Confronting Division: Racial Realities in D.C. Classrooms

Alex Burchfield

Birney Elementary School looms over the Anacostia Metro stop, casting a  shadow on the Barry Farm neighborhood. The metal cages and bars on the windows give the school the appearance of a prison. Inside, the sweltering heat suffocates. Children run amok up and down the hallways screaming and shouting; for teachers, the environment could not be less appealing.

Not a single white face dots the sea of black children. Painted on the auditorium’s walls, the faces of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Junior serve as a reminder of how far the African-American community has come in its struggle for equality. But 55 years after Brown vs. Board of Education, and just months after the election of Barack Obama vindicated hundreds of years fighting against injustice, the pinnacles of African-American pride painted on the walls of Birney Elementary are still looking down in despair. In Washington D.C. public schools, African-Americans remain the victims of a long history of segregation. Today, integration has yet to be achieved.

Danisha Blount is a first grader at Birney who participates in Heads Up, an after school literacy program started by AmeriCorps in 1996 for public schools in low-income neighborhoods. During a session with her tutor, Blount sits staring at the word “as,” digging her palms into her face trying to get the sounds to fall out of her mouth. Frustrated, tears well up in her eyes as her tutor calmly reminds her what the short “a” vowel sounds like. After several attempts, and some hints, she finally pronounces the word correctly and moves on to the next.

On the other side of the room, Tymel Wheeler, a second grader with an unknown learning disability, still cannot perform on the same level as his peers, and remains at or below the kindergarten reading level; he still struggles to recite the alphabet. Jayquan Brown is in fifth grade, and will most likely not finish middle school. According to his “Heads Up” literacy assessment, he is still reading below the kindergarten level.


Programs such as Heads Up have been popping up all around the District to try and level the playing field for low-income, mostly minority students. “One of the largest issues we look to focus on is to lower the achievement gap between different neighborhoods within the District of Columbia,” said Jason Maglaughlin, the development manager for Heads Up.

“There is a lot of statistical evidence that suggests that demographic data and poverty has a negative effect on the academic performance of these students. We’re looking mainly to try and mitigate that and provide students with positive role models so they can gain access to information about college going culture and understanding of different activities that could benefit them in the future.”

Despite the efforts of various volunteer organizations around D.C. attempting to help under-resourced students, performance in reading and mathematics is shockingly low. According to the District of Columbia Comprehensive Assessment System (DC CAS), which measures student competence in reading and math, 31 percent of students at Birney scored “proficiently” in reading, and only 20 percent in math. These scores, which are typical of most public schools in D.C., result in even more appalling high school graduation rates: 43 percent of high school freshmen will graduate within five years, and only nine percent will receive a college degree.


In the world of education, there are two competing philosophies concerning how to remedy the plights of the public school system. Some argue that teachers are the single most important factor in improving the performance of inner city students. Michelle Rhee, the fiery Chancellor of DCPS, is the newest high-profile proponent of this approach. Rhee made national news by dumping 250 teachers and 500 teaching aids immediately upon entering office.

The second side of public school reform philosophy takes into account the undeniable impediments of race and socioeconomic status on children’s educational development. Many, including Dr. Stacie Tate, a professor at American University and a specialist in urban education and literacy, argue that in order to narrow the achievement gap, it is necessary to address issues of class, poverty, and health. “Basic needs issues [must be] taken care of, such as ‘Can I afford to go to a doctor?’ ‘Can I afford a meal?’ Those kinds of things all affect how students learn.”

Other educators, such as Delphia Parker, the site coordinator for Heads Up at Birney Elementary, point to similar environmental factors such as contemporary pop culture and its influence on the attitude of children toward education. “It’s like a vicious cycle,” said Parker. “Our kids have been robbed by things like MTV, ‘bling bling’ and the hip-hop scene. The family nucleus has deteriorated because of these vices.”

