Editor’s note: Last year, we reported on the questions and conversations that Jerome Price ’12 was raising about education in the U.S. He’s still at it, of course, and recently took that thinking to Washington, D.C. for a Break Away service trip. We asked him to share some thoughts and observations here in TheDEN…
You can learn a lot about a community through its schools. They are the depth and breadth of the people and places they serve. They represent the promise and hope for the future. In Washington, D.C., that reality was no different, as I witnessed during the last week of winter break while exploring the complexities of what drives me most: education in America.
I traveled there with 13 other Denison students, as a co-leader of a Break Away service trip. Our itinerary involved visits to three different sites: a revolutionary open-enrollment college preparatory charter school, an infamously under-resourced public high school, and an elite co-educational Quaker day school. One of our objectives was to learn about educational access and inequities in the nation’s capital. Here was the opportunity I had been waiting for. I spend a lot of time discussing and thinking about our nation’s educational systems. The week represented the opportunity to spend time within those very systems, and learn from both teachers and students alike.
We arrived on Sunday, Jan. 8, passing through the historic Georgetown neighborhood en route to our housing site at the Steinbruck Center for Urban Studies. As we rode down Wisconsin Avenue and M Street, I began to think about the moving scene in the film The Pursuit of Happyness, when actor Will Smith states, “They all looked so happy.” It was clear that an abundance of economic opportunity coupled with affluence and wealth resided in the nation’s capital. Within minutes, however, poverty and limited access to livelihood became overtly apparent. It was obvious that several pockets across the city had yet to be reached.
Our first visit was to the KIPP DC: Promise Academy, which serves grades 1-3. KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) is a nationally renowned K-12 educational system that aims to move students from low-income communities into and through college. KIPP achieves this goal with longer school days, high expectations for its students, and a dedicated team of administrators and teachers who share a sense of teamwork and community, an atmosphere not found in many other schools. The Promise Academy culture is at once meticulous—from the “Class of 2023” banner that graced the halls to the cell phones staff members carried to be reached at all times—and yet fun, fresh and avante-garde. “You’ve got to read, baby, read,” sang a class full of third graders. It shaped my thinking, and I soon realized that KIPP schools have to make up for the social inequalities present in the daily lives of the children they serve.
A few miles away, at Anacostia Senior High School, we witnessed the game-changing challenges public education faces. We already knew that the quality of public education in America is largely determined by neighborhoods, not laws, and Anacostia proves the point. After walking in the side entrance of Anacostia, we had to go through a metal detector, one by one. Such an experience can be unnerving, especially after leaving KIPP. I could easily see the obstacles many under-performing schools face, such as crowded classrooms and limited resources. But on a profounder level, I found it hard to get a clear vision of what it hoped its students would achieve. I recalled KIPP’s banner-adorned hallways, and noted that Anacostia’s walls are bare. And Anacostia’s students are stuck there, fundamentally locked into that particular school system—unless, that is, they’re lucky enough to be chosen in a lottery to attend schools like KIPP. Was this America? Even though Promise Academy admitted students from the same neighborhood as Anacostia, the school cultures were visibly divergent.
Finally, we visited Sidwell Friends School in the northwestern section of the city. Sidwell is a highly esteemed Quaker school, with alumni ranging from CEOs to world leaders. After lunch (where I stood in line with Malia Obama, the President’s eldest daughter), we toured the middle school facility and participated in a question-and-answer session with the fifth and sixth grade teachers. The culture of Sidwell embraces creativity and allows for both academic and social freedom among students and faculty alike. Its crème de la crème eco-friendly facilities are remarkable. Throughout our tour, I continued to think: If only the kids across town knew what was being offered at schools like Sidwell. It was very clear that an education at Sidwell was largely maintained for students of the upper crust.
What I know for sure from my experience is that there is currently a movement in the nation’s capital to transform educational opportunity. Programs like Teach For America work to ensure that all children in this nation have an equal shot at a quality education. We had the chance to visit TFA’s national offices during our Break Away experience. The national nonprofit organization understands that the difficulties facing education cannot be solved solely within the classroom but through the work of solid men and women in all fields.
Was it luck that made all of the difference for the children in D.C.? Socioeconomic status alone does not define a person’s chance to receive a top-notch education in America. However, children in low-income communities will continue to have a tougher time reaching a leveled playing field with boys and girls from some of the most well-to-do neighborhoods in the nation. That is, unless the standards of quality education for all children are raised across the board. Lawmakers and government officials who send their children to such well-resourced schools cannot afford to ignore the limited opportunities many students are forced to endure each day.
I am hungry to see more revolutionary models in K-12 education. Every day, I yearn for more school leaders and community members with enough gusto to say that the time to transform education in the free world has come. Realizing the potential for excellence in teaching and learning within the hardest hit communities and acting on it will fundamentally transform the culture of education in America—whether public, charter, or independent.