- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 4, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Eighteen years ago, when it had become clear that D.C. Public Schools was well on its way toward failing another generation of children, members of the 2012 class were but a vague gleam in their parents’ eyes.

Today, as city officials ponder such questions as what works and what’s next on the education-reform front, the true answers are sitting right under their noses.

All officials need do is look at the students participating in the D.C. Council’s Youth Internship Program, which allows high school juniors and seniors to get a bird’s-eye view of how their government works, fully engage their government leaders, offer ideas and decide whether city leaders are indeed looking out for their best interests.

These teens share much in common, as most of those I sat down with attend public charter schools or magnet schools, educational institutions that, for the most part, are decidedly at arm’s length from the usual suspects that control DCPS.

Inquisitive, highly motivated and academically focused, they are determined to fulfill their own dreams, and by extension their parents’ dreams, of receiving a post-secondary education as they anxiously await letters of acceptance from Ivy League universities, as well as state schools and historically black colleges.

The engaging Ricardo Dupree, who attends Washington Mathematics Science Technology Public Charter High School, applied to Princeton and several black schools including Morehouse, an all-men’s college in Atlanta. He also applied to Emory in Atlanta, a school with alumni including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Lee Hong-koo, former South Korean prime minister.

Ricardo hopes to major in accounting and business administration and position himself to become a famous entrepreneur or Fortune 500 executive.

“It’s the math and technology that I like best,” he said.

Honor Williams has cast her sights upon ivory towers in the Northeast and cannot wait to hear back from Dartmouth, Harvard and Columbia. She wants to focus on law and political science. She, too, has applications at historically black schools. And like the other interns, she volunteers because she “likes to be involved” and “be connected.”

Imagine, if you will, this petite teen, who attends the School Without Walls and volunteers at Martha’s Table, as a fully grown woman, her unflappable demeanor in a judge’s robe perched on the bench.

As youngsters in grade school, most of the interns attended regular elementary schools until their parents saw something in them and eventually took advantage of the broad options that charter and magnet schooling provides.

Yet even those interns who attend tradition D.C. schools are an exception to popularly held views.

Shanta Wilson, for example, attends H.D. Woodson in far Northeast, where violence, low test scores, joblessness and a welfare state of mind are daily reminders that school reform has yet to cross the Anacostia River.

When I met Shanta a couple of weeks, she was interning in the office of Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown alongside Imani Humphries, who attends Woodrow Wilson, the only traditional high school in Northwest.

As I happened into the chairman’s office, Imani and Shanta greeted me with smiles, courtesy and key information without any prompting.

Their professionalism was hardly shocking, but what I later learned was truly revealing of their character.

Both girls were supposed to be off the day of my visit, but they volunteered to work because school was closed.

These young people, future professionals in training, don’t need the mayor, council or school officials tethering their hands or those of their teachers or parents to laws, rules or restrictions that would place a noose around their necks.

These seniors and rising seniors, who answered in a chorus of “yes” when asked if they want to go away to college, are the first generation to benefit from the D.C. school-reform seeds that were planted in the 1990s.

Every time D.C. officials what to know what works and what should be the next steps in education reform, they should turn to Ricardo, Shanta, Honor and Imani, and the other 2012 interns.

The chances that all or any of them will become as renown as Michelle Obama (Princeton) is slim, to be sure. But one thing is certain: The hands-off approach to school reform works for children.

This week, as the Gray administration and the council continue to search for clues to positive educational outcomes, they really don’t have to look too far.

Hey, they don’t even have to leave city hall, where the interns aid lawmakers and their staff, learn what makes government tick, and are ginning up their own perspectives on the rules of public discourse.

If education truly is the next embattled frontier in the realm of civil rights, D.C. leaders would be wise to do right by the current and next generation.

Deborah Simmons can be reached at dsimmons@washingtontimes.com.

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