By Caroline Pacl
Every day, 11 students drop out of school in the nation’s capital. Though the rapidly changing H Street corridor has become known for its bars and theaters, many of the neighborhood’s residents copy with the daily problems of urban education in both the public schools and public charter schools.
“What’s going to motivate someone to stay in school if the school is dirty, and falling apart?” says Karen Hall, a Recreation and Leisure director at the Sherwood Recreation Center on G Street.
ANC commissioner Tony Richardson says that while the prevalent gentrification in the H Street corridor has helped improve schools, the neighborhood has a long way to go.
“How have the youth been affected by gentrification on H Street? Well, they most certainly have been affected, in that the new folks coming in have demanded better schools,” Richardson says. “Like if you take J.O. Wilson — that has always been neglected and for years it pretty much had no heat in the winter and no AC in the summer — they started making sure that more was being done to improve conditions.”
Richardson has used his background in a law enforcement officer to work with the Metropolitan Police Department to identify high-crime areas in the neighborhood and find ways to make them safer.
Richardson has also helped to get street cleaners out into the neighborhood on a regular schedule. He heeds the warning of the broken windows theory, which suggests that by allowing an urban setting to remain vandalized, more vandalism and crime is bound to occur.
“I’m a federal law enforcer, so I can tell you that the highest crimes that are committed in our neighborhood are juvenile crimes,” he says.
“We need to send a message that this is not a neighborhood community that tolerates that anymore.”
Hall, on the other hand, sees H Street as a wholesome community. She has watched generations grow up in the neighborhood and has taught many of them at the recreation center, where she has worked from nearly 34 years.
“In community development, they say you to have to have schools, entertainment, business, access to transportation, shopping, and we have all of that,” she says. “If anything, 9/11 taught me how important that was. I knew where my son and daughter were and I knew they were okay because they were here.”
The schools in the area, like J. O. Wilson or Eastern High, are undergoing many different changes now with regard to teachers and appearance. Hall says an advantage of having a child in a public school versus a charter school is that the government is accountable for whether your son or daughter is in an environment shaped for success.
“I went to Eastern High School in the ’70s, back when it was a proud school,” Hall says. “I remember going there a few years back and seeing it hadn’t been maintained or kept up whatsoever … it made you cry seeing the conditions it was in. No student is going to be motivated to go there every day and feel like learning.”
Eastern High underwent a $77 million renovation last year, as part of the school reform under the former Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee.
“It’ll make such a difference,” Hall says of the high school that will enroll about 1,100 students. “Students are going to finally be in an environment they will want to be in every day, but a lot more needs to be done for other schools, especially in the middle schools and elementary schools.”
H Street has undergone an enormous amount of gentrification throughout the past decade. As new families move into the community, they started to make sure the schools were held at high standards. Programs at Sherwood are free for residents in the district and are a federally funded organization, as a part of the DC Department of Parks and Recreation.
The Sherwood recreation center is one of five sites for the College Bound student mentoring program. Every week students, grades eight through 12, meet with a mentor they are uniquely matched up with to work on everything from college essays to school work.
“My daughter had a mentor in college bound, and she still talks to her mentor all the time,” Hall says. “She still helps her edit papers even in college.”
Thelma Sanga, the programs director at College Bound says that the mentors show students that they believe in them and can help them see a future at college.
Students can get scholarship through the non-profit organization for college financial aid, and are given help every step of the way when filling out the applications.
“They don’t understand that the application isn’t just a piece of paper,” Hall says. “It takes a lot of time and effort, writing and recommendations, all of that to get through just one application. The mentors help them a lot.”