- The Washington Times - Friday, January 17, 2003

Virginia Walden-Ford yanked her youngest son out of District public schools after a steady stream of D's and F's showed up on his report card. She had never received any deficiency notices from his teachers, yet he was running track and winning meets at school.
"I took him out of public schools and enrolled him in a charter school. If I hadn't, he would either be dead or in jail today. I was an involved parent and he was straight out failing," Mrs. Walden-Ford said.
"I struggled with the decision because I supported the District of Columbia public schools. But, I decided it was in his best interest to get him out of D.C. public schools. This was a child everybody gave up on except me," she said.
Two years ago, her son graduated from Booker T. Washington Charter School in Northwest with a 3.8 grade average. He is a Marine today. His whole outlook changed about school and learning once she enrolled him in the charter school. "He told me, 'I can be smart, I feel safe and people care about me here,'" she said.
Mrs. Walden-Ford's story mirrors that of many parents in the District, who have decided to enroll their children in charter schools, rather than the D.C. public schools.
Six years ago, public-school enrollment in the District numbered more than 77,000 students. School officials said enrollment for the 2002-2003 school year stands at 67,522, down a little less than 10,000 students since 1997, while enrollment in District charter schools continues to grow, reaching 11,500 last year.
D.C. Schools Superintendent Paul L. Vance attributes lower student enrollment to "the growth of charter schools, independent schools and home schooling," and the decrease of live births in the city, not the quality of education. He said his administration projected this school year's enrollment and the numbers come as no surprise.
Mrs. Walden-Ford, mother of three children she raised in Ward 7 in Southeast, wasn't surprised either. Five years ago she founded D.C. Parents for School Choice and hears from parents every day who have reached their wit's end about their children's education. Her all-volunteer organization at 16th and Q streets in Northwest advocates on behalf of low-income parents seeking a better education for their children.
Mrs. Walden-Ford, 50, believes three factors cause parents to pull their children out of the D.C. public school system: concern about safety; not feeling welcome in the schools; and the public schools' failure to meet the academic needs of their children.
"We hear more and more about how the public schools are not safe for the most part," she said. "Then, we hear parents don't feel welcome in the schools they can't go to the schools to request information about their children. Class sizes are too big and oftentimes, teachers aren't able to give the students what they need," Mrs. Walden-Ford said.
Still, she admits there are some wonderful teachers in the District's public school system. "They went in with dreams on how to educate children, but so many bureaucratic obstacles get thrown in their way. They find it's just not possible to do what they need to do."
Unlike in the District, public school enrollment is skyrocketing in surrounding jurisdictions. Montgomery County public schools have an enrollment of 138,891 and it rises by 2,000 students per year. School officials project student enrollment to reach 144,800 by 2008, close to 6,000 more students.
"We've been on a steady increase for the past 18 years. Our issue is not one of losing students but having facilities to accommodate the growth," said Kate Harrison, spokeswoman for Montgomery County public schools.
Enrollment increases are attributed to families constantly moving into Montgomery County and the high birth rate. Ms. Harrison noted that birth rates in 2001 reached an all-time high in Montgomery County at 13,149 births compared with 13,055 in 2000.
Paul Regnier, Fairfax County public schools spokesman, said enrollment has been on the rise for at least 10 years and increases by 3,000 students annually.
"This year, enrollment [fell] under our projections, but we're still going up," he said.
Fairfax County public schools serve 165,000 kindergarten through 12th-grade students. By the 2008 school year, 12,260 more students will be enrolled for a total of 177,260 students.
Prince George's County public school enrollment increased this year as expected, up 1,454 students over last year to 136,464, said spokeswoman Athena Ware.
"The county population has continued to grow and our student population grows as the county grows," Ms. Ware said.
In hopes of attracting or keeping students, the District schools system hosted the fourth annual D.C. Public School Enrollment Fair last weekendat the Convention Center in Northwest.
The four-hour event gave parents an opportunity to speak with teachers, principals and Mr. Vance about various programs and activities the District's 146 schools offer.
"I think this activity helps us stabilize our population, if we can get parents to understand that they don't have to leave the public school system," Mr. Vance said.
"We don't lose students in elementary school. But, by middle and junior high there's a slight attrition. And, ninth through 12th there's a major attrition," said Mr. Vance, who hopes Mayor Anthony A. William's goal to attract 100,000 new families to the District comes to pass.
Redina Canty, 37, whose daughter, Joelle, 2 will enter pre-kindergarten in September, found the Enrollment Fair to be informative.
Ms. Canty wants her to attend a good school one in which she has confidence and get a solid foundation. "I want my daughter in a good school and it's going to be a [traditional] public school."


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