Critical Lessons & Educational Change

Dear De’ron and Matthew – cc: Michelle Rhee

Lauren Shallish

August 2010

Dear De’ron and Matthew,

I hope this letter becomes a relic one day.

You are two students in the DC Public School system.  You are smart and exceptional.  De’ron, you are about to start first grade and Matthew, you would have graduated from Anacostia High this past June.  I am came here to Washington DC to work for your Chancellor, Michelle Rhee, but you are the ones I answer to.

De’ron, you are five years old and just about to start first grade.  You have braids in your hair, basketball high-tops and eyes that swallow up the room.  Your grandfather came here with you.  He is veteran firefighter who served DC for 30 years.  That is an incredible legacy – one that you will inherit along with his effortless generosity.

You like basketball, go-cart racing, and you just started swim lessons this summer.  Some days you get in trouble at school and summer camp for trying to protect your sister from other kids.  Your grandfather says you spend a lot of time watching out for her.  I can tell that you work hard to guard against unfriendly people when they invite themselves in.  That is a good skill to have.

I hear that your mom is getting re-married in August and went back to school to get her Associate’s degree.  The world doesn’t make it easy for parents to do what she did.  Your dad is in jail so you do not see him as much but he calls and you like talking to him.  I know it is important to you to make sure your sister does the same even though that is why you fight with her sometimes.  People confuse your mom’s fiancée for your real dad and you worry that she might make that same mistake.  This new man is a nice guy but he makes you miss your dad sometimes.  You don’t want to shut people out; you just want to keep the ones that are good to you.

Do you know that you are one of the best math students in your class?  You are at least one grade level ahead of your peers.  When I ask your grandfather what your school is like he tells me that the teachers say you are a whiz.  School is also the place where people noticed you walk on your toes.

And that is why we spent the day here in this testing center.  For the past four hours we checked your hearing, vision, family’s medical history, place of residence, your mother’s pregnancy, history of drug use, prior convictions, and mental health status.  Someone needed to know that your mom was bi-polar to better explain your toe-walking.  All of the people in the testing room were speech therapists, occupational therapists, physical therapists and educational specialists.  They went to school for a long time but never learned to shake your hand, introduce themselves and ask about swimming.

There were a few of us who were not allowed in the room so we watched you from the other side of the one-way glass.  My favorite part was when you walked into the room from the other side and noticed that “mirror” on the wall was a fake.  You waved and laughed at us.  It was perfect.

Matthew, we never met in person.  I read your Individualized Education Plan (IEP) when I was being trained on a new system for the Office of Special Education.  The IEP is the document that is supposed to make you special but what you got wasn’t so and it wasn’t education.

Your IEP said that you wanted to be a Metro bus driver, that you were a foster child, were homeless for a while and lived with your grandmother for a bit.  The world asked you to grow up quickly and you did.

When you were 12 years old someone labeled you mentally retarded like it was a real thing.  I felt you had a sense that students with dark skin like yours are three times as likely to be labeled as having mental retardation, two times as likely to be labeled as having emotional disturbances and one and a half times more likely to be labeled as having a learning disability.  The only label anyone really needs to know is your name.

IEPs are supposed to be reviewed every year but your team stopped meeting when they didn’t see you around school.  One of your teachers tried calling your grandmother to see where you went.  Attendance records stopped showing your name and eventually you weren’t a student in the school anymore.  The last note on your IEP said that you dropped out but you were pushed.

I tried to find you again but I got lost.  In big place like central office, numbers and papers are mistaken for people and lives.  I had a meeting with the Deputy Chancellor that same day and he told us about new procedures involving parent meetings and how we should be sensitive because “it can be hard to hear that you child is mentally retarded.”  I told him I thought it was harder to believe that was an accurate term.

You would have graduated from Anacostia High School this year and Michelle Obama would have been your commencement speaker.  In her speech, she told the students how she was so impressed by the questions they asked, their work ethic, their spirit and their attitude. Did you know Frederick Gregory graduated from Anacostia?  He was the first African American in US history to command a space shuttle.  I know you told your teachers you wanted to be a bus driver but why drive a bus when Anacostia graduates drive to space?

Your chancellor is in the news a lot lately.  Lots of people call what she is doing in DC Public Schools education reform although I am not always sure what that means.  I do know that one of her predecessors was a former army lieutenant general and decorated war hero who left his post at DCPS because it was “too hard.”  Why is it hard to work with our children?

I know Michelle Rhee does not believe it is hard.  She does not want the walls of your schools to be painted the same color as the federal prisons.  She wants you to have books, music classes, physical education, summer camp, after-school enrichment and schools that serve as community centers for families to congregate, share a meal and celebrate you.  She wants the district to count on its children, take attendance for the first time and have all 26 schools open when they should in September.  Students should be back in their neighborhood schools rather than shipped out for having an IEP.

Your chancellor does not want your schools to be places that teachers and students leave.  Her team brought in NASA flight simulators, gave $3,000 to every teacher to develop their skills and strengths, worked with embassies and diplomats to teach global education, hired the first female high school football coach in the country, designed Afro-centric curriculum and bilingual instruction, opened college advising centers in middle schools and took you to the Air and Space Museum to learn about math and the National Portrait Gallery to learn about art.  She brought in DC teachers, parents and community members to run the central office.  Chancellor Rhee knows your schools sit only a few blocks away from Congress, the White House and the Supreme Court and for the first time she worked with the students in the DC public schools to challenge what went on in those places.

There are also people who do not agree with her work.  I am with them too.  Chancellor Rhee speaks a lot about doing what is best for kids but that theory does not stack up when a teacher’s or student’s worth is determined by test scores.  The claim that adults get in the way is sometimes code to ignore people who want to participate.  People should never be surprised about what is required of them to keep their jobs. It is always easier to find someone to blame than to understand why everything became so complex in the first place.

The pace is so fast here sometimes it is hard to keep up.  Groups of people are getting lost in the shuffle and others were never brought along to begin with.  Schools are our anchors and epicenters.  They are not businesses.  When you move quickly and don’t listen, sides harden. All of our lives are formed in unequal power arrangements.  We know better than to ensure that continues in our schools.

I do not know if it is the best time to be a student in DCPS but I do know you have the right to be here in the way you want to be.  That is part of what public education — and inclusion — means and does.  What confounds people about both is that they are values and beliefs, not definitive models.  But our values give us our goals.  We have to own the fears we have of each other and figure out how to see people differently than the way we were brought up to.  Schools are places where we can begin that work.

De’ron, you love your family and your role in it.  Matthew, you want a career that serves the public and gives you a place in the world.  You do not have to be the success story and overcome every obstacle we continue to make for you but you are owed what is yours: an education that represents and reflects you, includes you and launches you.  Don’t let them fool you about the tragedy of disability.  I have no sympathy for it.  You are not required to answer to anyone, teach us anything or explain yourself if you don’t want to but check in when you can to keep us honest and make sure we do not continue to make the mistake that numbers and paperwork represent your real and valued place in the world.  We do not have to act like there is a looming and steadfast deadline and that our schools are something to solve but this is urgent so let us begin.



Ah, what would the world be to us
If the children were no more?
We should dread the desert behind us
Worse than the dark before.

— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow