Last Thursday morning at Washington, D.C.’s Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center over 1,000 charter school students, teachers, and their supporters gathered in a call to action for Mayor Bowser to release empty surplus former DCPS buildings for use by the city’s public charter schools. As I scanned the expansive room with my eyes I saw not an empty seat. Overflow members of the audience had to stand along the back of the space and up and down the entrance stairs in order to get a glimpse of the activities.
The two hour perfectly choreographed program made it extremely difficult to turn your attention away from the front of the stage. There were student performances by Rocketship Legacy Prep PCS students together with those of the Friendship PCS Collaborative Choir. At one point on the agenda KIPP DC College Preparatory PCS pupils became the cast of “Newsies: the Musical.” My wife Michele and I had seen Newsies just last week at Arena Stage and I can safely say that the scholars of KIPP are definitely ready for primetime.
Toward the end of the session the Mary McLeod Bethune Day Academy PCS Drumline proceeded from the rear of the hall to the front. The sound so engulfed the area that the guests had no choice but to jump to their feet in thunderous applause.
Emotions, as demonstrated on the faces of the crowd, were riding exceedingly high. This was due to the purposeful interweaving of prepared remarks by esteemed members of the charter school community, together with student performances, combined with several snippets from the documentary “Open Doors Open Minds“. It was a trifecta of activities that resulted in numerous opportunities for those seated to lift up their “I love Charter School” signs high above their heads and cheer in unison.
Dr. Ramona Edelin, executive director DC Association of Chartered Public Schools, was the emcee. She introduced comments by Rick Cruz, chair of the DC Public Charter School Board; former Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu; Shawn Hardnett, founder and executive director Statesman College Preparatory Academy for Boys PCS; and Dr. Howard Fuller, of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning.
Throughout the gathering there were constant reminders on two large screens positioned on either side of the dais of the approximately 12,000 students currently on a charter school wait list. The wait list exists in large part because the city is holding onto more than a million square feet of property in the form of shuttered DCPS facilities that by law should have already been turned over to charters. One of the most moving parts of the schedule was when pictures of the exteriors and interiors of many of the 14 vacant school buildings were projected. There they were for all to see, image after image, of structures that could be serving our kids right now.
Mr. Cruz spoke eloquently about his days growing up as a child in the Bronx, N.Y. He remembered vividly watching on television Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. On the program he recalled Mr. Rogers repeating over and over again that “anything big started out small.” He made an analogy to the dreams that the pupils in front of us have that we must ensure have the chance to blossom. Of course, Mr. Cruz intoned, these dreams may never become a reality if these individuals cannot get into our charter schools due to a lack of adequate classroom space.
The remarks of Senator Landrieu especially impressed me. She talked from her heart about this country’s efforts to provide equity in education to our kids. However, with her voice rising, she extolled the fact that there is no equity when students go to schools that lack cafeterias, science laboratories, libraries, gymnasiums, and playing fields. Ms. Landrieu is of course referring to charter schools that, due to the blockade of access to permanent homes, are often located in warehouses, church basements, and storefronts.
I feel that my duty as a recorder of these types of events is to share the participant’s remarks directly with you the reader. In this case, however, I will not be successful. It turns out that this terrible travesty of justice that has been taking place in our nation’s capital for over two decades regarding the lack of appropriate charter school facilities has so enraged the morning’s speakers that they felt no need to write down prepared remarks. This was true of the passionate comments of the Senator and it is also the case with Mr. Fuller.
Anytime Howard Fuller is at a lectern there is a one hundred percent chance that people will become riled up, and so it was the case on Thursday. Dr. Fuller reflected that he liked the strong show of support he was witnessing in front of him to wrestle closed buildings away from the traditional school system. But he admonished the crowd that if this effort ends with the conclusion of this gathering then it will all be for naught. The intensity of his will traveled through each and every person’s molecular structure as he reminded us through the words of civil rights icon Frederick Douglass, “If there is no struggle there is no progress.”
The organizers of the End the List rally know exactly to what Dr. Fuller is referencing. D.C.’s charter movement has not in the past seen a coalition come together for a common cause as it did four days ago. Every group involved in promoting, supporting, and improving our charters was represented. The Center for Education Reform, with the tremendous assistance of others too numerous to mention, did much of the facilitating. But the man who was the fountainhead of this perhaps once-in-a-lifetime effort was my hero and friend Josh Rales. Mr. Rales, together with the Rales Foundation, has for years now been toiling quietly but fervently behind the scenes to do what he can to provide every child who needs one an exemplary education in the District of Columbia. I caught up with him before most others had arrived and asked him to reflect on his undertakings:
“I’m happy to support children,” Mr. Rales related, “to go to the school that they and their parents want them to attend. However, the Mayor is holding onto the supply of surplus DCPS schools that by law need to go to charters. We need these buildings so that we can end the wait list of 12,000 students seeking slots in our charter schools. These schools that have been allowed to sit and deteriorate will be renovated with private capital that will improve blighted neighborhoods of our town.”
It was an overwhelmingly amazing day.