Loose Lips

No Match for You

Project Match Can't Get DCPS to Cooperate

Yvette Ross’ job is to help bright kids succeed, but she can’t get the time of day from the District of Columbia Public Schools.

Ross runs Project Match, a tiny non-profit organization that helps D.C. students of color get into independent boarding schools, including some tony New England ones like Phillips Exeter Academy and the Deerfield Academy. The program has a pretty impressive track record: 95 percent of its students go onto college. And the top 10 colleges attended by Project Match’s students include Harvard, Yale, Stanford and Brown. Let’s just say that DCPS’s statistics don’t come close.

“The results speak for themselves,” says Ross, herself a product of Project Match who went from Jefferson Junior High School in Southwest to the Groton School in Massachusetts, and from there on to Wellesley College and business school at Duke.

Project Match currently helps about 12 to 15 students a year, Ross says, but wants to expand. Ross says many elite boarding schools, long the home of privileged whites, are eager to find students of color from the D.C. area. (For the private schools, the concept isn’t new; a similar program in New York, called Prep for Prep, gets 6,000 applicants a year.) Project Match doesn’t pay for tuition, but its 500 or so alumni have received more than $15 million in financial aid directly from the schools who accept them.

Is Project Match a panacea for the city’s awful public schools? Obviously not. But it has done some good for some lucky kids. “I think it’s the best thing for some people, it’s completely life changing,” said TV pundit, Daily Caller editor and Project Match board member Tucker Carlson, summing up what all of Project Match’s supporters told LL.

Growing the program, though, may prove difficult. Ross says she’s had to confine her recruitment efforts to a handful of charter schools and rely on word of mouth to find the right kids. Her efforts to get approval from DCPS so she can pitch the program directly to middle school counselors at traditional public schools have gone nowhere.

Why? That’s a great question—and not one DCPS seemed interested in answering. When LL called up Shereen Williams, the director of DCPS’ Office of Community Partnerships, and asked her if she’d heard of Project Match, she replied, a bit dismissively: “I’ve heard of them,” before referring LL’s next questions to the DCPS press shop.

A few days later came this reply from DCPS spokesman Fred Lewis: “Sorry it’s taken so long. Unfortunately, at this time we don’t have any comment for your story. Sorry/fred”

On one level, it’s an unsurprising “no comment.” Wanda Hill, an 83-year-old who started Project Match and ran it for more than 25 years, says she always encountered resistance from unhelpful school officials and had to rely on friendly staff for help identifying possible recruits. Only two middle schools ever really went along with her efforts. Hill says she understands the opposition, and doesn’t think it’s unique to D.C. She’s taken gruff from her own black friends as well, who argued that bright students shouldn’t be removed from their own community.

But on another level, DCPS’ silence on Project Match is at odds with how outspoken Chancellor Michelle Rhee has been about making decisions based on what’s best for a child. Rhee’s message is that kids should go to school wherever they can do best—and that DCPS is ready, willing, and able to compete with other alternatives.

When many in the city recently frothed with faux-outrage after President Obama had the gall to say that he’s sending his daughters to the pricey and private Sidwell Friends school because DCPS can’t offer the same quality education, Rhee calmly called it a “fair assessment.” “DCPS welcomes competition and is working for the day when all DCPS schools can effectively compete with the best private schools,” she said in a statement.

But when it comes to actual competition for specific kids, it seems Rhee’s boasts fall a little short. Project Match’s Ross says a high-ranking DCPS official essentially told her that it “seems odd to take students out of a system we are trying to fix.” (Rhee and Mayor Adrian Fenty have touted rising enrollment numbers after decades of decline as proof that their approach to school reform is working.) Hill says school officials were sometimes unwilling to part with some of their brightest students, who bolster test scores and provide role models for other students. That’s the flip side to reform efforts that use tests as the linchpin of measuring success; schools aren’t particularly interested in losing the smart kids who keep their averages up.

That kind of resistance drives Project Match’s supporters crazy.

“No parent ought to be required to sacrifice his kids for the larger social good,” Carlson says. “The idea that you’d hold a child back because he’s talented or unusually bright is grotesque.”

