Credit: Photo by Darrow Montgomery

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

In 2005, Suzanne Wells became president of the Parent-Teacher Association at the Capitol Hill Cluster School, where her son was a student. The unique three-institution campus—made up of Peabody Early Childhood Center, Watkins Elementary School and Stuart-Hobson Middle School—has long been considered among the best D.C. Public Schools has to offer. And Wells took office thinking there weren’t many substantial problems she would have to tackle. Still, she says, she wasn’t quite satisfied with the status quo.

Once upon a time, parents on Capitol Hill either accepted the occasional blemish or ponied up for private school. Not Wells. Two years before Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and his schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, arrived on the scene, Wells helped ignite an education revival that was led by parents, not politicians. The EPA scientist reached across race and class boundaries to launch the Capitol Hill Public School Parents Organization. The group renovated eight elementary school libraries, then pushed for significant academic improvements at several of those same schools—including the introduction of a language-immersion curriculum and expansion of a Montessori program.

“A lot of families come to Capitol Hill,” says Wells. “[They are] white and black families, and they are committed to living in the city and sending their kids to public schools.”(Photo by Darrow Montgomery)

Later, Wells and her allies developed their own plan to dramatically reshape nearby middle schools. With only a few modifications, that proposal was adopted by DCPS; it’s scheduled for implementation during the 2011–2012 school year. Earlier this year, the group helped beat back a D.C. Council redistricting proposal that, if approved, would have redrawn the political map in a way that moved two of its schools out of Ward 6. The activism also improved further-flung Ward 6 schools such as Maury Elementary School, at 12th and Constitution Avenue NE.

“Before Maury took off, it was good, but none of the neighborhood kids would go there,” says D.C. Councilmember Tommy Wells, who calls the group’s impact “profound.” “Now it’s highly sought after….The Cluster School isn’t necessarily the favorite school anymore.” Today, Suzanne Wells’ daughter goes to Tyler Elementary. By most accounts, it had been one of the worst schools on Capitol Hill. These days, it’s receiving praise.

“It has a citywide special-education program, Spanish immersion, and arts integration,” says Wells (no relation to Tommy). “[Tyler’s] got this great welcoming feel to it. It’s a wonderful place.”

Capitol Hill’s schools have improved for a lot of reasons, from an economy that’s made private school tuition tougher to pay to a systemwide revival that’s made out-of-boundary spots in traditionally stellar Upper Northwest schools even scarcer. But neighbors attribute a major chunk of the change to volunteers like Wells. Daniel Holt, former PTA president at Brent Elementary, says his school benefitted from “Suzanne’s pioneering spirit.” More middle-class families, he says, are enrolling their children in Capitol Hill schools, which are among the highest performing elementary schools east of Rock Creek Park. “Economic integration is the quickest way in our lifetimes to make schools better,” he says.

“A lot of families come to Capitol Hill,” says Suzanne Wells. “[They are] white and black families, and they are committed to living in the city and sending their kids to public schools.”

The proof is in the numbers: At Maury Elementary, student population increased from 263 in 2009–2010 to 289 in 2010–2011. During that same period, Tyler went from 300 students to 348, according to DCPS. Enrollment at nearly every elementary school in the ward has increased, too. DCPS is projecting a total population hike in Ward 6 of 727 students.

“We’re spending more this year in Ward 6 than in any other ward in the city,” says current DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson.

Here’s a blunt truth: Nowhere in Wards 5, 7, or 8 has there been activism like Wells’ that has made a difference in the public schools.

Some people might argue that’s because Wells is a gentrifier, tapping reservoirs of wealth to magically alleviate previously intractable problems. But that’s not the case. She’s actually lived in the District since 1983, and had been on the Hill for 20 years before taking on the Cluster School. She may share a skin color with a lot of D.C.’s gentrifiers, but her federal-government CV wouldn’t necessarily look so out of place in some of the tree-lined African American neighborhoods in Wards 5, Ward 7, and even Ward 8. Nor would her politics: She’s an avowed admirer of Diane Ravitch, perhaps the highest-profile critic of Rhee.

