to question administrators or alter the infrastructure of schools.
This history also helps explain why voters in middle-class black neighborhoods have aligned politically with unions that over the past few years have equated school reform with deliberate attacks on teachers. Likewise, many middle-class blacks are reluctant to lead local versions of a reform movement, fearing they might be accused of being Fenty–Rhee allies or fans of gentrification. Both translate into being for whites and against blacks. And being too pushy about wanting things like improved school libraries or International Baccalaureate programs, Ward 5 State Board of Education member and reform proponent Mark Jones says, fits into that same unpopular schema: “In certain wards, people don’t want to be seen aligned with reform.”
Residents’ refusal to get more involved in education means the prime burden and responsibility for improving the schools their children attend falls to the government. Case in point: Even advocates of more citizen involvement think the way to do that is to have the government lead people who ought to be leading themselves. Jones, for instance, says the reforms are “moving in the right direction,” but then immediately shifts responsibility for finding his neighborhood’s Suzanne Wells to DCPS itself. The school system “should be used as a catalyst to push parents to get involved who may not understand the value,” he says.
But this logic is backwards. The government really can’t do it all—nor should it. It needs parents—more specifically, middle-class parents. In too many old D.C. neighborhoods, they abandoned neighborhood schools years ago. While their counterparts in Ward 6 may be returning to those local institutions, African Americans in Wards 5, 7, and 8 haven’t signaled that they’re ready to come home. Jones says Ward 5 parents are “walking away at a much earlier time.” In the past, their children would complete elementary school before escaping to another ward or a private school.
The physical exodus of D.C.’s black middle class has been well-noted. But the scores of people still residing in black D.C. neighborhoods—but sending their children to far-flung schools—represents a kind of spiritual exodus. In the case of education, it has deprived neighborhood schools of valuable human capital and vital resources critical to producing swift and dramatic improvements like those that have occurred on Capitol Hill over the past five years.
Just take a look at the leadership: Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. sends one child to private school and the others to charter school, according to a report by the Washington Examiner. Until this year, Raenelle Humbles Zapata, the president of the Ward 5 education council, sent her children to schools in Ward 3. Jones has one daughter in a charter school; the other is enrolled in one of the four prekindergarten-through-8th-grade schools in Ward 5. Council Chairman Kwame Brown, who lives east of the Anacostia River, doesn’t send his children to school there. He has them enrolled in Ward 3 schools—Alice Deal and Eaton Elementary. Although Brown has set for next month a public hearing examining the future of the city’s middle schools, it’s unlikely he’ll discuss the role choices like his are playing in their demise.
Middle-class blacks have always been at the forefront of school improvements. They took the risk during the desegregation movement; they enrolled in often-hostile schools, working on behalf of not just their individual children but also the entire community. These times call for a similar commitment.
Developing a community-driven education-transformation model isn’t rocket science, says Wells. It’s a three-stage process involving increasingly more complicated projects. But it isn’t government-centered, and it can’t be achieved or sustained without parents. That’s the way she designed it in Ward 6.
Wells’ first step was calling Darlene Allen, then-president of the citywide PTA. She needed her help in contacting PTA leaders at other schools. Ultimately, Wells set up a series of meetings. Representatives from Brent, Gibbs, Ludlow-Taylor, Payne, Prospect, and Tyler Elementary Schools attended that first gathering in 2005. Community-conscious residents who didn’t have children in any local school, such as George Blackmon, also came.
“I felt a little concerned in the beginning about how I might be received,” Wells continues. By the third meeting, everyone realized they had shared concerns; libraries topped the list.
If city libraries were abysmal, those in public schools were horrific. They were frequently in cramped, ratty quarters and filled with outdated books. “It was criminal that the city let the school libraries look like that,” says Wells. She and her group pledged to change that.