By Christina Henderson*
I often describe myself as Brooklyn born, Southern raised. I loved spending my younger years in a city that was so diverse and rich with culture, but what really influenced my path was becoming a military kid, albeit reluctantly. When I was in the third grade my mother joined the United States Army. At the time I could only see that decision as an inconvenience to my 8-year old world, a feeling that only grew as we began to move about every two years further and further into the Deep South.
Gone were my days of walking to the corner bodega with friends for a pack of Now and Laters. I had to constantly make new friends because well, long distance calling was not yet free. Nothing was consistent educationally from school to school, state to state. And for the first time in my life, I found myself as the only black kid in my classes dealing with the uncomfortable stares and silence as we came to the “n-word” in texts like To Kill a Mockingbird.
Looking back though, I would not be who I am today and so passionately committed to this work in education without that background. Recently, my particular experience as a military brat has been useful in the Committee’s work. This Council Period, the Committee on Education was referred two bills that aimed to provide a military preference to students entering the citywide common education lottery (“My School DC”) who has a parent or legal guardian who is active duty military. While seemingly similar, the bills are quite different. Bill 21-39, the “Military Installation Public Charter School Amendment Act of 2015” provides a military preference for a particular school opening on or near a military installation, allowing the school to reserve up to 50 percent of its available seats with the preference. Bill 21-428, the “School Choice for Military Families Amendment Act of 2015” provides a military preference for any school that participates in My School DC. Today, the Committee on Education is moving one bill and not the other and I thought a little perspective from a military brat might help explain why.
For the past three years, I have been fascinated and impressed with the work of My School DC. It has greatly streamlined and simplified the school choice process for families. However, as a military kid who took advantage of public school choice in the cities where I lived, I would not have benefited from something like My School DC.
The common lottery is valuable to a family only if you know between December and March, when the application period is open, that you will live in the District of Columbia the upcoming school year. Often times, active duty military personnel do not receive their relocation or Permanent Change of Station (“PCS”) orders in such a neat timeline. Sometimes you get lucky and have 30 to 90 days before you must report to your new post. Sometimes the orders come without warning. About one-third of PCS moves in the military take place during the summer.
The summer before my freshman year in high school, my family and I moved to Columbus, GA, home to Fort Benning. At that time, the “official” deadlines to apply for magnet programs had passed. Luckily, Muscogee County School District had adapted their policies for military families and their public school choice programs accepted students mid-year and mid-grade sequence. I toured, applied, was accepted, and took all of the placement exams for my high school a mere two weeks before school started. It was an interesting transition to say the least, especially since I was still responsible for completing all of the summer reading.
Had my family moved to the District of Columbia as opposed to Columbus, GA, and circumstances were the same, my only options would have been within DCPS because currently under the Chancellor’s directive, school-age children residing on military bases in D.C. are allowed to enroll, at any point during the school year, in the DCPS school of their choice (pending classroom or program availability). That policy does not exist for charter school LEAs and a broad military preference in the lottery would not change that.
Furthermore, within My School DC, each LEA has discretion on how they order or rank their preferences. We have no analysis or information to indicate that LEAs would ever choose to rank a military preference over the existing sibling preference or in-boundary preference for Pre-K, for example. We have never really analyzed how much the sibling preference impacts outcomes. This is an area for further discussion, which is why Councilmember Grosso wants to form a working group on the topic to discuss with various stakeholders in the education cluster.
My juvenile complaints aside, the act of my mother joining the military was the best lesson in public service, mission-driven work, and sacrifice. Often times, the sacrifice of military families is overlooked, so I appreciate our government officials—both the Council and the Mayor—drafting legislation to recognize that reality. However, we should address the issue deliberately to ensure we are putting forth the most impactful measures to support and aid D.C. families serving our country here at home and abroad.
*This post is part of an ongoing series of posts by Councilmember Grosso’s staff to support professional development. All posts are approved and endorsed by Councilmember Grosso.