On the opening day of school each year, we gather the new students and their families at the Trinity Center for some words of welcome and orientation. Invariably, at some point during the festivities, I am struck by the presence or absence of parents among the clusters of freshmen who are eagerly (often anxiously) venturing across the threshhold of college life. In some cases, parents and entire families turn out in force to support their daughter as she takes this great step forward. In many cases, the parent is a single mother or grandmother. In a few other cases, I see young women who appear to be utterly alone, or sitting with just a few other students with whom they may have attended high school. Some of these students come to college over the serious objections of parents who would prefer that they go to work instead.
If I could map the collegiate trajectory of the students sitting with or without families on opening day, while all have the potential to succeed at Trinity and many do, those with the best chances of successful and timely completion of their baccalaureate degrees are those with a familial support team, especially attentive parents or at least some signficant adult presence in their lives. Those who start out alone have great courage and determination, which often does lead to their success, but their path is much more difficult — financially, emotionally, socially, spiritually.
About half of Trinity’s full-time undergraduate students come from the D.C. Public School — indeed, Trinity educates more DCPS graduates than any other private university in the nation — and so we are particularly attentive to the conditions of these schools and the controversies surrounding the deficiencies of DCPS, the school governance quarrels, and the bleak outlook for DCPS graduates who manage to complete high school and get into college. Trinity has had some noteworthy success in retaining and graduating DCPS alumnae — 65% of the students in our D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant Program since 2001 are still enrolled or have completed degrees. This is remarkable in light of the “Doubling the Numbers” report released in November that forecasts a collegiate completion rate of just 9% for today’s DCPS ninth graders.
Political leaders in D.C. have been struggling over control of the schools since Home Rule came into being more than 30 years ago — see my last blog “Hobson’s Choice” on this topic. Today’s debate over school governance may well result in a dramatic change — people I talk to seem to think that Mayor Fenty’s proposal to take over the schools will pass the City Council and become reality soon.
Problem is, governance is all about what happens at the top, while governance has little to do about what happens in the life of a 16 year-old girl or boy who has read very few books in her young years, who spends his nights cruising the neighborhood streets, who feasts on fast food every day, who possesses a gun but not a computer, who may already have become a parent herself. Yes, improved governance can help reform the overall structure of the school system, impose curricular standards and outcomes measurements that will appear to be more normative, and provide some satisfaction for the current generation of politicians that they’ve done all that they can to address the problems of the DCPS.
But improved school governance without improved neighborhoods, families and communities will do little to change the outcomes for the students who are most at risk of failure, which is the majority of children in D.C. Poverty, homelessness, neighborhood violence, domestic abuse are all conditions that feed into the educational risks for D.C. children. This city needs a master plan for education — and that plan must include a plan for families and neighborhoods, not just a plan for governance.
I mentioned this to Mayor Fenty at a meeting with the college and university presidents last December, and he seemed annoyed that I was implying that his governance plan could not work without more attention to the sociology of the neighborhoods in the eastern half of the city. I’m not advocating opposition to the Mayor, just pointing out from long experience with the graduates of DCPS that it takes families and communities to educate a student well, not just schools and governance structures. Washington Post Columnist Colbert I. King is writing eloquently on this topic today and in a series of columns that are well worth reading. A broad vision to make D.C. an educational capital must include broader attention to the conditions that undermine families and communities, notably poverty, illiteracy and poor prospects for all but the most menial jobs.
Let’s start by expanding the vision for education itself. If we take at face value the “Doubling the Numbers” factoid that only 9% of today’s ninth graders will complete college, what’s going to happen to the other 91%?? We know from experience that some percentage of students will complete high school diplomas (via the GED most likely) and college degrees in their adult years. An educational master plan for D.C. must include a healthy and broad vision for improved adult education as well as early childhood, elementary and secondary.
Trinity already has a great deal of experience educating mothers as well as daughters — my dream is to be able to expand our programs some day, particularly at THE ARC in southeast Washington, to create a more comprehensive family education program that would provide a spectrum of educational services to children and parents together, in partnership with other organizations with similar goals. All studies show that the educational level of parents correlates strongly with the educational attainment of children; a program that encourages parents to complete their schooling would have direct impact on the educational opportunities of the rising generations of D.C. students.