Chancellor Rhee sat down recently with a group of American University students who volunteered in D.C. schools. She told the students that she thought desegregating D.C. schools wasn’t important. Making sure schools were achieving was. She argued that some schools in the city are more integrated, and students aren’t performing any better at these schools than students at the fully-segregated schools.

But unfortunately, teachers can’t overcome everything, as Rhee’s policies forgo socioeconomic status and race as key factors in educational development.

Considering that 94 percent of DCPS students are black or Hispanic, most white students never have a chance to learn side by side with blacks; the public education system is a segregator by definition. Rhee’s attitude has lost ground in the minds of weathered social workers and educators such as Maglaughlin, Tate and Parker, who have battled against and seen the deleterious effects of urban poverty and race on the performance of their students.


From the third floor of Birney Elementary, Washington’s skyline is visible; the timeless marble buildings and ornate neoclassical columns that represent our nation’s ideals of equality, democracy and justice dot the background. As the first city in the United States to have a black majority, it’s hard to imagine D.C. plagued by racism. But the contrasting scene of boarded up houses and glinting office buildings on K Street is another stark reminder that racial segregation is still very much present.

Judging by graduation rates and the number of African-Americans who attend public schools, there is no question who ends up on which side of the Anacostia River. Longtime D.C. residents are not fooled by the façade of racial integration since Brown vs. Board of Education was passed. The awful stink of segregation still lingers around the city streets – its residue will be hard to wash away.

Frank Rich, a columnist for the New York Times, described his own experience growing up in Montgomery County, Maryland, the neighborhood occupied by Sidwell Friends, a prestigious private school. “My mother, a public school teacher, decreed that her children would instead enroll in the public system that had been desegregated a half-dozen years earlier, after Brown v. Board of Education,” writes Rich. “In reality de facto segregation remained in place. Though a few African-Americans and embassy Africans provided the window dressing of ‘integration,’ my mostly white elementary, junior high and high schools had roughly the same diversity as, say, today’s G.O.P.”


In 1952, the Walter-McCarran Act was ratified, stating, “The right of a person to become a naturalized citizen of the United States shall not be denied or abridged because of race.” It has been 162 years since the first naturalization law was passed. Over those 162 years, African-Americans were considered less than equal members of society. The monumental legislation of the 1960s that placed African-Americans on an equal playing field with whites has yet to be manifested within urban communities.

In public education, the history of racial segregation has created problems such as low literacy rates, a widening achievement gap, and bureaucratic malfunctions. The issues fester and perpetuate themselves into problems that are akin to those in third world countries. Whatever the course of action, or methods employed to solve this problem, it must be acknowledged that equality is still a goal to be achieved.

The faces painted on Birney Elementary’s walls may have accomplished a great deal, but even the election of the first black president cannot correct the glaring contrast seen through Birney Elementary’s third floor window.


Frank Rich postulates that history tends to move slowly. The Civil Rights Act, The Voting Rights Act, The Walter-McCarran Act, and Brown vs. Board of Education were all milestones in the fight against racial inequality. But neighborhoods such as Anacostia continue to draw low-income African-Americans who, by default, end up stuck in the same situation with limited social and economic mobility.

Dr. Tate says that even if politicians wanted to forcefully desegregate public schools again, the laws set in place would make it a bureaucratic nightmare. “A lot of states have passed laws saying that the school system is ok as it is. Even for desegregation to happen again, you would have to go through a lot of loopholes and red tape.”

The self-perpetuating system of racial segregation has left public schools in a rut. Students in Southeast D.C. remain without resources, and their parents are frustrated as their students continue to underachieve. Michelle Rhee may have good intentions for her students, but by cracking down on teachers she is not addressing the entire issue that D.C.’s schools face. The question of how to reform D.C. public schools is just as much a racial dilemma as an educational dilemma.

The windows in the Heads Up room are smudged with paint, and the roars of city buses fill the room. Delphia Parker sums up the environment. “How can you dream when you’re constantly looking at this?”