Ross is similarly annoyed at what she says are incorrect perceptions about what her program is trying to accomplish. She says Project Match doesn’t skim off DCPS’ best students, nor work only with the most exclusive boarding schools. Project Match kids’ scores in the standardized test boarding schools use range from the 5th percentile to the 98th, according to Ross.

And while there are certainly stories of Project Match helping kids overcome horrible situations to thrive in elite boarding schools, there are also plenty of examples of students with less dramatic back stories.

One case is the son of Theresa Day, a former DCPS teacher and single mother. Tawfiq Abdul-Karim was accepted to School Without Walls, one of the District’s best public high schools, but chose Woodberry Forest School in Virginia instead, which he found through Project Match. Day said she and her son were blown away from day one by Woodberry’s faculty and facilities, and she’s willing to pay a small part of the school’s $43,000 a year tuition so her son can enjoy a less “hectic” lifestyle. (Financial aid covers the rest of the costs.)

“Oh my goodness, it’s better than a postcard.”

It’s easy to understand why DCPS wouldn’t want to spend its time helping Project Match entice a student who was probably going to get a great free public school education skip town. Ross, who used to work in the DCPS budget office, says she understands the pressure to keep students in public schools. But she also believes that parents ought to be given as many options as possible when it comes to educating their kids—and all she wants is a chance to make her case.


Last week, Washington City Paper’s cover story focused on how the football-kicking, beauty-product-selling, socially conservative, Utah Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz is itching to start meddling in D.C.’s affairs if the GOP wins the House this November. LL was curious what Almost Mayor Vincent Gray was doing to prepare for dealing with a congressman who thinks D.C. autonomy is unconstitutional, and whether the future mayor has appointed anyone to his transition team to think through congressional engagement. Turns out, Gray hasn’t: “No, I have not addressed that,” he tells LL. “I actually would like to think that we will continue to have...Democratic control of the House—we’ll face that when we get to it. But no, I haven’t appointed anyone to address that issue.” LL realizes Gray may not be paying much attention to when the general election is, since the D.C. primary is the only election that really matters here. But Nov. 2 is just around the corner—might be time to start thinking about it, Mr. Almost Mayor!

Got a tip for LL? Send suggestions to lips@washingtoncitypaper.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x 244, 24 hours a day.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

  • Justlynn

    Ms. Ross, how about thinking out of the box to recruit students? Everyone is tired of the current "culture of whining" because "I can't have my way." Find another way to acheive your goals and move on! Or, are your motives political to complain DCPS? Enough already!Just do your job on own two feet and get past DCPS. Sure seems like everyone is trying to make a very good living off the school children in DC unde the guise of good intentions. It’s all about the benjamins

  • High School Graduate

    The Project Match program has a wonderful and successful portfolio of youth that it supported through high school. I did not know it was so political. I am gathering that the jouralist is more political. I am currently on the list as a friend of project match and I CAN tell you that the number of students attending boarding schools with urban backgrounds fom low income families would be less if it were not for project match. Boarding schools DO provide quality and tailored educations. The prejuduce of many about what experience is, is usually a bigger barrier to one than the diversity that comes from Project Match. Excellence, clean schools with exceptional resources should be every childs desire AND parents/gaurdians should push for more of these types of schools. At the end of the day it is the parent that pushes for the wellbeing of the child. DC is not the only place with questionable educational standards and conditions. This is a national issue not a Project Match issue. Don't beat up those making a difference for children beat up those rolling back the price and reducing and losing quality educations. Ms. Ross, thanks for staying focused and specializing in offering an opportunity to those who are interested. You deserve lots of support! Please don't put down public servants in the process because they work hard too.

  • A. Paul

    Project Match has drastically changed the lives of students. I am a native Washingtonian who grew up in foster care and Project Match gave me the opportunity to leave the inner city and attend a prestigious high school that changed my life. I am a college graduate studying for my LSATs and will apply to law school for fall of 2010. I am certain that I would have pursued a college education if I was not lucky enough to attend a Junior High school that cared more about my education than keeping intelligent students in a potentially negative atmosphere but I would not be the person I am today had it not been for Project Match. That's a fact!

