Public schools cannot solve all of DC’s problems. They are, however, unique in their ability to touch the large majority of DC’s children and families.
DC also has a large nonprofit community. Admittedly, there is a tremendous variety both in terms of program focus and program quality. In recent years, schools have worked to vet and organize the services provided, in schools, by nonprofit entities. They have also explored, at times, more formalized relationships with proven organizations.
More appropriate utilization of the local nonprofit community is the single strongest pathway to game-changing improvements in student performance. While some work is being done already, public schools could make significant improvements by better leveraging nonprofits in four ways:
- Allow select nonprofit organizations to offer opportunities for credit: First, I do recognize this would involve policy changes through the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. However, it must be done. A teen that trains for and completes a 10k with Teens Run DC should get PE credit. A student that completes a Critical Exposure fellowship should get Art credit. Frankly, the teens in our program that read multiple books and became published authors this summer should be able to avoid attending summer school. This simple change would provide scheduling flexibility and allow schools to provide academic support and study hall during the school day.
- Create a pathway for returned citizens to work with schools: It is seemingly common sense that we do not let former felons work in our schools. However, our city is full of individuals trying to build better lives after paying their debt to society. Additionally, some of these returned citizens are already the parents and relatives of our students. Are we protecting the kids, or protecting ourselves from litigation? Providing this opportunity would allow DC Central Kitchen to increase its capacity to provide healthy food to our students (they are currently limited because so many employees/trainees are former felons). Additionally, anyone who has ever stood outside a DC high school knows we could use help getting our teens into the building. The National Homecomers Association is already doing informal work providing safe passage. Couldn’t we utilize them to address truancy and tardiness as well? Regulations would still be necessary, but a permanent ban is not.
- Providing training to align support to the district’s standards and sequence: The district does strong work around curriculum development and design. However, nonprofits generally only learn of this work when it becomes public. This puts us in a consistently reactive stance. Reach provides 140 additional hours of literacy instruction to teens and 70 additional hours to elementary school participants each year. While we do not want to simply repeat what happens in classrooms, our program team would benefit from district support in building the most supportive academic experience for the students we share.
- Create a Partner Cabinet: DCPS has created a Parent Cabinet to better understand the needs of district parents. A similar body should be created for the nonprofit community. As a first project, the group should create an interactive platform with information about services available – perhaps built like One Degree, with the addition of relationship mapping functionality. For the most difficult-to-serve students, nonprofit partners often have stronger relationships than the schools. We possess knowledge and relationships that can help manage transitions or reengage those young people who are not finding success in schools.
A sad example: Reach operates at Payne Elementary School. Relisha Rudd, the young girl currently missing, attended Payne while living at DC General Family Shelter. When concerned about her absences, Payne went through the necessary channels to investigate by going to the shelter. If asked, I would have known that a child at the shelter likely connected with the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project. I know Jamila, the Executive Director. It would have taken me less than an hour to determine when Relisha was last seen – I would have just called Jamila. Schools must have access to knowledge about the network of nonprofits that support students. I would have loved to help, but there is no way the school would have known to ask.
Better leveraging the nonprofit community would require investment. It would be necessary to build an infrastructure to ensure high-quality collaboration. But, if done effectively, the results would be significant. We haven’t even mentioned the possibility of staff-sharing, support during suspensions, and/or parent education. Effective collaboration would be game changing for our kids.
Without doubt, one could point out problems with the suggestions outlined above. I make no claim they’re perfect. But, if nothing else, they could start an extraordinarily important conversation about better utilizing the resources available right now. Let’s get to work.
Thanks, as always, for reading.