Talking It Over
Washington, D.C., is not a place that conjures up images of great public schools. For too long, the education system in our nation's capital has been dogged by low expectations, lagging standards, crumbling buildings and wasted resources.
Yet despite these shortcomings, there are schools in Washington that are hidden jewels, offering important lessons about how public education can succeed even in the most difficult circumstances.
Two public schools I visited recently are cases in point.
At Banneker High School, all 82 members of the senior class have been accepted to college. Together, they've won hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships and grants. They have all studied Latin and completed year-long research papers on authors as varied as Samuel Beckett and V.S. Naipaul. Every student volunteers in the community throughout four years of high school.
Founded in 1981, Banneker serves 400 high-achieving students of different economic backgrounds from neighborhoods throughout Washington. What they share is a dream of higher education.
When I delivered the commencement address at Banneker earlier this month, I saw just how motivated these students are. Some travel miles across the city just to attend the school. Some give up their Friday nights to work on homework assignments.
One young woman was particularly memorable: Both of her parents were drug abusers. Her mother died this winter, and her father landed in jail. But even in the face of family traumas, the girl persevered in school. With the support of relatives who took her in, as well as friends and teachers, she graduated near the top of her class, won numerous scholarships and was admitted to some of the nation's finest universities. She will attend college on a full scholarship in the fall.
Skeptics may say that Banneker has succeeded simply because it has the luxury of being academically competitive, skimming the best students from other schools. It's true that admission is based on class rank, standardized tests, interviews and recommendations.
But it's also true that more students are yearning for the Banneker experience. Only 100 of 300 who apply to Banneker get in. With that kind of demand, there could be more schools like Banneker across the city and the country.
It's also worth remembering that a selective student body is only part of the story. At Banneker and other schools I have visited, success depends as much on teachers, administrators and parents setting high standards and high expectations.
Many teachers at Banneker stay for hours after school to meet with students. The custodians and security staff pride themselves on maintaining a campus that is immaculate and safe. Parents willingly give their time as volunteers and tutors and help out during field trips and school activities.
Banneker offers a compelling portrait of how one community has come together on behalf of public education in a challenging urban setting. I saw another example when I visited J.O. Wilson Elementary School.
A little over a year ago, community organizations and church congregations from throughout the city recruited volunteers, raised money and garnered support from the private sector to expand after-school activities in the public schools. As a result, J.O. Wilson has been transformed into an after-school safe haven and learning center for children and families in the surrounding neighborhood.
On a recent visit, I saw classrooms that used to sit empty and dark after school. Now they're filled with children extending their learning during non-school hours. One group of youngsters was busy playing chess under the supervision of a community volunteer who offered tips about strategy. Other students were writing plays and illustrating them. Some were working on photography projects. Still others were competing at sports.
I was also impressed to see parents coming to the school to hone their computer skills and study for their GEDs.
Although the program is only a few months old, it confirms the findings of a newly released Department of Education report which says that safe, organized after-school activities strengthen the links among home, school and the larger community. Most of all, these programs expand access to education and give children and their families a greater stake in their own futures.
As I have said many times, you can go into any neighborhood in America and find schools that work and schools that don't.
But every time I visit a school like those I've seen in Washington recently, I ask myself: Why don't more schools learn from those that are succeeding? Why don't more communities copy the successes of Banneker High School and the after-school program at J.O. Wilson Elementary School? Why don't we provide opportunities for all children who are willing to work hard to meet the rigors of a more challenging curriculum?
There are a lot of great ideas in our public education system that don't require new buildings, more equipment or fancy technology. They simply require the desire and commitment of parents, teachers, administrators and the surrounding community. And they require faith in our children's capacity to excel.
Instead of worrying about what's wrong with our schools, let's focus on what's right. Our public schools can succeed, even in places where we think they can't.
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