Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Vincent Gray Ward 8 Town Hall Meeting

By: Hannah Klusendorf

Last week, in a crowded Ward 8 church, fifteen DC Reads coordinators and tutors gathered with nearly a thousand Ward 8-ers to hear future DC mayor, Vince Gray, overview his proposed agenda. A waning sound system and a delayed start aside, the town hall meeting provided me with some illuminating, though vague, information in regards to education. After promising to unite the Wards together to form one DC, Gray turned his attention to creating one DCPS.

Gray claimed that rumblings alleging he would “turn the clock back on education” were “ridiculous.” He spoke of his positive voting record within the Council for education reform measures – a point he brought up many times while on the campaign trail. But that night, he seemed to directly speak out against Rhee and her supporters. Following the primary election results, she did call Gray’s victory “devastating to the children of Washington, DC.” Gray reassured all that there is “only one thing that matters: improving the educational outcome for the children of the District of Columbia.” Duh.

DC is home to a broad and differing range of opinions and ideas, but I do not think (at least I strongly hope) that few find Gray’s statement to be controversial. Some, however, might take issue with his plans for actually accomplishing this necessary yet lofty task. Personally, I have yet to see a fully-realized, concrete plan for actually doing this, as was evident in the following minutes.

Gray stated his vision for a public education system that carries a child from birth to age twenty-four. He stressed the successful creation of formal early childhood education programs within the District. According to him, DC is the first “state” in America to say that there is seat in a pre-kindergarten program for every 3 and 4 year-old. DC Action for Children is working to confirm this. I also tried researching his claim, but I came up with inconclusive results. Drawing upon this supposed success, Gray went on to say that he wants to extend formal education to include children as early as six-months-old because for some children, “three years old is too late.” Not only with this access to education be beneficial for the children, but it will also teach the parents how to be better parents.

As the crowd loudly clapped at this remark, I could not help but think about and question what this proposed system. Clearly, this idea hopes to replant the Harlem Children's Zone in DC, but how exactly will this move look? How much will DC's version resemble this model. What will this program for six-month-olds be? Is it a glorified child care? What does a post-secondary program look like for a twenty-four-year-old still in DCPS? Is it a variation of college or more vocational in nature? Gray’s statements raised many more questions than they answered. He did not elaborate on any specifics of his vision of a DCPS extending from the cradle to adulthood If someone did not know of Geoffery Canada's Harlem Children Zone was prior to this meeting, then he or she would not have any clue as to what Gray's plan even means for DC. Moreover, he prefaced this whole conversation with “We will work on these when we get into better times.” Considering the current state of the economy and the eventual budget cuts DCPS most likely faces, can Gray even guarantee that these broad plans will be enacted?

Another policy that lacked specificity pertained to charter schools. According to him, 30,000 students in DC attend these schools; some parents clearly prefer them. “We,” Gray stated, “Need to work to make sure that public schools are great, too.” Both systems should grow and develop, and parents should be able to choose type of school their children attend. Working with a program that serves in public schools, I agree wholeheartedly with Gray’s statement. Although I had hoped that he would offer concrete ways to promote the growth of public schools, I was glad that at least our mayor is aware of this public school need.

In regards to high school, Gray talked about the merits of developing career and technical components in every high school across the city, so “that kids who want to go to work after the twelve-grade have a set of marketable skills.” Once again, he did not offer a timeline for such plans, reiterating, “We will work on these when we get into better times.” I agree that college is not the life path for every student in the United States. Vocational training would be invaluable for those not planning on pursuing a higher level of education. However, I wished that Gray mentioned the need to foster a college-going culture within DCPS. Attending college is not so unattainable goal as many students might think. True, Gray did bring up the University the District of Columbia and the need to show pride for our state university. He did not, though, link the University to DCPS and its potential college students.

As Gray left the education question to pursue other areas of interest and answer audience questions, I still wanted more. True, the nature of this town hall was not to outline his exact plans for DC. At the time of the town hall, the mayoral election was still a week away. Clearly, he was going to stay away from anything too controversial less he bite the hand that feeds him.

Gray’s speech was a verbal victory lap of sorts. Ward 8 alone gave him 10,500 votes in his primary win. Combined with Ward 7’s 14,500 votes, he received nearly 34% of his votes from these two wards. Being with nearly a thousand community members all clamoring to have their questions answered and their voices heard made me realize the power of an engaged community. Now, that Vincent Gray can officially claim the title of DC’s mayor, I look forward to learning more about his ideas for DCPS. I want to know the specificities of his administration’s idea of education reform. DC Reads started before Rhee assumed the Chancellorship, and it will continue to survive in a Rhee-less DC. Hopefully, Gray’s plans can support our own mission and vision for DCPS.

If you want to learn more about the Ward 8 Town Hall Meeting, the entire event is available to watch here