As someone who’s spent much of my career writing about black leadership in Washington, I know it’s frequently a critical element of many issues in the city. And in the case of schools, its absence is the thread connecting the various reasons why Wards 5, 7, and 8 haven’t seen transformations like the one in Ward 6.

This void has three major elements: Too many parents in those communities don’t want to speak out because of a cultural affection for teachers. Others are discouraged from demanding change because they’re afraid of being aligned with Fenty-era reforms. And still others have simply abandoned their neighborhood institutions and gotten their kids spots elsewhere.

In many black communities, schools are considered sacred institutions; reverence for teachers is similar to that for pastors. That relationship is rooted in an important reality for the black middle class. Before integration expanded their career opportunities, African Americans could rely on teaching as a prime pathway to success. Consequently, many have been reluctant to question administrators or alter the infrastructure of schools.

This history also helps explain why voters in middle-class black neighborhoods have aligned politically with unions that over the past few years have equated school reform with deliberate attacks on teachers. Likewise, many middle-class blacks are reluctant to lead local versions of a reform movement, fearing they might be accused of being Fenty–Rhee allies or fans of gentrification. Both translate into being for whites and against blacks. And being too pushy about wanting things like improved school libraries or International Baccalaureate programs, Ward 5 State Board of Education member and reform proponent Mark Jones says, fits into that same unpopular schema: “In certain wards, people don’t want to be seen aligned with reform.”

Residents’ refusal to get more involved in education means the prime burden and responsibility for improving the schools their children attend falls to the government. Case in point: Even advocates of more citizen involvement think the way to do that is to have the government lead people who ought to be leading themselves. Jones, for instance, says the reforms are “moving in the right direction,” but then immediately shifts responsibility for finding his neighborhood’s Suzanne Wells to DCPS itself. The school system “should be used as a catalyst to push parents to get involved who may not understand the value,” he says.

But this logic is backwards. The government really can’t do it all—nor should it. It needs parents­—more specifically, middle-class parents. In too many old D.C. neighborhoods, they abandoned neighborhood schools years ago. While their counterparts in Ward 6 may be returning to those local institutions, African Americans in Wards 5, 7, and 8 haven’t signaled that they’re ready to come home. Jones says Ward 5 parents are “walking away at a much earlier time.” In the past, their children would complete elementary school before escaping to another ward or a private school.

The physical exodus of D.C.’s black middle class has been well-noted. But the scores of people still residing in black D.C. neighborhoods—but sending their children to far-flung schools—represents a kind of spiritual exodus. In the case of education, it has deprived neighborhood schools of valuable human capital and vital resources critical to producing swift and dramatic improvements like those that have occurred on Capitol Hill over the past five years.

Just take a look at the leadership: Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. sends one child to private school and the others to charter school, according to a report by the Washington Examiner. Until this year, Raenelle Humbles Zapata, the president of the Ward 5 education council, sent her children to schools in Ward 3. Jones has one daughter in a charter school; the other is enrolled in one of the four prekindergarten-through-8th-grade schools in Ward 5. Council Chairman Kwame Brown, who lives east of the Anacostia River, doesn’t send his children to school there. He has them enrolled in Ward 3 schools—Alice Deal and Eaton Elementary. Although Brown has set for next month a public hearing examining the future of the city’s middle schools, it’s unlikely he’ll discuss the role choices like his are playing in their demise.

Middle-class blacks have always been at the forefront of school improvements. They took the risk during the desegregation movement; they enrolled in often-hostile schools, working on behalf of not just their individual children but also the entire community. These times call for a similar commitment.

Developing a community-driven education-transformation model isn’t rocket science, says Wells. It’s a three-stage process involving increasingly more complicated projects. But it isn’t government-centered, and it can’t be achieved or sustained without parents. That’s the way she designed it in Ward 6.

