OpEd: D.C. Must Support At-Risk Students

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By Dr. Ramona Edelin
Special to the AFRO

As the District of Columbia begins the hard work of repairing the damage wreaked by the coronavirus pandemic, the D.C. Council faces severe budgetary challenges. The recessionary lockdown it prompted, shuttered schools that have been disrupted and the set back of students’ education must all be mended. 

At the same time as these public health and economic crises, we have been reminded how we are not fully in control of the important choices available to our city. Absent statehood, the federal government has deprived the District of $725 million (nearly $1,000 for every adult and child) thanks to a decision in the U.S. Senate, where D.C. lacks representation, to classify the District as a territory rather than a state, as per previous federal emergency relief efforts. This is despite the fact that the District residents pay more to the federal government per person than any other state. In fact, the District contributes more than $16 million more than we get back.

At-risk students are at the greatest danger of falling behind educationally, with all of the adverse consequences of that in terms of high-school graduation, college and careers. (Courtesy Photo/dcpcsb.org)

District residents also have witnessed alarming scenes of peaceful protestors beset by tear gas, rubber bullets, dangerously low-flying helicopters, soldiers in camouflage and, thanks to the fact that our elected representatives do not fully control the city’s streets, the threat of citywide military intervention.

Amid these challenges, over 500 COVID-19 fatalities have been recorded, three-quarters of them African-Americans, who comprise less than half the population.  As with the pandemic, the economic shock and disruption to schooling hasn’t been felt equally among all District residents, making investment in our most underserved communities a priority for city and federal regular and relief dollars.

D.C. Councilmembers are now reviewing the mayor’s budget, which included a three percent increase in school operating costs for D.C. Public Schools and the District’s public charter schools, each of which educate about half of all city public school students.  Some councilmembers wish to go further and reinstate the four percent increase initially planned before city finances took the lockdown-related hit.

But either increase belies the fact that students at-risk of academic underachievement face the greatest challenges, and are paying the highest price for the health and economic emergencies and the inadequacy of relief funds. Students most at-risk are currently defined by the District government as homeless; in foster care; in receipt of family income or nutrition support; or enrolled in high school below their grade level. They constitute about half of DCPS and D.C. public charter school students.  Almost half of the District’s 128 public charter schools have half or more students who are at-risk, ranging from KIPP D.C. College Prep with 50 percent, to Kingsman Academy with 86 percent at-risk.

At-risk students are at the greatest danger of falling behind educationally, with all of the adverse consequences of that in terms of high-school graduation, college and careers. As well as increased exposure to the many negative outcomes that can weigh upon children who don’t obtain a quality education.

These vulnerable students need to be protected against the diversion of funds needed for education from school operating budgets to instead pay for the personal protective equipment, additional cleaning, implementation of social distancing requirements and any further need for distance learning.  Funding for these requirements must instead come from elsewhere, ideally from the federal relief funds earmarked for the city.

To address these special needs, the D.C. government adds a supplemental weighting to the Uniform Per-Student Funding Formula that funds school operating costs for all public schools.  Boosting this weighting from 0.225 of the UPSFF base to 0.370, which the city recommended in its own UPSFF Adequacy Study, would recognize the risks of these students falling further behind due to school closures.

The lockdown and prolonged school closures and their associated social isolation and lack of access to school mental health services also have taken a toll on students’ mental health and that of their families. The budget proposes a $1.5 million allocation for school mental health services; however, this is to come from existing mental health funds. An actual increase to compensate for the disruption caused by the pandemic, lockdown and school closures is required.

Mental health challenges directly adversely impact learning and therefore educational outcomes. It is essential that returning students have access to trauma-informed instructional practices and trained mental health professionals, especially with next school year’s uncertainties.

Councilmembers also should consider measures to end the digital divide, which exclude many disadvantaged students from distance learning, access to healthcare, mental health provision and social services.

Let’s ensure our most at-risk students aren’t left behind because our city’s future, and theirs, depends upon it.

Dr. Ramona H. Edelin, Ph.D. is the Executive Director, DC Association of Chartered Public Schools.