In Search of Better Opportunities

This blog is by Andrea Vargas, DC Action's new intern. Welcome, Andrea!

In a recent Monday Roundup we learned that less than a quarter of DC students attend their neighborhood schools. In addition, students from Ward 7 and Ward 8 travel the furthest on average to attend school. The most pressing question when confronted with information—any information—is “why”. Most people may ask “what”. The “what” matters, but by not acknowledging the “why” we neglect the reasons that cause the “what”. Consequently, we do not know what to address to make changes if need be. 

The Washington Post identified one of the main reasons why so many students travel so far everyday: they are in search of better schools. Yet, this answer prompts further questions. Why are they in search of better schools? What do these schools offer that their neighborhood schools do not? Clearly, there are issues if most parents choose not to send their children to their neighborhood school. 

Take Aiton Elementary for example. “Of the nearly 550 children who live in the attendance zone for Aiton Elementary School in Ward 7 […] only 148—or 23%—actually attended Aiton last year. The remaining 400 children living near Aiton attended 83 different schools, including DCPS and charter schools.” Once we recognize that most local students do not attend Aiton and understand why they make that choice, then we can address their underlying concerns. This should be a learning opportunity for the DC community to find out why DC families, like the families who live near Aiton, are making these choices for their children. What can be done or should be done to make schools like Aiton stronger assets to their neighborhoods?  

I know very well from my own experience the effort involved in trying to find a school to match my needs and interests. 

Growing up in Miami, in the fourth largest school district in the US, there were no shortages of schools for me to attend. In elementary school I was supposed to attend William Jennings Bryan Elementary, my neighborhood school which was less than a mile away from my home. Yet, my parents thought that another school, almost three miles away, was a better fit for their aspirational educational goals for me.  

For middle school I attended Aspira, a local charter school. My parents were happy with the reputation of the school and the opportunities it offered to me. I graduated Aspira as the Class of 2007 Salutatorian. When I moved on to high school there were more choices to make. I lived five minutes away from North Miami Senior High. Yet, Coral Gables Senior High, over 15 miles away, had higher graduation rates and a better established International Baccalaureate (IB) program. 

Every morning my mom would wake me up at five am and drop me off at the train station. I would catch the 6:15 train to Douglas Road and make it to school just before the 7:15 bell. The commute in the morning did not feel as long as in the afternoon when my mom could no longer offer a ride. I would walk to the Douglas Road train station, take the metro to Downtown Miami and wait for the bus. On lucky commuting days the 93MAX with limited stops would get me home in half an hour. But, on the not so lucky days—and there were many—the number three bus would get me home in an hour. That bus stopped almost every other block for 115 streets. It was a long trip, but I never forgot why I was making the effort. For my parents and I, and for many families, the promise of a better education is well worth the time and effort it takes to enroll in a school across the city and get there every day. 

Problems arise when there simply aren’t enough high-quality options for everyone – and when the stress and time of travel detract from students’ educational success. That is why I’m happy DC Action is thinking about these issues at a neighborhood level, and trying to make systemic improvements that will help every child in DC live, learn and grow to their full potential.

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