DC’s Black and Brown Students Face Perilous School Year

To Effectively Support Them, We Must Close the Digital Divide and Build on Successful Reforms

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Photo: Les Talusan, Courtesy Rev. Curry

Our country is confronting dual cataclysms: one the global pandemic now afflicting millions and one a long-overdue reckoning of the centuries-old scourge of racism. Trapped in between the punishing weight of both of are our Black and Brown children.

Our public schools stand as the chief means of supporting them now and bringing forth a brighter dawn tomorrow.

But that promise of support is now in jeopardy as our schools move into this unprecedented school year.  With the closure of schools and the move to distance learning for the start of the school year and very possibly much longer, students who are the furthest from opportunity face a new set of obstacles to the promise of a high-quality public education.

Indeed, a Black or Brown child born into poverty in the District effectively lives in a different city than a white child born into a family of means. The close connection between race, educational achievement and poverty in our city underscore that proposition.  So too does the well-documented and glaring correlation between poor health outcomes and low educational attainment. Education inequity, indeed, underpins and reinforces inequity more broadly in our city.

Public education is the foundation of our collective civility, the keystone of our democratic ideals and the pinnacle of our aspirations for more equitable society. Despite great improvement, especially in the District of Columbia, the promise and power of a public education remains far from an equitable good for all communities.  And so, as we look to unravel this spiral of racism in our city through policing reforms and addressing health inequities, we must also work to improve our system of public education expressly through an equity and racial justice lens.  And the need to do so has never been greater—we must act now.

The combination of the pandemic and the swelling movement for racial justice has put in stark relief the challenges that so many of our students experience today.  We are entering a school year unlike any other. From learning loss to disconnection from vital behavioral health supports, even with the herculean efforts of our educators, thousands of students face acute impacts from the necessary closures of school buildings.  Left unaddressed, the futures of these children will be irreparably diminished, their voices in our city’s future story muted.

In the near term, our schools and students face the immediate challenge of the second largest racial digital divide in the nation. Every student should have access to the technology they need to engage with their teachers and their curriculum.  The philanthropic community has stepped up by providing millions of dollars in the form of the D.C. Education Equity Fund, a partnership between the Greater Washington Community Foundation, the DC Ed Fund, and Education Forward DC, in order to get technology into the hands of our students. The city must close any remaining device access gaps and prioritize the expansion of free WiFi and wireless hotspots for students throughout the District.

In the medium to longer term, our leaders must continue to ensure our schools have the flexibility and support to respond to the needs of their students.  Those closest to students know best what form that support should take. We must support educators and school leaders in innovating in the service of their students.  We should continue to encourage the creation of new, high-quality educational options as the long-term trajectory of our city’s educational improvement depends on it. Further, we should prioritize access to our best schools for students who are most disadvantaged.  Critically, we must also maintain our systems of measuring educational progress so that we can know the true depths of challenge that our students experience during this unprecedented time and beyond it.

We are fortunate to be served by true education champions—elected leaders and public servants who stand with our students above all else. These leaders and many others before them have worked hard to deliver on the promise of public education.  They have provided resources, autonomy and the space for innovation in DCPS and our public charter schools. Thanks to those efforts, we are doing better than we did a generation ago in ensuring more of our children receive a high-quality education.

However, we have much more to do in order to ensure that all children receive the quality of education they deserve. And so, as our elected leaders grapple with their role in dismantling systemic racism and inequity, I urge them to keep our future—our children—in focus.

To be sure, investing in our schools is investing in our families. Supporting our students is supporting our communities. Advancing our communities is advancing our city and enabling it to thrive. The economic recovery of our city must start with the academic and emotional recovery of our children. The path to racial justice and true equity runs directly through our public schools.  The primary place for support and empowerment during these times of upheaval and challenge for our young people is the classroom.

Ecclesiastes 7:12 says “the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the life of him who has it.” Education does indeed preserve lives. It enriches lives. It fulfills lives. Education has the power to transform people and communities and make them whole.  And we should, again,  heed this heavenly wisdom as we work to ensure that wisdom is imparted on the young people of our city—so they might find their “voice” and help transform our city and nation for the better.

Reverend Doctor Kendrick E. Curry is Senior Pastor at The Pennsylvania Ave Baptist Church (3000 Pennsylvania Ave. SE) and the Board of Directors Chair at Education Forward DC.  He can be reached at (202) 581-1500.