- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 8, 2006

School officials in Washington are finally getting the picture that the one-size-fits-all approach to public education simply doesn’t fit. In attempts to “reform” the system, both the Board of Education and the superintendent have agreed to close some unneeded school buildings and work with charter schools to accommodate that growing student population.

The driving forces for the change are the decline in popularity of traditional schools and the rise in popularity of charter schools. In just one decade, D.C. Public Schools lost 15,000 students, while more and more parents are choosing charter schools to not only offer their children the rigors of K-12 education, but open their eyes to the possibilities beyond their often-troubled urban environs.

I applaud Superintendent Clifford Janey and School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz for moving along what essentially is an unchartered course in public education. While there have been occasions in which parents initiated changing their school from a traditional public school to a public charter school, D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) never had incorporated charter schools in its multiyear academic and facilities plans.

Competition works, and DCPS finally is realizing that charter schools are answering the call.

I got to witness this firsthand the other day during what’s called a B roll for a news analysis show I am a regular panelist on, “Reporters Roundtable.” A B roll entails shooting video to go along with takes or interviews that already have been shot. In my case, some of the B roll was shot at Friendship Edison Collegiate Academy, one of my favorite places and a high school that is part of the largest and most successful network of charter schools in D.C.

Friendship’s Woodson campus is a shining example of what President Bush called for when he urged high school reform and what D.C. must do to raise the academic stature of teenagers. While Friendship’s Woodson campus offers much of what other public high schools do — such as athletics, rigorous math, science and literature courses, and summer programs — the principle, teachers and parents at the Woodson campus think outside the traditional box.

At the Woodson campus, students in certain academic tracks take field trips to places like the Bethesda Naval Hospital, where they can witness heart surgery in real time. This outing was particularly extraordinary for Shaqula Williams, a freshman who wants to major in forensics in college.

Summer programs are another example. While the best most traditional schools in Washington can offer are courses students should have passed during the regular school year, several of the Woodson students will be spending this summer taking courses at Yale and Harvard and the University of Washington. The college work — and the fact that these young people will be away from home and familiar environs for several weeks — prepares them for the incredible expectations of college life — where Mommy and Daddy aren’t around to say, “Do your homework.”

Moreover, instead of low expectations from principals and teachers, which actually hurt students in particular and society as a whole, field trips and lectures offer opportunities for great college expectations and erase another stigma — that high school graduates (especially black high school graduates) must take remedial instruction to be prepared for college courses.

So many young urban dwellers in Washington and elsewhere never venture out of bounds except to shop or take in a movie in the close-in suburbs. Those experiences can hardly be characterized as educational journeys.

The D.C. school board is scheduled later this month to vote on the superintendent’s closing-consolidation plan. Cries of foul play have been fierce, mostly from demagogues who oppose school choice in any shape or form. It’s the kind of resistance that has created — and sustained — a publicly financed school system in the nation’s capital that is by every measure a failed system.

The school board and the superintendent plan to further “right-size” DCPS by closing and consolidating additional school buildings over the next couple of years. The plan still falls way short of what is needed to truly reform public schooling in D.C. But it is a start.

What must now be done is for parents, advocates of school choice and other stakeholders to keep the pressure on because more space is needed for charters and other alternative schooling.

If we answer the call and stay focused on the children — whether they attend Friendship or not — we can’t go wrong.

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