As we observe Martin Luther King Day, one in three children in the nation’s capital lives in poverty, according to U.S. Census figures—up from about one in four two years ago. This makes the District of Columbia one of just 73 jurisdictions to exceed the 30 percent child poverty mark. Obviously, these figures are flattered by the inclusion of the wealth that exists in the District alongside much poverty. The 21,000 underprivileged children identified by the census are concentrated in the city’s Southeast and Northeast quadrants, where the poverty rate arcs much higher than 30 percent.
Poverty in D.C. neighborhoods is generational. Children are born into families where they are at a disadvantage before birth. One of the most comprehensive studies of children and language ever conducted, by Betty Hart and Todd Risley, calculated the number of words children learned before entering school in professional, college-educated versus poor families. The gap is some 35 million words—13 versus 48 million—before children enter school. Compounding this disadvantage is the very real issue of vast differences in school quality in urban America versus suburban and rural communities.
The achievement gap—the difference between the educational attainment of poor and minority students and their wealthier and white peers—starts early in the lives of children growing up in poverty. And our public education system does little to address it, let alone close the gap.
For many, this poverty of experience and expectations is an isolated problem, confined to urban centers rarely visited or noticed by the majority of Americans. But in just 12 years time, the majority of our nation’s children will be so-called minorities, according to census estimates. While we debate America’s future in a global economy, the educational position of our children, compared to the rest of the industrialized world, is not in doubt. The latest widely respected Program for International Student Assessment survey places American students 17th in reading; 23rd in science; and 31st in math among industrialized nations.
The evidence is unambiguous: we need to invest more, earlier, in every child, from birth—and stay with those children through college or their entry into the workforce. Right now, we invest resources in children who drop out of high school, but only after we fail to educate them. Adults who drop out of high school are 19 times more likely to be incarcerated than adults with college degrees, according to U.S. Department of Justice figures. We have the highest incarceration rate in the world, ahead of Russia, Rwanda and Mexico. Billions of dollars are poured into prisons and policing, when simply providing every child with a college degree would have cost less.
It was the unfortunate state of public education in the District of Columbia that prompted me to establish a public charter school to educate underserved children. Beginning with 35 students in the basement of the St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church on 16th Street in Northwest Washington, before eventually moving to our current Brookland location in Northeast D.C., today we serve students 350 from pre-school through the sixth grade.
Ranked ‘high performing’ by the city’s independent Public Charter School Board, nearly 80 percent of our students are eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches; almost all of them African-American or Latino.
Founded on a belief that every child can learn, we are the city’s only public school where students learn to speak, read, write and think in three languages—French, Spanish and English—including our pre-K students. We also operate before- and after school programs and a Saturday Academy.
We also prepare our students to be leaders in their communities, and responsible citizens who are committed to social justice. Each year, as part of their studies on the history of social justice, fourth grade Stokes School scholars prepare their own “I Have a Dream” speeches and, like Dr. King, deliver their speeches at the Lincoln Memorial. Their speeches reflect the visions of our nine and ten-year-olds and remind us that, given exemplary educational opportunities, these same children may find solutions that transform current societal problems into ancient history.
Breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty is central to ensuring disadvantaged students’ success—which in turn will help revitalize our underserved neighborhoods, and shore up our nation’s global economic standing. In 1968, in his last Sunday morning sermon, Dr. King said: “We are challenged to rid our nation and the world of poverty.” When King gave that sermon, our nation entertained the option of educating only select groups of students. Now we know better. Now we know that is necessary to provide a quality education to all of our children.
Linda Moore is founder and executive director of the Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom Public Charter School, which is located in the Brookland neighborhood of Washington D.C.