(PHOTO: Courtesy of citylimits.org)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Six years ago, Richard Short’s older brother hit a road block in his education. The 15-year-old recalled his brother’s high school environment as a violent one, where fights broke out in the halls almost every day and some students were caught carrying guns in their backpacks.

As a result, his brother lost focus and had to make a choice: either try to fit in with the rough crowd or drop out. “He chose to drop out,” Short told a crowd of more than 20 at a recent public action event. “My brother’s school failed him.”

That sentiment was echoed among his peers and education advocates who gathered on June 3 at All Souls Unitarian Church in Columbia Heights for “The Truth about School.”

The public action comes at a time when education reform is a hot button issue of the 2010 DC mayoral race. According to a fact sheet by Hands on DC, a nonprofit that improves the physical condition of schools, the average traditional public school building in the District is more than 60 years old.

Students, like Short’s brother, “who already face enormous challenges often have to learn in outdated and deteriorating buildings,” according to the factsheet. Repairing the District’s public school system could cost the city more than $2 billion.

Two major mayoral candidates, Mayor Adrian Fenty and DC Council Chair Vince Gray, have been involved in school reform efforts. In addition to taking over the ailing DCPS, appointing a new Schools Chancellor and rolling out a five-week summer school program and tutoring initiative, the Fenty Administration unveiled the Master Facilities Plan (MFP) for DC public schools in 2008.

(PHOTO: John Healey) Youth engaged in Lifting Voices workshop.

Under the MFP, according to the September 2008 release, school improvements were organized into three categories: academic, support and systems. The nearly $600 million modernization plan, implemented through a two-phase approach, is considered a departure from previous school facility planning efforts.

The plan spun off of the work already completed, which included some schools receiving new science labs, new central air conditioning units and repaired heating systems, along with major plumbing repairs to restrooms and water fountains.

According to the release, six schools were outfitted for pre-kindergarten students, and more than 3,500 safety and health violations were fixed.

Fenty’s rival Gray also boasts a robust reform effort. According to Gray’s website, the council chair led efforts to expand pre-K by creating 2,000 new classroom slots for three and four-year olds over the next five years. The District is 75 percent closer to that goal, the council chair’s website states, with nearly 1,500 slots created and filled.

As mayor, Gray promises to invest in early education, going beyond universal pre-K to include universal infant and toddler education. He wants to reform special education, and nurture both charter and traditional public schools by helping them collaborate on a best practice model.

“There are millions of dollars riding on school reform, but no one ever listens to kids,” said Reba Elliott, executive director of Lifting Voices, a nonprofit that provides writing workshops to youth from underserved communities.

(PHOTO: John Healey) Lifting Voices youth.

The organization uses both a bottom-up and top-down approach. The bottom-up work is done through their writing workshops in communities, according to Elliott, where one-third of the residents are functionally illiterate. The top-down approach is done through their oral history program, which gathers life stories from underserved residents to share with decision makers. “We give people the power of words,” Elliott said, “and we give those words to people in power.”

The June 3 public action, facilitated by Lifting Voices, was a recent effort to bring the word to those in power.  Elliott added, “No one ever asks the kids about their own experiences, what they’ve done…and how they feel about school reform.”

Short and six other students — who are enrolled in the city’s private, charter and traditional public schools — added their voices to the debate over education reform. The topics of discussion included teacher performance, standardized tests, motivating students and student expectation.

Short, a 10th grader at Arch Bishop Carroll High School in northeast, presented on “graduation rates.” According to a recent study by Education Week researchers, the on-time graduation rate for D.C. public school students in 2006 fell to 48.8 percent, significantly lower than the 69.2 percent for the national high school graduation rate.

The study focused on national graduation data from 1996-2006, the most recent data available, which does not include data from public charter schools. According to an update the DCist blog obtained from the Office of the Chancellor: “This year 14 out of 17 high schools increased their graduation rates, and cumulatively the graduation rate increased from 67.9% to 69.72%.”

(PHOTO: John Healey) A Lifting Voices youth.

While the gains seem promising, Short noted the responsibility isn’t only on city officials. “In order for kids to graduate, school administrators need to care enough to separate the school from the streets,” he said.

Had they done that, Short believed, his brother — who eventually went back to school and graduated — wouldn’t have dropped out in the first place. His brother’s situation, he said, “did not need to happen.”

Noah Dyson, 10, knows what needs to happen. Dyson loves a challenge. When he didn’t get it at his old school, his parents enrolled the 5th grader into a charter school. “I don’t want 4th grade work in 5th grade, but I do want 6th grade work in 5th grade,” Dyson said, adding that what he wants most is a better connection with his teachers.

(PHOTO: John Healey)

Short’s younger sister, Kheilah, agreed. Speaking on “student expectation,” the 14-year-old noted student-teacher connection can be achieved by doing away with the stigma placed on students in public schools as being “loud and crazy.” About those assumptions, “Sometimes they are right,” said Kheilah, an 8th grader at Holy Redeemer Catholic School in NW. “But sometimes they are wrong. Some students” — in public schools — “are really smart.”

An effort to address both Dyson’s and Kheilah’s concerns came on the day of the public action, when the Washington Teacher’s Union overwhelming approved a contract (voting 1,412 to 425) that would boost teachers’ pay over five years by 21.6 percent, according to reports.

The contract has to be approved by the DC Council. If it passes, the Washington Post reports, the $140 million D.C. collective bargaining agreement could raise the average teaching salary between $67,000 and $81,000.

(PHOTO: John Healey)

DC School Reform Now, an advocacy group, noted the contract also benefits students like Dyson and Kheilah. For starters,  according to the organization’s website, it would ensure that every teacher have set expectations for student achievement. Those expectations will be supported at the district and school level. Additionally, the contract calls for three district-wide Teacher Centers to be housed at selected schools, where teachers can organize, share best practices, and receive support whenever necessary.

Other forms of support for teachers to help students meet expectations are assigned mentors for teachers, a three-day intensive training at the start of the year, and ongoing support throughout their first three years.

But when it comes down to it, Stephon Williams (aka emcee Phase Ten) noted education reform is also a community issue. He added that beefs among students and gun violence in schools often start on the streets. “It’s just too many young men” — 14- and 15-year olds — “that have died,” said Williams, 17, who opened the event with a rap song about education. “I want to see our generation just change and come together.”

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