Race, Class, and DCPS

School Segregation

The public school system in DC has fallen out of the national conversation since the departure of Michelle Rhee.

But locally, the debate rages on.

The Washington Post just posted a profile of Bill Kerlina, a young principal initially lured to DC from Montgomery County who has now resigned to open a gourmet cupcake shop.

If anyone had a shot at making it in DCPS, it was Kerlina. He was placed at one of the few high performing elementary schools in the system. In stark contrast to most of DCPS, Hearst Elementary School is beloved by parents and the majority of students are proficient in math and reading. (DCPS averages are dismal, with about 50% of kids in any given school meeting proficiency.)

After enticing Kerlina with promises of a promotion (Montgomery County has low turnover rates for principals) and dangling the mission to close the black-white achievement gap, the transition proved to be rough. While Kerlina loved the students and parents, the lack of support for teachers combined with a school reform that was more hype that action proved to be too much. Compensation factored into his decision. However, Kerlina also shared one more fascinating detail:

A few days before he quit, Kerlina received his annual evaluation from Instructional Superintendent Amanda Alexander. It was a positive appraisal, school officials confirmed, and Henderson sent Kerlina a letter of reappointment. But Alexander raised a concern, he said: Why were there not more white families at Hearst?

The question is sensitive in the D.C. system, where only about a third of students attend neighborhood schools. It is especially sensitive in affluent and largely white areas of Northwest Washington. At Hearst, 70 percent of the 241 students come from outside the neighborhood. Most are African Americans.

D.C. officials say they simply want more neighbors in neighborhood schools. But Kerlina took offense at Alexander’s question, which implied that as a white male, he should have been more successful at recruiting. The next day, in an e-mail to Alexander that he wrote but decided not to send, he laid out a taxonomy of Northwest parents in an effort to show the hurdles to recruiting more neighborhood families.

The well-to-do private school families, “the majority” in the neighborhood, he wrote, were a lost cause. “I have not courted them and do not plan to do so, since they will never consider DCPS,” Kerlina wrote. […]

Finally, he wrote, there were families with racial prejudices. He said this conclusion came from a series of conversations he had with prospective neighborhood parents “that delicately asked about the number of out-of-boundary families and made reference to the ‘diversity’ of Hearst.”

“They will never come to Hearst because of the number of out-of-boundary black families,” he wrote.

One way to lure neighboring families — restricting the number of out-of-boundary seats — would be a “horrible mistake,” Kerlina wrote, as “the diversity at Hearst is what makes it a great school.”

The comments, as usual on education pieces, are a mix of outright racism, commentary on racism, and conversations about class:

Finally, he wrote, there were families with racial prejudices. He said this conclusion came from a series of conversations he had with prospective neighborhood parents “that delicately asked about the number of out-of-boundary families and made reference to the ‘diversity’ of Hearst

Shocking!! So the white liberals in DC are not big on “diversity” either. Then why are they pushing it on everyone else? Also how is a school 70% Black “diverse”?

Perhaps it’s just that many parents choose not to risk their children’s safety by exposing them to bused thugs who have been deemed “behavior nightmares.”

As a former teacher, “behavior nightmares” come in all shades of the rainbow. Don’t kid yourselves and think that only black students are problems….and that only white students are perfect little angels with high GPAs.

Very true CS. Could we go further and not make it a race issue? My experience is that children with behavior issues generally come from households with single parents, low prior academic attainments, and low incomes. The amount of melanin, which is based primarily on where their ancestors lived relative to the equator, has nothing to do with behavior.

Kerlina speaks of the problem of out of bound students who are behavior problems and disrupt the school. But when white neighborhood parents speak of these same issues – well, they’re racist and obviously don’t understand the value of “diversity.” WaPo, please for the love of god strike the use of the word “diversity” from the paper. It means nothing. Diversity in what? income? race? education level? ethnicity? Or, is it code for “low-income blacks”? If it’s that, then just say it. Maybe it’s about time DCPS focus on educating children, period. Create a SAFE, STABLE, and ENGAGING education environment and they will come. Unfortunately, too many DC Public Schools reflect the dysfunctions of the communities they serve. No one can blame a white, black, hispanic family for sending their child to Sidwell Friends if afforded the option. And, yes, there are black DC families who send their children to elite private schools.

Things like this are why we left D.C. and moved to the Maryland suburbs. We couldn’t afford private schools, for our children, when we lived in D.C., and even though we lived in a good neighborhood, in D.C., the public schools were terrible.
It’s a shame that the system puts good teachers and principals in a double-bind; do well but we won’t give you the resources and training to do so. This sounds about right, from what we experienced, a dysfunctional system, even though there were some very dedicated, talented educators who were trying their best to make the situation better, they were fighting a huge uphill battle, which they couldn’t win.
This makes me continue to support D.C. Statehood. Perhaps, then, some of these problems would lessen.

and then… that’s why I left montgomery county….

we could afford private school…. but were disgusted funding both our child’s education AND that of another….

So we moved.

where is that tax base coming from next year, maryland?

to issues of bullying and violence (which generally didn’t factor into the out of towner take):

I went to DCPS from elementary school to high school, and finally graduated in 1985, without getting killed, thank God. After reading this article it would seem nothing has changed. The problems described in this article are the same ones that were present back then, most notably bad students with behavioral problems. I don’t know why school systems allow these bad apples to remain in school and basically turn the entire school up side down. It seems like school systems are more concerned with the rights of the few bad students then what is best for all of the students as a whole. There is a reason why some schools have so many out of boundary students, most of the neighborhood schools, especially in SE, are overrun with bullies and thugs. I begged my mom to send me to Gonzaga, but unfortunately we had no way to afford that, so I just crossed my fingers each day and hoped I would make it back home safe. And going home wasn’t all that better either, because after navigating the thugs and bullies at school you had to do it all over again once you got back to your neighborhood. When I read that some White families didn’t want their kids going to school with some of these kids, I can’t really blame them and while some it might be due to racism, trust me not all of it is. Some of these kids are just off the chart bad and I mean kids in first and second grade who are already showing signs of thuggery and aggressiveness. And a lot of times when you meet the parents you say to yourself ahhhh now I see where it comes from.

Until DCPS wakes up and deals with this menace, nothing will ever change. All the teacher evaluations in the world can not not make up for having to deal with these little terrorist on a daily basis.There is hardly any learning going on when the school day is constantly being interrupted with chaos and shenanigans. I don’t know how the remaining teachers do it, but I couldn’t at least not without a stun gun or some other weapon near by at all times. Teacher burn out is not the exception with DCPS but the norm. Good luck to those that stay, because there are truly some wonderful teachers in the system. Students like myself, who were trapped due to economics, appreciate your toughness to remain.

Clifton Galloway
H.D Woodson class of 85

to a take down of the issues with DC’s infrastructure:

It should be acknowledged that Kerlina was nearly kind in his assessment of DCPS central office staff and their practices. The whole truth would be unprintable. The issues he raises wouldn’t even make water cooler conversation at my school. If we had a water cooler that is. Every teacher at my school sees more inane, ill conceived nonsense from Admin every day than he touched on. From parents, students and DCPS central office staff. Teachers are often little more than sh-t filters for all the crap showered on them.
Most well functioning systems do a national search for their Superintendent (our Chancellor). DC? No way, lets give another newbie a chance. Most well functioning school system have a curriculum for teachers to work with. DC? No. Most good system have alignment between Standards and classroom materials. DC? No way. We get random new stuff willy nilly. Why is it nobody is writing about these serious shorcomings? Ledership? Nonexistent in DC.

What lulu99 mentions at the end of the post is easy to miss but important. When I worked at DCPS there were storage closets packed 15 feet deep and 8 feet high with the jumbled remnants of bygone curriculum materials. I spent one evening wading though the mess and found the scraps of dozens of different programs–much of the material still in the box. Some teacher’s editions and science programs dated back 20 or 30 years. One of the least examined problems in DCPS is that near-constant turnover in leadership is accompanied by near-constant turnover in curriculum. The system, as a result, is completely schizophrenic. As one of the 30-year veterans put it when confronted in a staff meeting by yet another new “curriculum specialist” with yet another new acronym-based reading program, “I was here before that bulls-it, and I’ll be here after it.” S-it filters, indeed.

If Rhee’s approach–get rid of the bad teachers–had beed successful, Fenty would be mayor today, there’s no question about it. But you can’t hope to reform teaching without first reforming a dysfunctional system. I don’t claim to know how to fix DCPS, but at least I know the law of gravity works: s-it still rolls down hill.

DC public schools have been in the spotlight for a few decades now, for various reasons. When I was younger, I remember reports on the news about Maryland residents trying to sneak their children into elementary schools in DC, which caused a lot of problems.

But for this piece, I want to focus on how diversity has become a code word, depending on the person using the term.

I went to three different elementary schools as a kid: Harmony Hills (Wheaton, MD); Anne Beers (Washington, DC), and Weller Road (Silver Spring, MD).

It should go without saying, but my mother moved to Montgomery County in hopes of providing us with a better education. Montgomery County, at the time, prided itself on progressive principles. I’ve written about the housing policies enacted in the 1970s and their influence on counteracting gentrification. When I was in school there, multiculturalism was a huge deal. I remember, from kindergarden on, that we were all told that differences make us special, and we should expect to have diversity in our lives. (I lived on the southern side of Montgomery County in a heavily urban area – the messages may have been different on the richer, northern side and the more rural areas.) So for me, diversity was always presented as something to strive for.

