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Fight Your Fight, But Fight It Right

This is the first part of a tale of education, the government, and rats…for the second and third parts, check the other posts.

Bigboy and Hunchback. Two names I don’t think I’m going to forget anytime soon. Why? Because they are the names of the rats that are terrorizing, and on occasion attacking, the students and staff at Roosevelt Senior High School. Perhaps I should say “have been” simply because today happens to be the last day of school for this school year, so their reign of terror has ended…for now.

Bigboy lives on the 2nd floor of MacFarland Junior High – where Roosevelt is currently housed while its campus undergoes a multi-million dollar renovation – and Hunchback lives in the auditorium – the stage being his principle residence…he apparently has a flair for the dramatic.

I learned about these two rats last night at a community meeting where our dear government officials were there to explain why the scheduled August 2015 opening of the beautifully redesigned Roosevelt was being delayed until 2016. Somewhat naively, I was there really to just get information, not realizing that this delay was one heck of a surprise to the current Roosevelt community…and they were angry.

I should pause here to say it’s rare that I get this specific into an issue on this little website of mine; as those of you who follow me know I tend to talk more about thoughts, feelings, emotions, etc…but I suppose I feel compelled because of Bigboy and Hunchback.

I became interested in Roosevelt’s renovations in the last few months because one of my own unruly hooligans is going to his last year of middle school next year, so it’s time to start making high school plans. When I was growing up, Roosevelt, which is our neighborhood high school, was not somewhere you sent your kids unless you had no other choices. It was violent, had low test scores, chaotic, and just overall not an option you wanted to utilize. Think of the movie Lean on Me before Morgan Freeman (Joe Clark) came on the scene and you’ve got Roosevelt. Maybe not quite that bad, but close.

Then I learned about these phenomenal renovations and the plan DC Public Schools has to bring a global studies program to the revamped school, complete with partnerships with local universities. The school system is prepared to invest heavily in this school – to make it a shining beacon of education.

Well hello there…how are you doing potential new school for my kid?

So I started paying attention. Was even chosen to be on part of a community cabinet that will serve as an advisory board to developing the formal plans for these new programs. The school is going to have state of the art EVERYTHING, designed to service ALL students – whether academically high-fliers, middle of the road, or in need of extra supports. There is a program for students (including adults) who have dropped out of traditional school and need their GEDs, a culinary program, cosmetology, and so much more – including a rather advanced athletics program, which will appeal to my 2nd hooligan more than my first, but they can BOTH benefit.

How awesome does this sound?

In theory.

For me, the delay of a year has zero impact. It means my kid could go the very first year they open, and who doesn’t like a shiny new everything? It also didn’t surprise me at all. This is the government and construction. When does anything with those two factors at play go right?

But I didn’t know…

I didn’t know that the current building the high-schoolers are in is in a woeful state of disrepair.

I didn’t know that there are no facilities for high school athletics to prosper – not even locker rooms.

I didn’t know that the principal left suddenly and the current interim principal is being assigned elsewhere.

I didn’t know that there is inadequate heating and cooling in the temporary classrooms.

I didn’t know about Bigboy and Hunchback.

Last night I learned all of that and more as I heard an earful from the current students, teachers and parents. I watched the downtown Yes Men nod their heads sympathetically and apologize over and over. I listened as the community yelled and asked pointed questions that went unanswered. I witnessed a dozen suggestions for alternative solutions get proposed and largely ignored.

I was wondering where my popcorn was for the show.

Because that’s exactly what it was – a show.

You see, the government officials have already made up their mind and set their plan: - the school construction is delayed and will not be completed until December 2015; - they learned from past mistakes that trying to transition a school mid-year (say after Christmas break) is wrought with disaster; - they don’t want to guarantee the December timeline because of What Ifs; - they have to find a new leader for the school and are planning to take their time in doing that, and everything else.

The fact of the matter is that this particular meeting was intended to provide a “safe” way for the outraged community to vent…and nothing else. Maybe I’ve become cynical, but that was my perception. If there was a true desire to listen to ideas, and have a fruitful discussion, the head of DCPS would have been present.

But I’m not entirely mad at her or the bureaucracy for that. The honest truth is that construction delays DO happen. There are truly legitimate reasons for delaying the opening by a year – simply that they want to get it right. They don’t want to rush and do things in a way that leads to more problems. I get that. I even agree with it.

