Tuesday, December 06, 2005

An educational contrast: Sidwell Friends vs. DC Public Schools

Most mornings, I begin my day by listing to ‘Morning Edition’ on National Public Radio. As many readers know, American University manages the largest and most prosperous NPR outlet, WAMU, in the DC area. This is an efficient way to keep up with the news while doing such mundane things as laundry, ironing, kitchen clearly and my – fairly – regular regimen of weight lifting.

This morning, there were two contrasting stories – I don’t know if the juxtaposition was intentional. One was about Sidwell Friends, an elite private school in Washington D.C.’s ‘first world’ Ward 3, located in the upper northwest part of the city where incomes are high, and houses are too expensive for AU faculty members to afford. Sidwell Friends, it was reported, is building a new environmentally friendly building for its middle school students. The Headmaster and Assistant Headmaster described in glowing terms how this magnificent building would meet every student need. There would even be an ecologically advanced greenhouse where students would learn to grow food that would subsequently be served in the school cafeteria.

The other story was about deferred maintenance in the DC Public School System.. Many school buildings were built 75 years ago and there have been regular maintenance shortfalls. Some are – literally – falling apart. The reporter described how the city government (which is investing in a new baseball stadium) was struggling to set aside funds funds for the most basic maintenance.

It is a paradox. The typical Sidwell Friends student comes to class having already gifted with advantages that would enable them to succeed in almost any school environment. When they go home it will be to a setting with full bookshelves and other resoures and parents who are, if anything, too anxious to have them admitted to an elite university.

The typical DC public student has the same visions of a good life and the same aspirations for success. He are she may be equally intelligent – perhaps even more intelligent – than the Sidwell student. But how different are the opportunities our society is structured to provide for these young men and women. Perhaps our nation’s capital should try an experiment. Let the Sidwell Students attend a Ward 7 middle school for a year and let the Ward 7 students attend Sidwell. Both groups of students, their parents our political leaders would learn from the experience.

Or – better yet – make sure that every student in the District of Colombia enjoys the same privileges that many students of our elite schools - Sidwell, National Cathedral, Landon, Holton Arms, St. Albans and others - take for granted as their birthright.


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