Saturday, October 16, 2010

33 Miners Rescued – DC Kids Still Trapped
What a tragedy that the 78,000 public school children in our nation's capital weren't trapped in the San Jose mine in Chile instead of the miners. Help poured into Chile from around the world. The world's attention was riveted on the rescue by a huge, sympathetic media encampment. All were rescued as the Fenix 2 capsule carried miner after miner to fresh air and lifeBut DC kids were still trapped in one of the worst school systems in the country.
    What is needed in DC – and every failing school system – is an immediate, all-out encampment on the Washington Mall like the one at the San Jose mine. Bring in the experts, the media, the money guys, the politicians, and start putting together the rescue apparatus. Then start drilling through all the issues that keep our public school kids trapped and in danger of living lives without hope. Drill through all the greed, prejudice and stupidity that separates poor kids in public schools from privileged kids in private schools. And create – and fund – the escape capsule. And this is most important: the encampment stays in place until every child in a failing school is rescued.
DC Schools Are Not Really Schools
   The nation's capital needs to come up with a different word to describe the broken down buildings where it traps poor children during the day. These are not schools. Schools are places where children are loved by the community and where learning takes place. Sorry, that simply doesn't describe what I remember about DC public school "education." 
   If the DC school system would simply fail to live up to its noble mission, one could forgive it but it doesn't simply fail. It traps children in dangerous caves, caves worse than those of the Chilean miners because there are no exits and no one comes to the rescue. And it traumatizes them. With the exception of a handful of schools who have the support of groups of affluent parents, a traumatizing message is sent to every trapped child every day that he or she has no value, will never succeed, is not loved and will not be rescued. Is it any wonder that 40% of DC´s adult males are going into prison, in prison, or coming out? 

Kids lobbying city leaders to MAKE KIDS FIRST!
   I lived in the brokenness of DC for seven years and, with my faith community, tried to make good things happen for public school children. We lobbied a gathering of 2,000 District leaders called together by Mayor Tony Williams to Make Kids DC's FIRST Priority. They did. But kids still aren't very high in the city's pecking order.
   We did other things but, in 2001, I returned to California believing we had accomplished very little by working within the system. When a system is hemorrhaging, working within it merely produces more blood.
   At the time I lived in DC,

Over 90% of public school kids qualified for free lunch and breakfast on school days but – because of the broken food delivery system – most of them didn't get breakfast. On 185 non-school days no one got lunch or breakfast. Nor did they qualify for dinner 365 times a year. Do the math. It meant that more than half of all children in our nation's capital went to bed hungry every night. And probably still do.
  • The school food the kids did get was of questionable quality. A whistle-blower at the time exposed the school food warehouse for rotten food, dead rats and expired food. Councilman Phil Mendelsohn helped get the warehouse cleaned up after first being refused admission. A few years later, I remember our “Mission Accomplished” president sending yellow parachutes of food to be dropped over Afghanistan. Some should have been dropped over DC.
  • DC school kids never got their text books until December. This may still be true. Why would the “Leave No Child Behind” president allow this to happen in his own neighborhood?
  • Just before schools opened in September, on at least two occasions, a judge kept the schools closed for two or three weeks so all the boilers could be fixed or all the roofs repaired - and always at double and triple time for the companies. 
  • Walking by DC's broken school buildings always depressed me. Just across the river conditions were so much better. How could kids learn in those conditions? Most couldn't but, not to worry, we've got most of the troublemakers securely locked up in prison. 
  • And the playgrounds! Broken backboards - when there were backboards - and never any netting on the rim. And not much else. The only public recreational place within a mile of my home at 5th & G Streets NE was a tiny summer swimming pool. The pool was surrounded by a rusty cyclone fence that separated it from an alley littered with condoms, broken beer bottles and drug needles. 
  • In the seven years I lived in DC, the capital city of the number one baseball country on the planet, I never once saw a child playing baseball. Of course, I lived in Northeast DC where recreational facilities were virtually nonexistent. Why do kids get into trouble? Have you ever raised teenagers? The secret is to keep them busy, interested, and, yes, tired. And, of course, loved. Too many DC kids are not busy, not interested, not tired, and not loved. 
  • One of my peeves was to see precious playground space being used to park teacher's cars. Of course, most teachers couldn't walk to school because they didn't live in the city: all the license plates were from Maryland or Virginia. I always wondered why the teachers didn't insist that their parking spaces go to the kids so they could have some quality playtime. 
   Well, I could go on but that's not why I'm writing today. I just read on Facebook about the current controversy in DC over the quitting of school chancellor Michelle Rhee. She, like all her predecessors, couldn't fix the schools but leaves with a good severance package. Isn't America great! No matter what, we make sure the privileged bail out with their Golden Parachutes.
   To her and Mayor Fenty's credit, Michelle Rhee brought some good changes and was clearly moving in the right direction although her critics say she made too many waves. Hey, they imprisoned Nelson Mandela and murdered Gandhi and Dr. King for making waves. Heroes all!
   On the other hand, Rhee is leaving before the job is done and needs to be faulted for that but she doesn't need to carry all the guilt. The incoming mayor, Vincent Gray, obviously liked what she did but doesn't like her. Well, sorry Vincent but we don't have to get along with everybody in order to get a tough job done. I've heard good things about Vincent Gray but I wish he could have made peace with Michelle Rhee and she could have reciprocated, at least until the end of the school year. It would have been tough love for both leaders but would have meant a lot to the kids.
   Okay, here's the real point of this post
   Not much is going to change in our schools unless we recognize the awful and unacceptable reality that many public school kids are trapped in dangerous caves where hope can't breathe and where the possibility of a good life is slowly being sucked out of them. What is required is their immediate rescue. We need an immediate encampment on the Washington Mall led by the President – just like President Piñeda in Chile. It would send a thrilling message throughout the planet: our kids are precious and we intend to rescue every one of them.
   As we wait for that day, smart, courageous people who take risks and make waves are our best, if imperfect, hope. At the end of the day, it is people like Michelle Rhee, people of courage and genuine love for the kids, who bring needed change. Current Mayor Fenty´s interim appointment of Kaya Henderson to replace Rhee, at the request of incoming Mayor Gray, was a good move. We expect Henderson, who was the right-hand assistant to Rhee, to continue the work begun by Rhee and this all bodes well. But it won't bring our kids out of the cave and up the shaft to freedom in a lifesaving capsule. Because there is no encampment. No thrilling message. And not enough love.
   I've been in Buenos Aires for the last year and, recently, students in 30 schools, mostly high schools, shut down their schools for two months, demanding major improvements. If the Gray-Fenty-Henderson approach doesn't continue to be courageous and with a lot of love for DC kids, maybe DC students need to learn some things about democracy from students in Buenos Aires.
   What if, for example, every public school child left school next Monday, accompanied by parents, and surrounded the White House? And what if they didn't leave until President Obama came out and agreed to set up a national encampment on the Washington Mall? And what if he created the structure to enable every child trapped in the dangerous caves of the nation's broken school system to rise to freedom in an American Fenix capsule. And what if …
   NOTE: I moved out of DC in 2001. Someone I respect told me that my criticism of DC schools is too harsh, that there have been improvements. I would love to hear that DC now has a good school system. Can anyone tell me that?

 I invite you to consider my book, Touching The Rainbow Ground - 8 Steps To Hope. Acting on behalf of children is risky but accepting the risk will change the world for children.  You may find it at as a print or e-book. has a Kindle edition and iBooks has it for iPad, iPod and iPhone.