But it’s easy to agree with “The Man” when my child is not in a school with such an outrageous rodent problem that they’ve actually named the rats.

Bigboy and Hunchback

We aren’t even talking little mice here. We are talking opossum sized, probably carrying a switchblade to mug you, DC RATS.

THAT is a level of unacceptable for ANYONE’S children.

Here’s my real frustration with the meeting though. There was anger. Raised voices. Accusations. Disrespect. Vehemence. All of it pointless.

Don’t get me wrong – I understand WHY those things were present. My issue is that the community members who were so righteously outraged don’t seem to understand that there was zero utility at that particular meeting.

You see, meetings like that are held to provide an outlet and make you feel like at least you said your piece. They don’t actually bring about change.

To bring about true change requires a slow, methodical, deliberate, intentional, carefully crafted, organized process. It requires bringing attention to an issue like this in a very public way, but also in a way that elevates the victims – because that’s what these students and staff are – to the same (or higher) level as the decision makers.

In our inner cities, those not in power are kept down by those who are largely because they don’t know how to fight back. They don’t understand that yelling accomplishes nothing. They usually do not have the background, education (ironically), or most importantly time to fight this kind of a system.

Time is an interesting piece. You see the bureaucrats have lots of it. They can afford to wait out the current crop of angry parents. They have their jobs, their benefits, their stability. The parents have zero time. Their children are in high school for four short years. Every day, week, month, year that goes by where their kids aren’t getting a quality education is just lost. You can’t get it back.

From the government perspective, eventually the loud, angry people will go away. And by the time the lovely, shiny, new school is ready to open, the most vocal of the detractors will be gone. Bitter, but still gone. Those who remain will be so thankful to finally be in a new building, their anger will disappear like morning dew when the sun rises.

All will be perfect.

And it will be.


What about now?

What about the upcoming school year (she says literally on the last day of the current year)?

The thing these outraged community members are missing is that what needs to be done right now is applying an unreasonable amount of pressure to the government leaders today to ensure that over the next 3 months – the time between today and the start of the 2015/16 school year – every possible resource (and some impossible ones as well) are utilized to ensure that the students who MUST utilize the building at McFarland Junior High School next year have a safe, welcoming, RAT FREE, heated/air-conditioned facility in which to work on their academic prowess. That the athletics teams have the means to practice their craft, with the FULL understanding and acknowledgement by our civic leadership that for SOME of these children, athletics is their only means of breaking a cycle of poverty and despair – sports save. Period.

And yes, I said an unreasonable amount of pressure. Why? Because REASON has not prevailed. My understanding is that the students, staff and parents have complained all school year about the conditions they’re forced to attempt to learn in, and nothing has changed. Exterminators have been out every week to the school and there is still RAT FECES near the food preparation areas. We were sweltering in the auditorium, and the classrooms are just as bad if not worse. Athletes have nowhere to change their clothes and shower. So it is time to kick it up a notch. There should be pressure in EVERY corner of the government until the problem is fixed.

I don’t want to hear that 3 months isn’t enough time. If this were a school in another (more affluent) part of the city, 3 days would not have gone by with this kind of dilapidated circumstance. But those families have connections and pull. In our neighborhood, we may not have the same kind of influence on a day to day basis, but we have numbers. We have voices. We have the internet to help us.

So my challenge to my neighbors is to stop yelling and start acting. We have a brand new city council member representing our ward who just this week told me that education is his number one priority. Mr. Todd, I’m going to ask you to put your power behind those words. Our mayor, who was the councilmember for our ward has said that children and education are a priority for her as well. Ms. Bowser, prove it.

To all of our city leaders, go visit McFarland. Consider introducing YOUR child to Bigboy and Hunchback. Imagine having to teach in a room where every child can’t concentrate because they’re too hot or too cold. Picture having a child who has the potential to be a star athlete – perhaps his only real hope at landing scholarship money for higher education – who cannot actually work on being the best player he can be because of inadequate resources. Visualize all of these things, putting YOURSELF in this predicament, and then tell me that 3 months isn’t enough time.

The truth of the matter is that in this country – and this city – you can do anything with enough power and money. How about our leaders put those resources into the very thing that matters most: our children. Not to be too clichéd, but they ARE the future and right here, right now, the future looks bleak.

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