The fate of children growing up in our nation’s capital rarely receives the attention it deserves from our nation’s lawmakers, who live and work here. Yet the facts are startling.
Among the more than 100,000 children who live in the District of Columbia, a child is abused or neglected every three hours. Every four days, a child dies before her or his first birthday.
Three in ten District of Columbia children are growing up in poverty—half of these in extreme poverty. Nearly 6,000 District children have no health insurance, and more than one in five two-year olds are not fully immunized. Nearly half of all D.C. children receive food stamps. Two in every hundred are homeless.
One of the many ways that we as a nation could help ensure that these shocking statistics are not simply repeated year after year is to provide all of the District’s children with a high-quality public education. Sadly, the adults have failed our children here also. Half of D.C.’s students are unable to read or do math at their grade level.
In our starkly divided capital city, these problems are concentrated east of Rock Creek Park and especially east of the Anacostia River, and among our African-American and Latino children.
Among economically disadvantaged District children, only 38 percent of students can read at their grade level, and only 42 percent can do math at their grade level. Children who are not eligible for federal lunch subsidies are much more likely to be at grade level in reading and math. For example, students in D.C.’s affluent Ward 3 are twice as likely to be at their grade level than disadvantaged students.
As a veteran civil rights activist, I have long believed that education reform is key to ending this achievement gap.
Chartered public schools, which enroll 41 percent of all publicly educated school students in the District, have raised educational outcomes—especially for children from our city’s most vulnerable communities. For example, D.C.’ s charter high schools graduate four in five students within four years, compared to about half who graduate District of Columbia Public Schools high schools within four years.
These schools are able to achieve strong outcomes by creating their own curriculum and school culture around the needs of their students, and setting expectations necessary to ensure high-school graduation and college acceptance. They are answerable to an independent city board for improved student performance.
For 16 years, these schools have helped raise educational attainment for mostly disadvantaged District students in student test scores, as well as high-school graduation, college-acceptance rates and countless other ways not measured by the state test. They also were instrumental in prompting the city to reform DCPS, which also has raised educational attainment in recent years.
As we can see from the human tragedy that lies behind the haunting statistics that afflict our children today, there is so much more that needs to be accomplished if we are going to provide children with what they will need to succeed as adults.
Strategic planning and collaboration among the adults could further improve teaching and learning outcomes in the District , including through the informed engagement of parents.
However, this requires authentic collaboration to implement a plan and achieve goals regardless of which type of public school—chartered or city-run—is under discussion. Our children come from the same city, the same neighborhoods, and often the same homes across the chartered and traditional public school sectors. We are responsible for each and for all of them, and we should act like it.
Planning should encompass utilization of relevant research and best practices that are already tested and proven to raise academic performance. Collaboration around policy development, professional development and—most importantly—sharing public facilities must also be part of the mix.
Failing to back education reform with meaningful commitment to the entire city not only shortchanges our children—whom it is costing plenty—but also will cost us all, in whichever part of the city we live.
The stakes are high. Adults over the age of 25 without a high-school diploma are three times as likely to be unemployed as their peers who have earned a college degree. Men who fail to graduate high school are 19 times more likely to be incarcerated than their college-educated counterparts. The costs of failing our children are high and borne by all of us, whether they are related to us or not. Investing in our children now is a smart move for everyone.
Dr. Ramona Edelin is executive director of the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools.