I t’s Monday morning, and Zach Ashenfarb (COL ’15) is sitting in a too-small chair in a classroom at Beers Elementary School in Anacostia. Across from him sits Robert, a third grader struggling to complete a worksheet on adjectives.

“He couldn’t even read the instructions, so it was very stressful,” Ashenfarb, a volunteer for D.C. Reads, said. “I finally explained to him what the sheet was about, and when he figured it out, he said, ‘You’re smart,’ and I said, ‘No, you’re smart.’ … I really cherished that moment.”

Ashenfarb is one of nearly 500 Georgetown students who volunteers in classrooms and community centers across the city on a weekly basis through D.C. Reads and the D.C. Schools Project, the university’s two main volunteer programs promoting educational outreach in the District.

Though the nation’s capital is home to several successful universities, the District’s public education system is notorious for its shortcomings. The local government spends more money per student than any state in the nation, but the results aren’t there. According to the National Center for Educational Statistic, the city’s fourth graders underperform on math and reading tests by a margin of about 20 points below the national average.

Disparities exist across the District as well. Wards 1, 2, 3 and 4, which include Georgetown, The George Washington and American Universities, are the most affluent and home to the highest-performing public schools. Ward 2, for example, where Georgetown is located, has a poverty rate of 15 percent, just below the city-wide average of 18 percent. By contrast, Ward 7 and Ward 8 have rates of 26 and 35 percent, respectively.

According to a report released by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, students at schools in the more affluent areas can drastically outpace peers at schools in Wards 5, 6, 7 and 8 on standardized texts after just one year. The study looked at students with similar numbers on standardized tests after a year in their respective schools and noticed a large disparity in growth.

These disparaties are reflected in the resources available to schools in Southeast D.C. According to The Washington Post, just 10 percent of the city’s teachers designated by the government as “highly effective” work in these areas, home to 41 schools. Meanwhile, 20 percent work in the 10 Ward 3 schools alone. Wards 7 and 8 are where programs like D.C. Reads and D.C. Schools Project step in to try and bridge the achievement gap.

“Students aren’t necessarily given the tools or resources that they need to perform at the level that the District is asking them to perform at,” said Cat Skolniki (COL ’13), a coordinator for D.C. Reads.

The program, which is run through the Center for Social Justice, sends about 250 Georgetown students to elementary schools and community centers in Ward 7 and reaches roughly 400 schoolchildren on a weekly basis.

Skolniki began working with D.C. Reads as a freshman and became a coordinator the following year.

“As I came to learn about all the issues and as I built relationships with students and parents and families, I became highly engaged in … education in D.C.,” she said.

Elisa Manrique (COL ’14), another D.C. Reads coordinator, added that the program is about more than improving reading levels.

“There are other things we can do to complement [reading efforts] — creating relationships that are durable with the kids and helping in their personal lives,” she said.

The D.C. Schools Project, another student-run tutoring organization, focuses specifically on serving the city’s immigrant community. Tutoring both on and off campus, DCSP’s 300 members work with about 100 adults and 150 school children to help them improve their grasp of the English language.

Hui Min Cao (COL ’13), a DCSP coordinator who works with adult groups, explained that the program was started in 1984 to aid children from Sudan but now features one-on-one tutoring in people’s homes and the more community-based approach of helping adults. Cao, a first-generation American whose parents emigrated from China, was inspired to get involved by her own experiences.

“I missed my parents and understood the mission of the program,” she said. “The tutees are almost exactly like my parents.”

Though the two programs are hugely popular on campus — about one in 20 students participates in one of the groups — the work they do is no easy task. Much of the success of campus tutoring organizations depends on the dedication of tutors and their ability to work successfully with students who can sometimes be uncooperative.

“Dealing with the children can be a little rough,” D.C. Reads tutor Marcus Byrd (NHS ’15) said. “They’re not really paying attention, they’re playing around or they’re asking to go to the bathroom. They’re always so distracted.”

Byrd also explained that some of the students served by D.C. Reads deal with learning and attention disabilities.

“I know a lot of the tutors will get frustrated because their tutee has a slight learning disability, so it can be hard to get over that hurdle and reiterate things.”