Wells’ first step was calling Darlene Allen, then-president of the citywide PTA. She needed her help in contacting PTA leaders at other schools. Ultimately, Wells set up a series of meetings. Representatives from Brent, Gibbs, Ludlow-Taylor, Payne, Prospect, and Tyler Elementary Schools attended that first gathering in 2005. Community-conscious residents who didn’t have children in any local school, such as George Blackmon, also came.

“I felt a little concerned in the beginning about how I might be received,” Wells continues. By the third meeting, everyone realized they had shared concerns; libraries topped the list.

If city libraries were abysmal, those in public schools were horrific. They were frequently in cramped, ratty quarters and filled with outdated books. “It was criminal that the city let the school libraries look like that,” says Wells. She and her group pledged to change that.

Pamella Shaw, who was trying to restart the PTA at Ludlow-Taylor, brought information about a similar effort in New York City. Tessa Muehlleher, a resident who was attempting to persuade neighborhood families to choose Brent Elementary, discovered that the Washington Architectural Foundation matched organizations with pro bono building-design services.

“We turned in our application in July 2005. Within one week, they got back to us and said yes they would help,” says Wells.

The parents group held its meetings at the Capitol Hill Foundation office. The nonprofit organization, operated by volunteers, wanted to adopt the library project. “Neighbors hosted dinners, picking a book as a theme and providing a meal that reflected that theme. There was someone at each party to explain the library project,” says Tommy Wells.

The brick-and-mortar aspect of the project needed someone comfortable in that material world. Through a foundation connection, the Capitol Hill parents met Thomas Regan of Regan Associates, who volunteered to serve as general contractor, managing as many as eight architects. Despite that significant in-kind contribution, the organization still needed cash. Wells bugged Cathy Townsend Pine, a friend who used to be a professional fundraiser; she pitched in. Over just two summers, Wells and the parents group raised $2.4 million, including $500,000 from DCPS. They renovated libraries in all eight Capitol Hill elementary schools.

“That was a turning point in my life,” says Wells. “It was a very empowering project.”

It’s not just a tragedy that predominantly African American Wards 5, 7, and 8 have so few people like Wells. It’s also a disgrace.

“That’s one of the biggest issues we have,” says Jones. “We have got to get parents involved.”

Zapata says much of the problem is that many parents in her community don’t even realize their schools lack the basics. “We have been trying to educate parents and educate the community,” she says. “We have so many young parents. They don’t even understand these issues. They don’t understand what Deal and Hardy Schools are like. They don’t know what an IB program is.”

Few of these parents attend PTA and other education-related meetings, making it nearly impossible for them to fully understand what’s happening in their children’s schools. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle: With more middle-class parents sending their kids elsewhere, the parents who still have kids in the local schools are more likely to be the ones least able to make time for such meetings. “I’ve been to some PTA meetings,” says Jones. “Sometimes there may be less than 10 parents in attendance.”

But the real culprit is the flight-not-fight mentality prevalent in the black middle class. Experts have long complained that such departures lead to starving neighborhood schools of the brightest students. Earlier this month, the Washington Post reported that test scores of children in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, like Wards 7 and 8, trail those of their counterparts in Ward 3. It didn’t mention, however, that many of those Ward 3 students are, in fact, upper- or middle-class African Americans from outside that Upper Northwest community.

DCPS was unable to provide statistics on their numbers, but a glance at some of the city’s better regarded schools tells the story. The student population in Ward 2’s Hardy Middle School continues to be predominantly black, as it is at Ward 3’s Wilson High School. Yet both of the schools’ surrounding neighborhoods are mostly white.

“You look for what’s best for your children,” says Ward 7 resident Clayton Witt, whose children travel to Capitol Hill to attend the Cluster School. “It was a hard decision. I went to where the [test] scores would accommodate my child….If your child is proficient or advanced, he needs to be with kids who also are proficient or advanced.” Witt says that 27 percent of students at the Cluster School are from Ward 7, and another 23 percent are from Ward 8.

