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Evening rush hour has turned the streets of Columbia Heights into a tangle of flashing red and orange lights at dusk. On 16th Street NW, drivers navigate parked cars and left turns to head out of the city, or uptown to the Gold Coast and 16th Street Heights. Across the city, families are preparing meals, turning on the TV news, sitting down to open the mail after a long day. Downtown, young professionals are ordering their first rounds at bars and after-hours networking events.

But while the city relaxes into night, day is just beginning at the Sacred Heart Adult Learning Center on nearby Park Road. At 7 p.m. on this April Tuesday, Jason Claiborne slides his lanky, 6-foot-2 frame into a seat in the back of a first-floor classroom at Sacred Heart. Claiborne is 20 years old, with soft, handsome features and braided cornrows that he protects during his daytime job as a steam-fitter by wearing a black nylon skullcap. A 40-year-old Ethiopian immigrant woman takes a seat next to him, and he flashes a slightly flirtatious smile at her, one of many he easily doles out to those around him.

They start chatting, and she tells him that when she was younger, she wanted to be an air hostess.

“Air hostess?” Claiborne replies. “I never heard of that before. You mean, like, an air mechanic?”

It is the first of many questions Claiborne will ask tonight.

Claiborne is always asking questions, trying to understand the world around him, to learn things that most everyone else just seems to know. He dropped out of his Largo, Md., high school after failing the 10th grade. He wasn’t a dope fiend, he says, but he did spend enough time high at school that it interfered with his learning. His biggest problem is his limited vocabulary, and though he has taken the General Education Diploma (GED) test four times, he has not yet been able to pass all five of its sections. He passed the math and social studies sections in 1998, but the writing, literature, and science tests have been giving him trouble.

“No, you walk on the floors on the plane,” replies the Ethiopian woman to Claiborne’s question. “A stewardess.”

Claiborne accepts this explanation calmly and without embarrassment, as he does most of the answers he receives. Accepting the tribulations of this world and being at peace have become very important to him in the last few years, since he became a born-again Christian, while incarcerated in the Prince George’s County jail on crack possession and distribution convictions. He lives in Northeast’s Woodridge neighborhood, with his mother, two uncles, and his grandfather, in a community of detached, single-family homes with neat lawns and roses round the doors. “It looks nice from the outside,” says Claiborne of his neighborhood, “but inside it’s a whole different story.” This is the neighborhood where he first got mixed up with crack. Inside, his house is dark and dusty, with rotting linoleum in the kitchen and banged-up secondhand furniture.

Claiborne’s parents separated when he was 3 years old, and he lived with his mother in the four-bedroom house, owned by his grandfather, until he was 13, when a custody agreement sent him to live with his father in Forestville, Md. His father was also a bus driver, for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority; his mother had been a regular rider on one of his father’s routes. That’s how they met.

Kris Bengston, a Sacred Heart English teacher who by day works as an executive assistant at foreign-policy consulting firm Kissinger McCarty, asks Claiborne and the class to take a practice English test. There is much murmuring among the largely immigrant group of adult learners as they attempt to understand the instructions. “Why is it highlighted in some parts?” asks a 30-something Salvadoran student of some underlined passages that Bengston has written out on the blackboard. “Is that to trick us out?” The passages are those that contain errors and need to be changed, explains Bengston, patiently.

One of those sentences reads: “Congress established the first U.S. mint it was located in Philadelphia.” Claiborne easily gets that this run-on sentence should be written as two: “Congress established the first U.S. mint. It was located in Philadelphia.” Bengston corrects the passage on the board.

But Claiborne’s a bit unsure about something else. “I got a question,” he raises his hand and calls out to Bengston. “What’s a mint?”

Washington, D.C., is an educational paradox. We have one of the highest percentages of college graduates in the nation—42 percent of residents, compared with a national average of 25 percent—yet the average Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and Stanford 9 scores of our public-high-school students indicate that they are barely literate. The average SAT scores at Cardozo High School, for example, are 328 for verbal and 362 for math. That’s including the first 200 points of each score SAT-takers get just for signing their names. At several high schools, more than 80 percent of students test at the Below Basic level on Stanford 9 math and reading tests, indicating that they have little or no mastery of fundamental skills.

The paradox can be partially explained by the fact that we are a city of transients interacting with a city of longtime residents. Many highly educated people come to the nation’s capital for government- or policy-related jobs and then leave without ever making a firm commitment to the civic life of the municipality—or the welfare of its educational institutions. Fewer than half the people who live in D.C. were born here.

But for those who do spend their student years in the District, performance measures provide only a partial assessment of the sorry state of high school education. Many students enter the school system but never take Stanford 9 tests in their upper years, let alone the SAT, because Washington has one of the highest public high school dropout rates in the nation.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the high school graduation rate from the D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) system was only 57 percent in the 1997-1998 school year. That means that of students entering seventh through ninth grades, nearly half will not have graduated from high school by the time they should have.

