by Michelle Odemwingie
Here in DC we have constant reminders of the hope and vision of many of the nation’s trailblazers, what it means to try to fulfill the promise of a more perfect union, and what it takes to pursue the ideals of equity. Each leader that we memorialize in the capital had to balance passion and patience, humility and assertiveness, being deliberate but daring, and also balancing the conditions of today with the promise of tomorrow.
We at ANet are also driven by a vision of a better, more equitable future. And, much like our country’s inspiring leaders, we don’t take on these challenges in isolation. It’s important for us to be deeply rooted in the life of our city. So although, like many in DC, we come from all over—Kentucky, Dallas, Alabama, Chicago, Tennessee, and Vermont—we strive to consistently anchor ourselves in what’s going on for parents, educators, and students here in the District of Columbia, and why.
I’ve had many moments of personal conviction about what it means to be a champion of equity, specifically for the students in this city. And I’ll admit that when I think of the inequities in DC I’m very quick to think about gentrification—how the cost of living has increased in our city, the demographics are constantly changing, and economic segregation is growing. I see a city whose race and class divide is often marked by two different sides of the river. On my side of the river, where the biggest black population is, there are no movie theaters, there are no sit-down restaurants, and it feels like there’s a liquor store for every ten people. I have a lot of concerns and passions that are rooted in that reality.
But Quality Schools: Every Child, Every School, Every Neighborhood, a report from IFF, illuminates that it’s not just about the changing demographics of the city. Within Wards 7 and 8, in Anacostia and Berry Farms and the neighborhoods in DC that have been plagued with drugs and violence and crime for so long, there are glaring inequities. I live in walking distance of a local elementary school and if I have children in this city, that’s where my kids will go to school. But the difference in standardized test scores between my struggling neighborhood school and another school less than 10 minutes away is nearly 70 percentage points.
That fact is gut-wrenching. That choice for parents in my community is disheartening. For students coming from the same households, the same families, the same backgrounds, it’s not just about this side of the river or that, this group of people, this race, this socioeconomic status. We’ve created glaring gaps and divides not just between, but within neighborhoods and communities. Most people agree that apportioning opportunity based on race or class is wrong. But allowing quality education to be dictated by a random lottery isn’t much better.
The areas in our city where the majority of our students will be born in the next couple of years are the exact same places where most of DC’s lowest-performing schools are concentrated. Our deep concern about this fact makes us feel urgent and passionate about our work. The work is hard; the path ahead isn’t always clear. But we’re rooted firmly in the “why”—the students we serve and ANet’s vision of opportunity for all.
Michelle is the chief of staff and a former coach at ANet.