A student's voice

By: Tallya Rhodes*

Coming to Washington, D.C., I did not expect the school system to be as frustrating as it is. The school system I came from was different than DCPS. People had personal MacBook Air computers that we borrowed from the school throughout the year. Middle schoolers had iPads that they borrowed. There were apparel classes, cooking classes, and child development classes. There was even a class where you did construction work, being able to make small projects using real tools. In DCPS, I had none of that. I only had the basic core classes and electives, no interesting classes that the students would have loved. I am not saying that my old school system was better, just that it was really different and it took a lot of time to get used to the change. The one thing I still had not adjusted to was not being able to talk about my experiences and be heard.

One of my teachers would take me to different meetings across the city where people talked about issues in our schools and our community. Usually, I was the only student and was told multiple times that the politicians loved hearing students’ voices. I always found that hard to believe because politicians usually didn’t look like they were even listening to adults. If they wouldn’t listen to the adults, it was even more likely that I wouldn’t be heard or understood. Yet I kept trying anyway.

This summer I had the privilege of facilitating At-large Councilmember David Grosso’s education town halls in each ward with five other students. We were able to talk about the issues we’ve experienced while engaging in conversations with people from the community who wanted to talk about issues and solutions. It was great to be able to talk about what I went through being in D.C. Public Schools and talk about some solutions that I thought could help with fixing that issue.

For me, I was also able to see the different issues that each ward sees as important. No two wards were similar. In Ward 7, our conversation was mainly on the violence that we see in the city and how that hinders students from getting to school either on time or at all. That was a very serious conversation that showed how unsafe students felt when getting to and from school. Community members wanted to know what could be done to help the students feel safe when traveling to and from school but none of the students present could really give a concrete answer. “If the police doesn’t even help us, how can you make us feel safe?” Ceon Dubose, rising junior at Idea Public Charter School, said in our Ward 7 town hall. It was suggested that community members help get students and bring them to school and have more social workers in the schools who actually care about their students.

“As a person who’s experienced switching from school to school and being pushed out, it’s important for someone in the school building to support you and lead the way,” Jessica Parks, rising junior at Friendship Collegiate High School, said in one of our town halls. People wonder why the school to prison pipeline is so great. “In order to get kids to come to in school more, I think schools need better or more counselors. Schools need better disciplinary policies. School is supposed to feel safe, we are supposed to feel secure, and some kind of comfort. We should want to come to school instead of skipping, or dropping out because we feel unsafe or pushed out.” Ceon said, having been pushed out of school many times. “I just want to love school again.”

Yet, in Ward 2 the main concerns were about having a high school in that ward to ensure a community where the students who go to the elementary and middle schools there have a high school that they can attend. These parents didn’t want their students to leave their Ward to go to a high school, instead wanting them to stay in Ward 2. But, you usually see students in Wards 7 and 8 who would rather leave their Ward to go to a better school than the one in their neighborhood.

While listening to the comments about building a community in a Ward and making sure that community was intact because it was essential for students and the community to flourish, I started to think about the reason why I went to H.D. Woodson and not my neighborhood school. I also started to think about what was essential for my success towards graduation - numbers. I realized that it wasn’t the community that was essential, at least in the political world. It’s the numbers. If a school is not a good number, then the students aren’t perceived as smart or ‘adequate’ enough to get the opportunities and resources as those in these other ‘communities.’ Once our education stops being based on numbers, then maybe we can look towards a better system. Numbers aren’t everything. If anything, it should show how great the needs are. I was a great student in terms of numbers, but that doesn’t define me as a person. My school may have a bad number, and students who go there may have bad numbers, but that doesn’t define them. It takes more than numbers to define something or someone. 

I actually now understand why it’s so hard to please every ward and every school in the city because we are extremely different. We’re a city but with very different needs. From my vantage point, most of the resources and energy go to the wards with the most money and better schools, which leaves the rest of us without the resources or funding for the students. I may understand why it’s so hard to please every ward in the city, but I still don’t understand why schools in certain parts of the city get better resources than those with the greatest need considering the many issues us students have explained and experienced. That still remains one of the biggest issues students have to face, and it’s our job to continue to show the divided line the city has drawn.

Despite Thurgood Marshall being a public charter school, schools like TMA, H.D. Woodson, Ballou, etc. have little to no resources yet other schools are able to receive multiple Dual Enrollment courses. Trinity Brown, rising senior at Thurgood Marshall Academy, wanted to get her associate degree during high school. But, she wasn’t able to do that because of funding being low at her school, resulting in her not being able to take Dual Enrollment classes. If Trinity went to another school on the other side of town, she could have been able to have an associate degree before she graduates. But, she should be able to do that at the school she has chosen.

Politicians have a hard job but that’s no excuse for ignoring the issues that students face everyday. Having these student-led town halls was a great way to get the issues out there and get people to actually listen to student’s issues for once, especially since politician’s decisions affect us the most. In this way, we were actually listened to, not just heard. You can hear someone but you can only really understand what that person is saying if you actually listen to them. The experience working on the town halls made me feel like I was being listened to for once. 

*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. Tallya Rhodes was the valedictorian of H.D. Woodson's Class of 2018 and Mikva Challenge Fellow in Councilmember Grosso's office in summer 2018.*