Panelists Discuss State of DC Public Schools

D.C. Public Schools faculty and former students discussed the rise of charter schools, the value of mentorship in education and the benefits and shortcomings of after-school enrichment programs at an event titled “The State of D.C. Public Schools,” hosted by D.C. Reads in Healy Hall on Sunday.

The event featured four panelists involved with the D.C. Public Schools education system: Vanessa Noble (COL ’16) and Emmanuel Thomas (COL ’18), both educated in the DCPS system, Allie Liotta (COL ’15), a current Urban Teacher Center fellow at J.C. Nalle Elementary School and Reginald Pearson, a J.C. Nalle teacher.

D.C. Reads Advocacy Committee head Justin Fang (SFS ’17) moderated the event. In his opening remarks, Fang underscored the importance of hosting panel discussions to offer D.C. Reads tutors and the greater Georgetown community more insight into Washington, D.C.’s public school system.

“We wanted to open this up to the general public to show them what D.C. Reads is about, what we deal with, who we advocate for and why we do it,” Fang said.

Fang lauded organizations such as D.C. Reads and Teach for America for their efforts in providing extra attention and support for students.

Liotta, a former D.C. Reads coordinator who now teaches first-graders at J.C. Nalle Elementary School, said she experienced the positive effects of after-school tutoring programs first hand.

“I think [D.C. Reads tutors] are great in terms of relationship building. When my classroom’s tutor comes in on Mondays and Wednesday for an hour it doesn’t seem like much, but he’s working with a group of students who otherwise would not be getting that individual attention from me,” Liotta said. “Even just to have that extra hour each week is something that really adds up over time. It’s a really cool opportunity to have tutors in my classroom.”

However, Noble reminded the audience that because after-school programs are temporary and transient, students may not feel comfortable building deep relationships with their tutors knowing they will only be in their lives for one or two years.

She said that there is still a need for long-term solutions to the systemic problems DCPS faces.

“There’s a discrepancy, I believe, between the care that volunteers are putting out and what that child can receive in return. A lot of these instructors have really great intentions and really want to help these students,” Noble said. “But if you’re going to be in a child’s life for about a year, you’re not going to make that impact and the student is partially aware of that. The student understands that when young professionals come in around age 25, their goal most of the time is not to stay there. It’s a stepping stone in their careers, but as far as making those connections and being received by the students, it doesn’t always go the way it should.”

Nonetheless, Thomas emphasized that tutors and volunteers provide an important source of mentorship for children who often live in challenging socio-economic and familial circumstances. Thomas particularly highlighted the value of mentorship in developing character and motivation in today’s youth.

“The difference between an awesome teacher and a mediocre teacher is the mentorship. You can be very well-educated in your subject and you can teach it well. But if the mentorship isn’t there, then there’s no motivation,” Thomas said. “A lot of these kids statistically come from low-income homes and if they go to college, they’re typically first-generation college students. So they need some kind of motivation outside of the home.”

The panelists further discussed the rise of charter schools, independently-run schools that are increasing in popularity each year. The 114 public charter schools in the District are subject to fewer government regulations and external tests.

Noble spoke of the increasing autonomy of charter schools in the last five years, which has separated them from the public school system.

“When I got to the D.C. Public Schools system I realized education-wise, they weren’t where they were supposed to be, and at first, there was no real criteria for charter schools, you just had to apply,” Nobel said. “There was no difference between teachers, as far as who was an instructor there versus at DCPS. Now they’re trying to privatize the system and you can see a discrepancy between public and charter schools.”

Pearson argued that charter schools are lucrative fields to invest in, causing them to be subject to the influence of city politics and businesses. However, he also cited Friendship Public Charter School as a success story, noting the benefits of a big company’s investment in charter schools.

“Charter schools have been a big success. Friendship is a big, big success. They actually do the work. Their science program, their athletics show that,” Pearson said. “But, for the most part, I still see that it’s now a money-making system.”

The panelists then answered questions from the audience, including inquiries from D.C. Reads tutors about how to best connect with their mentees and make a positive impact on the DCPS system.

Liotta stressed the importance of tutors being aware of the historical context of the schools in which they are working. She highlighted the need to recognize their efforts as part of a community-wide initiative to better educate children in D.C.

“When you’re working in these spaces that are historically segregated spaces you have to be willing to have an open mind and learn from the schools that you’re in and the students you’re working with,” Liotta said. “Be open to the parents, be reaching out to them. It’s not just about the work you’re doing with one student — you are working in a community that has a greater context than you can imagine as one Georgetown student.”

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