“You only have a finite amount of time,” says Zapata, explaining her decision to send her children to school outside Ward 5. Fair enough. But someone has to make an unwavering commitment to neighborhood schools. Witt says he and his wife want to start an organization like Wells’ in Ward 7. Yet making the Capitol Hill–esque transformation in their communities will be much more difficult if their energies and focus are divided between the school their children attend and the schools in the wards where they live.

Instead, the obligation is simply passed on to the government. During Henderson’s council-confirmation hearings earlier this summer, residents from Ward 5 demanded assistance from the school system to organize parents to do what Wells did.

In Ward 6, parents didn’t rely on the government. They knew their needs and created their own plan for satisfying them. Later, after they were organized, they approached DCPS.

Look at the formula from 2009. DCPS’ decision to close a neighborhood middle school suddenly had locals anxious about the system’s ability to educate older kids, says Wells. They took a survey and began drafting a statement of needs. One Tuesday night during Snowmageddon, they hammered out the final details. They presented their plan for Capitol Hill middle schools to Rhee in March 2010.

“I was very impressed,” says Rhee, who now heads the national nonprofit StudentsFirst. “The other thing that superimpressed me: They didn’t say, ‘It’s our way or the highway.’”

Less than six months after receiving the Ward 6 parents’ blueprint, DCPS formally accepted the middle school plan. It includes, among other things, the creation of a sixth-grade academy at Thomas Jefferson Middle School and an International Baccalaureate program at Eliot-Hine. “The community itself provided so much capacity,” says Rhee. “To have it happen without a lot from DCPS created a better dynamic.”

“If we hadn’t done [the plan], I don’t think DCPS would have decided to have an IB program at Eliot-Hine,” says Wells. “It’s created a lot of energy and excitement.”

So far, Wells says, she’s measuring progress by the expanded “educational opportunities available within DCPS, such as Montessori, language immersion, the quality of teachers and principles, and the number of families choosing to invest in their neighborhood public schools,” rather than test scores. And yes, the improved options came on the back of a local economy that saw housing values shoot up and scores of well-off, well-educated parents move to the neighborhood. But those newcomers improved the schools for more children than just their own. “These people in Ward 6 sat down at a table because this was about their kids,” says Henderson. “They went to meetings and started to realize we have some of the same hopes and dreams. There are huge collateral benefits when that happens.”

“We hope we can get them talking to Ward 5 people,” Henderson adds. I hope so, too. But I have my doubts.

It’s no secret that the down economy has hit D.C. hardest in Wards 5, 7, and 8. But there’s the possibility that the recession will bring at least one positive, if unintended, consequence: With fewer people able to pay the freight for private school, more parents will be forced to keep their kids in their neighborhood schools. And as recession-affected parents stick with local public schools and charters, they’ll further reduce the number of out-of-boundary slots available. (The city is also about to undertake a major new study seeking to link school capacity with neighborhood needs.)

“There is a burgeoning group of parents who look like Ward 6 and are starting reinvest in neighborhood schools,” says Henderson. “Economics have driven middle-class black people to figure out other options and they are looking out across the feeder pattern.”

“Ward 5 has to reorient itself,” says Councilmember Wells. “If it can think more entrepreneurial, more innovative, it has the greatest opportunity to replicate what happened in Ward 6.”

But if more established parents like Zapata and Jones can’t galvanize and organize, without DCPS’ assistance, there may be others who can. Young black professionals are arriving to communities east of the Anacostia River and even Brookland in Ward 5, where housing prices are still fairly affordable. “I got an email out of the blue from a woman who lives in Ward 5,” says Suzanne Wells. “She doesn’t even have children, but she’s getting started early.”

Maybe the hope for predominantly African American neighborhood schools is with the outliers. Bring them on.