However, as I got older, I noticed people using the term diversity in a negative way, as some of the commenters on the Washington Post site did. They don’t feel as though they have gained anything from diversity. They don’t feel like it is of particular value to them. And they don’t want to pay for the education of those “others.”

But here’s what I find fascinating about the whole thing – the numbers and the attitudes do not lie.

DC has always struggled with segregation in the city, with clear race and class divisions. (What, you think the Gold Coasters didn’t have problems with class?) Montgomery County is starting to feel the same thing, just on a more delayed time schedule. But if you click on the links that I provided for the schools I attended, an interesting pattern begins to emerge. In DC, where people generally stick to their own, you have a dismal educational system, where gains mean that around 60% of students are at a proficient level in reading and math skills. This is considered a huge leap of progress.

In Montgomery County, where roughly 80% of kids hit proficiency markers, there are crisis and improvement plans on the website. Educators noticed that Latino students, special education students, and students with English as a Second Language were dipping below grade level with about 53% proficiency for targets in some groups. So there is an action plan to fix the problems.

Education is a community wide problem. If the community is fractured around the importance of this issue, it should not be a surprise why the problems persist.

If diversity is seen as the problem (“my child deserves a better education than those other kids”), all the solutions will involve things like charter schools, private schools, privatization of public schools, restriction of out of boundary seats at the schools that parents already desperately fight over.

However, if the idea of diversity is embraced, as in “all children deserve a good education”, the entire community benefits. Diversity means acknowleding, as Jane Van Galen writes for the Classism Exposed blog, that different starting points influence children’s outcomes. And all children just do not have the same types of access:

[A New York Times] article describes how in elite schools in New York City, wealthy parents anxious about grades and college admissions are investing tens of thousands of dollars in private tutors to sustain their children’s competitive edge. One parent concedes that her children’s tutoring bill climbed to six figures in a recent year. The schools are discouraging this for multiple reasons, but the parents will not be dissuaded from hiring “stealth” outside support for their own children.

As one of the tutoring providers explains:

    It’s no longer O.K. to have one-on-one coaching for sailing but not academics.

The teachers with whom I work are not preparing children for recreational sailing.

They’re charged with preparing diverse children for a productive place in the raveling economic fabric in their communities, to be confident and vocal citizens, to be ready to go on to whatever forms of higher education they choose. And increasingly, they are preparing children for cruel competition for access to any of these things.

And if these children do not eventually find productive and dignified work, find their voices in the public square, or thrive in college, blame will fall on the shoulders of their weary teachers, as blame is falling on them now when test scores predict the odds against their students doing any of these things.

Yet as this article illustrates so vividly, academic achievement is not, and never has been, primarily about what teachers do within the four walls of their classrooms.

Many of my teacher education students will start internships in the fall in schools in which families move mid-week because the eviction notice has been posted, multiple languages are spoken at home, parents struggle to sustain dignity after years of unemployment, and ever-more crowded classrooms are taught be ever-more exhausted teachers.

As someone who lives in DC, it’s disappointing to see the choices made in this city, time and time again.

(Image Credit: IsThatLegal)

About This Blog

Racialicious is a blog about the intersection of race and pop culture. Check out our daily updates on the latest celebrity gaffes, our no-holds-barred critique of questionable media representations, and of course, the inevitable Keanu Reeves John Cho newsflashes.

Latoya Peterson (DC) is the Owner and Editor (not the Founder!) of Racialicious, Arturo García (San Diego) is the Managing Editor, Andrea Plaid (NYC) is the Associate Editor. You can email us at team@racialicious.com.

The founders of Racialicious are Carmen Sognonvi and Jen Chau. They are no longer with the blog. Carmen now runs Urban Martial Arts with her husband and blogs about local business. Jen can still be found at Swirl or on her personal blog. Please do not send them emails here, they are no longer affiliated with this blog.

Comments on this blog are moderated. Please read our comment moderation policy.

Use the "for:racialicious" tag in del.icio.us to send us tips. See here for detailed instructions.

Interested in writing for us? Check out our submissions guidelines.

Follow Us on Twitter!

Support Racialicious

The Octavia Butler Book Club

The Octavia Butler Book Club
(Click the book for the latest conversation)

Recent Comments

Feminism for Real – Jessica, Latoya, Andrea

Feminism for Real

Yes Means Yes – Latoya

Yes Means Yes

Sex Ed and Youth – Jessica

Youth and Sexual Health


Online Media Legal Network

Recent Posts

Support Racialicious

Older Archives


Written by:

  • Anonymous

    Yes, that’s what I said. Despite the fact that the most successful schools are (1) diverse – or elite private schools, which I am not counting – the commenters assertions didn’t make sense. That’s why I compared it to MoCo’s take on the need for diversity – as in every child should be successful in our system. I’m not saying the MoCo system is perfect (far from it, and the racial/income disparities show that problem) – but DC’s full on collapse of their school system is in many ways related to the “go for yours” mentality.

