Friday, March 23, 2007

Seven years ago the Washington Education Foundation, later renamed the College Success Foundation, was created to help low-income students in Washington state succeed. The nonprofit foundation awards scholarships to promising and motivated high-school students who would otherwise find the opportunity closed to them because of financial barriers. The foundation’s model of philanthropy is now coming to the District with a generous donation of $122 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which was also associated with the College Success Foundation. We just hope the D.C. school bureaucracy can stay out of the way of deserving students.

By the end of the year, an estimated 175 high-school juniors from six schools will be selected for scholarships, which will be as high as $10,000 per year for five years. Students at Anacostia, Ballou, H.D. Woodson, Friendship Collegiate, Maya Angelou-Evans and Thurgood Marshall Academy will be eligible. Over the next 15 years, 2,200 students from Wards 7 and 8 will benefit. The aptly named D.C. Achievers Scholarships are a terrific incentive for students. Most importantly, the scholarship program puts front and center the greatest shortcoming of D.C. Public Schools: student achievement.

Money is not a panacea. Even though DCPS per-pupil spending was higher than that in any state in the nation in 2004, according to a Census Bureau report released last year, DCPS students lag behind their regional and national counterparts on standardized testing, including Montgomery and Fairfax counties, and New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago.

As it has elsewhere in the country, the Gates Foundation linked its philanthropy to school reform and the goal of more D.C. students graduating from high school and college. Currently, high-school graduation rates is shamefully low, particularly in schools east of the Anacostia River, and the city’s overall college graduation rate is even worse. The Achievers Scholarship program will open doors for those with “resilience” and a “demonstrated commitment to education,” two attributes for which the scholarship is awarded. But it does not exist in a vacuum, and public schools in the District still need serious reforms.

Of critical importance regarding this program is that DCPS administrators and counselors make sure that students are guided toward the scholarships. That sounds like a given but it’s not. DCPS runs amok with red tape, and when the money follows the student and not the bureaucracy, DCPS gets so wrapped up in itself the students become an afterthought.

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