Pamella Shaw, who was trying to restart the PTA at Ludlow-Taylor, brought information about a similar effort in New York City. Tessa Muehlleher, a resident who was attempting to persuade neighborhood families to choose Brent Elementary, discovered that the Washington Architectural Foundation matched organizations with pro bono building-design services.
“We turned in our application in July 2005. Within one week, they got back to us and said yes they would help,” says Wells.
The parents group held its meetings at the Capitol Hill Foundation office. The nonprofit organization, operated by volunteers, wanted to adopt the library project. “Neighbors hosted dinners, picking a book as a theme and providing a meal that reflected that theme. There was someone at each party to explain the library project,” says Tommy Wells.
The brick-and-mortar aspect of the project needed someone comfortable in that material world. Through a foundation connection, the Capitol Hill parents met Thomas Regan of Regan Associates, who volunteered to serve as general contractor, managing as many as eight architects. Despite that significant in-kind contribution, the organization still needed cash. Wells bugged Cathy Townsend Pine, a friend who used to be a professional fundraiser; she pitched in. Over just two summers, Wells and the parents group raised $2.4 million, including $500,000 from DCPS. They renovated libraries in all eight Capitol Hill elementary schools.
“That was a turning point in my life,” says Wells. “It was a very empowering project.”
It’s not just a tragedy that predominantly African American Wards 5, 7, and 8 have so few people like Wells. It’s also a disgrace.
“That’s one of the biggest issues we have,” says Jones. “We have got to get parents involved.”
Zapata says much of the problem is that many parents in her community don’t even realize their schools lack the basics. “We have been trying to educate parents and educate the community,” she says. “We have so many young parents. They don’t even understand these issues. They don’t understand what Deal and Hardy Schools are like. They don’t know what an IB program is.”
Few of these parents attend PTA and other education-related meetings, making it nearly impossible for them to fully understand what’s happening in their children’s schools. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle: With more middle-class parents sending their kids elsewhere, the parents who still have kids in the local schools are more likely to be the ones least able to make time for such meetings. “I’ve been to some PTA meetings,” says Jones. “Sometimes there may be less than 10 parents in attendance.”
But the real culprit is the flight-not-fight mentality prevalent in the black middle class. Experts have long complained that such departures lead to starving neighborhood schools of the brightest students. Earlier this month, the Washington Post reported that test scores of children in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, like Wards 7 and 8, trail those of their counterparts in Ward 3. It didn’t mention, however, that many of those Ward 3 students are, in fact, upper- or middle-class African Americans from outside that Upper Northwest community.
DCPS was unable to provide statistics on their numbers, but a glance at some of the city’s better regarded schools tells the story. The student population in Ward 2’s Hardy Middle School continues to be predominantly black, as it is at Ward 3’s Wilson High School. Yet both of the schools’ surrounding neighborhoods are mostly white.
“You look for what’s best for your children,” says Ward 7 resident Clayton Witt, whose children travel to Capitol Hill to attend the Cluster School. “It was a hard decision. I went to where the [test] scores would accommodate my child....If your child is proficient or advanced, he needs to be with kids who also are proficient or advanced.” Witt says that 27 percent of students at the Cluster School are from Ward 7, and another 23 percent are from Ward 8.
“You only have a finite amount of time,” says Zapata, explaining her decision to send her children to school outside Ward 5. Fair enough. But someone has to make an unwavering commitment to neighborhood schools. Witt says he and his wife want to start an organization like Wells’ in Ward 7. Yet making the Capitol Hill–esque transformation in their communities will be much more difficult if their energies and focus are divided between the school their children attend and the schools in the wards where they live.
Instead, the obligation is simply passed on to the government. During Henderson’s council-confirmation hearings earlier this summer, residents from Ward 5 demanded assistance from the school system to organize parents to do what Wells did.