  • Val R.

    I don’t think you can fix schools without fixing the communities that surround them. Bring jobs to these communities, hire parents of the students and things will turn around. Before jobs left for the ‘burbs kids did just fine in urban public schools. But I don’t think America wants to fix urban communities nor urban schools. It’s all just lip service.

    When a President of the United States sends her or his kids to a DC Public School then we’ll know that the schools are up to par.

  • Anonymous

    These schools become this way because the people with the money leave and take their kids with them, shipping them out of state or off to a private/charter school while the public schools and their students whose parents can’t afford to privatize their education are left to rot with teacher shortages, overcrowded classes and sub-par materials tailored around satisfying test requirements in order to receive money as opposed to meaningful long-term education. Then we wonder why these same students have such hard times in college or are so far behind, but quickly attribute it to their just not “caring enough” and to them being miscreants.

    • Eva

      I agree with you but what to do?  Parents have the right to move and put their children in whatever schools they want to.

      • Anonymous

        That they do. But that’s been the problem for the last two decades. It isn’t so much the tax issue or the financial issue – DCPS actually spends more per student than most other school systems – it’s the irreparably broken system. If the folks with the most resources to advocate and fight for schools continue opting out, it will never be fixed.

        And it’s not like most parents don’t want to – this is one of those personal political things. I’m sure most parents do not want to cough up $20,000 per kid to get a decent education. And many parents are happy in DC, except for the school quality. But the problem is asking to put their own child’s education on the line. The parents at the elementary school Kerlina managed did just that – the reviews on greatschools.org and other places highly praise the heavily involved PTA and school environment. But how do you reproduce that all over the city? Especially with so many kids being siphoned off to charters (interesting side note – some families involved with making over Kerlna’s school were still frustrated and created their own charter).

        I’m thinking about how I want to handle it now, and I won’t have school aged children for 8 years, at the earliest. But it’s a huge problem, especially as we get into middle and high school. I don’t mind being one of those annoying, super devoted parents – but I have the feeling a lot of parents don’t try because of said dysfunctional system.

  • Info

    I’m a product of both DC and suburban MD schools, and later end up working in DCPS so this hits way close to home. None of this surprises me. It’s been an unwritten rule for years that most white parents in this city will only send their kids to public school up to middle school, and most end up at the “diverse” Alice Deal in upper NW (aka Upper Caucasia) or possibly if they stick around after 8th grade they’ll be at Wilson (which for being the only real high school w/ a white population is still exceedingly segregated). Some of that is starting to change with charter schools but in 5 years of working strictly w/ DCPS high schoolers, there was only 1 single white kid I came across. And no lie they called him “White Mike.” I think another sad part about Kerlina’s story is the fact that this is a perfect example of how this new-fangled “reform” model led by Rhee and company is NOT SUSTAINABLE!! You cannot feed young educators straight into principal/admin roles when they don’t have adequate training or support. This TFA-style staffing where teachers and principals are only at a school a few years is beyond detrimental to students.

  • http://www.scribblesandsonnets.blogspot.com Jessica Isabel

    It makes me really angry that people continue to associate low-income with violence / misbehavior. I grew up in a town of mostly working-class and lower-middle class people. You know who were the problem kids in my elementary school? The ones whose parents could afford to buy them whatever they wanted, the expensive Lisa Frank backpacks, the light-up Power Ranger sneakers. They went around showing off how cool their shit was and made fun of the rest of us who maybe had a Lisa Frank pencil case, but were nowhere near the status of backpacks. Well. We did not appreciate their bullshit.

    I guess nothing really changes. You trade in Lisa Frank backpacks for Coach and Fendi bags, and those are the same people.

    • http://twitter.com/undrcoverhippie yoli bee ☆

      Growing up in a working class area, I had a different experience. The problem children were usually the kids who had parents who worked too many hours, didn’t have time to get acquainted with the teachers, and who generally were left to their own devices. It had nothing to do with materialistic things, but I suppose that depends on each individual neighborhood. 

      I was a good kid. My teachers adored me, I was above average in EVERYTHING (not normal for my school at all), and was offered a scholarship to a fancy private school I did not take because I didn’t want to leave my friends (although I did anyway in middle school when we moved to the suburbs). The difference between me and those “bad kids” was that because my dad worked a good (blue collar) job, my mother was able to work from home. It meant I always had a parent making sure I was doing homework before playing, someone to help me with work, someone to come to my school and get to know my teachers, etc. The real problem is that most working class kids do not have this.