  • C Terry

    OPTIONS! Ms. Ross Thank you for providing yet another option for children attending DCPS. It's unfortunate that some tend to think that the parents and children of this city do not deserve to know what "all" of their options are when it comes to getting the best education. Project Match sounds like one of the best avenues to getting some DCPS students exposed to private boarding schools that would definitely not be an option based on overall social and economic conditions.

  • Lisa

    My daughter had the opportunity to attend boarding school through the assistance of Project Match. Although she was a "good" student, she was not a straight A student and I was concerned about her ability to compete and succeed in boarding school, not to mention that "boarding school" in itself was a scary concept to contemplate. I am so glad that I had Project Match to help us through the process. For my daughter, it was life changing and we ended up spending less to send her to a $34,000 a year school than we would have spent to send her to the local Christian school. She had far more academic, social and life opportunities, and access to more resources than she ever would have had in the public school or local private school. She learned to advocate for herself, pace herself throughout her academic day, budget her money, and seek academic and/or other help when needed and yet I still had free access to her and was never "out of the loop". Her boarding school experience has made all the difference in how she adjusted to college (she is currently a Junior) and to how she views life in general. She EXPECTS to succeed and that's that!

    While I understand the concerns of the public school system as it relates to having kids "taken away" from their schools, in the end my first loyalty had to be to my daughter and her future. My husband is an elected official and we have taken some flack over the years for our decision to take our kids out of the public system in our county but if the system isn't working, I'm not sacrificing my kids in the hope that it MIGHT get better someday. It's great that school systems all over the country are taking steps to "try to fix" a system that isn't working. In the meantime, it is not fair to our children to have the system "fixed" at the expense of their potential and their future.

    I have become an advocate of boarding school for minority students and do all I can to encourage others to consider it for their children. Thank you Project Match for all you to do give each child the chance for success!

  • C.A. Curry

    I am an "alumnus" of Project Match, attending boarding school in Rhode Island. The work that Mrs. Hill pioneered and Ms. Ross continues is nothing short of miraculous. They are on the front line, battling both an hostile school system and long-standing stereotypes, for the academic future of D.C. youth.

    My education began in the Anacostia section of Southeast. After boarding school and college, I earned a law degree. Currently, I am earning another graduate degree. And while I had amazing familial support, Project Match was a major catalyst in my academic success.

    After living many years in a neighboring jurisdiction, I returned to Anacostia to serve as a role model and mentor.

    I hope DCPS would not be so myopic with statistics of achievement that they deny capable young residents the opportunity to represent DCPS to a large and broader audience- the boarding school community.

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  • DCJournalist8

    So much for Fenty-Rhee transparency in government; this administration has been filled with NO COMMENTS for almost four loo-o-o-on-n-g years.

    At this time -- or any time -- when a young DC person could get the educational boost that catapults them into the mainstream, to have Rhee as the arbiter of our youths' collective futures is terrifying. We have so many kids who, given the opportunity, can exceed expectations with the right supportive environments.

    I am reminded of "The Blind Side," a movie about how a well-to-do family adopted a poor kid. Now that child is a millionaire due in large part to that supportive environment.

    In reality, it's Rhee, et al, who have that blind side. It's a hateful myopia that continues to destroy lives young and old. I can't wait that the Fenty-Rhee cabal is sent packing FOREVER!

  • Denise N

    A Better Chance has been doing the same thing as Project Match since 1963. Its emphasis has been boarding schools historically but currently boasts many of the top independent days schools in DC like Maret & Sidwell. It helps minority families navigate the often unfamiliar private school application process and offers support for families through graduation. The program started in NY, but has a growing contingent of ABC scholars in the DC Area. They rely on their own marketing efforts and parents of current scholars to recruit and identify new talent.

  • Asma Hasan

    I am a strong supporter of Project Match. It provides a great service, and it does not take away from public schools. Boarding school is not right for every gifted and bright student, and many will stay on at the public school. Public schools also have to accept that students will have more and more choices in the future, and forcing students to stay at a school they aren't happy at is going to go the way of the dinosaur. Public schools will live and die on their owns merits, regardless of good programs like Project Match.