Many of the students also come from families that face economic hardships, and as a result, tutors must manage the stereotype of the affluent Georgetown student.

“What we have to do is go in there without any notion of privilege,” Manrique said. “As Georgetown students, we carry a certain label with us within the D.C. community. … Walking into these schools and presenting ourselves in a way that we don’t seem condescending is a challenge.”

But perhaps the most daunting challenge of working with the District’s struggling public schools is the absence of tangible progress.

“The system isn’t very good, and that’s why we tutor,” Byrd said. “But I personally haven’t seen a huge change.”

Byrd added that it can be hard to see progress, given that he has only worked with only one student per semester. He added that the system itself doesn’t always seem conducive to students’ learning.

“Standardized test scores are sometimes posted for all the class to see, [which can cause] morale issues when students know they aren’t performing up to standards.”

Ashenfarb deals with many of the same concerns and sometimes questions his work.

“Am I even doing anything? Am I making a difference at all? Am I going to finish this problem, and they’re going to forget it completely by the next time I come?” he said. “In [these] situations … I feel powerless.”

But Manrique believes that while the programs may not be creating widespread, systemic change, there is value in impacting individual students.

“It’s hard to say we are improving literacy for the whole community. We would need triple the number of people,” she said. “We take it school by school and child by child, and it comes down to looking at each child as an individual. Within the arbitrary standards given by standardized testing, we are definitely creating the change we want to see.”

While D.C. Reads tutors labor in individual classrooms, the D.C. public education system at large is in the midst of substantial change.

Before 2007, the education system was governed by the D.C. Board of Education, which would often become entangled in ward politics. When the District of Columbia Public Education Reform Amendment Act of 2007 was passed, it made the mayor the ultimate executive over the system, in an attempt to bypass the long delays that the council had inflicted on reforms.

When Adrian Fenty took office that year, he appointed Michelle Rhee to the newly created position of chancellor of public schools in the District. In her first year in office, Rhee, who had previously run a non-profit that trained teachers for urban schools, shut down 23 schools, cut over 120 administrative positions and fired 36 principals. During her term, she also renegotiated teacher contracts to eliminate tenure and allow for removal of teachers based on student performance on standardized exams.

The administration was criticized by parents, members of teachers’ unions and councilmembers for lack of transparency and fairness, and Rhee resigned her position in 2010 after Mayor Fenty lost his primary bid for re-election. She was replaced by Kaya Henderson under current Mayor Vincent Gray.

Skolnicki expressed frustration with both administrations.

“There is a common misconception that once Michelle Rhee left, a lot changed or improved,” she said. “What a lot of people don’t know is that Kaya Henderson worked directly under Michelle Rhee during her term, and [Henderson] actually proposed a lot of the reforms that went into place when Rhee was in office. There really hasn’t been that much of a change since Rhee left. It’s still in a really bad state.”

This year, a new round of budget cuts has put a serious dent in the funding provided for afterschool programs like D.C. Reads and DCSP.

The city recently cut the contact person these groups used to coordinate their efforts, instead giving each employee three schools to watch over.

“We don’t have as easy communication with our programming,” Skolnicki said. “It forces us to reach out to other administrators and community members to make sure we can still operate.”

The lack of stability proved problematic for both tutors and their students.

“We saw a lot of pushback because the coordinator was eliminated and [we] had to forge new partnerships,” Manrique said. “We had trouble with new school coordinators’ thinking they could shift kids around. It was a battle for kids.”

Despite the students’ continued struggles, Skolnicki considers D.C. Reads to have had a positive impact.

“I’ve seen the program grow and have been with a lot of the students because I have been able to follow students and their siblings throughout these four years,” she said. “I’ve seen how they react to D.C. Reads, and it’s — for the most part — entirely positive.”

While Skolnicki is optimistic about D.C. Reads’ long-term prospects, for Manrique, it’s the small victories and day-to-day progress that make her work worthwhile.

“If a kid you were working with reads a word he couldn’t read two weeks ago, it’s a big deal,” Manrique said. “If a kid jumps three reading levels, it’s a big deal. If we pull off a successful advocacy event, it’s a big deal. There are amazing things happening every day, and they are all different and all rewarding.”

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