Some may have transferred to private academies or—like Claiborne—left the city. But given the widespread poverty experienced by DCPS parents, experts believe that those numbers are likely to be small. Others take more than four years to graduate. These held-back students, however, are at high risk of dropping out instead of graduating from a five- to eight-year course of high school study. Being held back—especially in the ninth grade—is one of the surest predictors education researchers have found that a student is likely to drop out.

The facts at neighboring school systems only reinforce just how abysmally low the graduation rate is in D.C. The Montgomery County Public Schools system had the highest graduation rate of all the major school districts in the country: 91 percent. Fairfax County graduated 90 percent of its kids on schedule, and Prince George’s County graduated a respectable 80 percent, making it No. 6 in rankings of the 100 largest school systems nationwide in the 1997-1998 school year. D.C. was No. 67 on the same list.

Of all the failures of the D.C. school system, this may be the most profound—disgorging, each year, hundreds of ill-equipped, undereducated citizens into an economy that will not absorb them and a society that will not respect them.

The very low high school graduation rate—which has improved somewhat since the mid-’90s, when it was under 50 percent—has a tremendous impact on the life of the District. It affects the need for city services—and the competence of city workers. It limits the ability of private businesses to find trainable employees, such as literate secretaries or mathematically proficient cashiers. It cripples the ability of young mothers and fathers to find jobs that pay a decent wage.

A substantial minority of young people in D.C. enter the labor force—and the rest of their lives—without so much as a single significant educational credential. Their youthful years of social dislocation, poverty, and educational failure will continue to affect their lives and senses of self in lasting ways—

crushing, for many, their belief in that still-extraordinary American dream of upward mobility, of being able to transcend the unchosen circumstances of their origins.

Only a determined few manage to return to school, earn a GED, and find a path out of the fog bank of ignorance in which the school system has stranded them.

Yet this issue is not on the city’s radar screen in any meaningful way. Neither DCPS Superintendent Paul Vance nor his predecessor, Arlene Ackerman, mentioned the unacceptable dropout rate in presentations to Congress on the state of D.C. public schools in the past three years. Mayor Anthony A. Williams has not mentioned it in either of his State of the District addresses—nor yet given a single speech that took this massive problem as its sole focus. Media reports on DCPS problems in recent years have covered the system’s failure to open schools on time, to protect children from asbestos, and to provide books and adequate classroom space. Students have been subjected to violence—sometimes fomented by teachers—and even strip-searched on field trips to the D.C. jail.

But the most fundamental failure has to be the failure of the high schools to graduate a substantial proportion of students during a reasonable period of time. In the 1999-2000 school year, DCPS enrolled 4,627 freshmen, but only 2,811 seniors. And of those, only 2,500 graduated—including those who took summer-school classes and didn’t get diplomas until August.

“It’s an absolutely huge problem,” says school board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz. “The superintendent and the board intend to give high schools here a major looking-at next year.”

Certainly, DCPS faces some significant challenges in educating D.C. kids. Urban schools around the country have higher dropout rates than suburban ones, and Hispanic students, statistics show, have much higher dropout rates than blacks and non-Hispanic whites. Children from lower-income families have higher dropout rates than more middle-class students. Nearly all DCPS students are black (86 percent) or Hispanic (8 percent), and lower-income (more than half are eligible for free or reduced-cost school lunches).

When teens come to school with tremendous family, language, and economic problems, a high dropout rate can seem foreordained. But the District has one thing going for it that many other cities don’t: It’s not that big. The problem should not feel as overwhelming here as it often does elsewhere.

New York City, which has a 50 percent graduation rate, struggles to teach an 84 percent minority student body at 213 public high schools. Los Angeles, with virtually the same dropout rate as D.C., has nine times as many students—many more of whom speak English as a second language, or not at all.

The District, meanwhile, has just 14 regular public high schools, which draw students exclusively from circumscribed geographic areas within the city.

The other DCPS high schools are either magnet schools drawing students from across the city—such as Woodrow Wilson, Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and the School Without Walls—or last-chance institutions—such as the Luke C. Moore Academy, Ballou School to Aid Youth (STAY), and Spingarn STAY, for students who have either aged out, been kicked out, or previously dropped out of the 14 neighborhood schools.

Additionally, 14 high-school-level public charter schools have sprung into existence over the past four-and-a-half years. All are also open to students from across the city, and many specifically target students who have dropped out of the neighborhood schools. The Next Step Public Charter School, for example, caters to girls who are pregnant or have children, and the Associates for Renewal in Education Inc. Public Charter School works with students who have disciplinary problems or involvement with the criminal justice system.

But the charter schools enroll only 12 percent of students in the D.C. public system. And while alternative learning centers may be a blessing for the handful of students who enroll in them, the majority of D.C. high school students continue to attend—and drop out of—the 14 neighborhood high schools.

Once they’ve left high school, it is very difficult for students to stage a comeback. And yet they try. Sacred Heart is only one of more than 50 centers for adult learning that open their doors to student each week across the city. Tucked into churches and community centers, behind doors marked with elliptical names, these academies constitute a second, shadow school system determined to succeed in creating educated, literate citizens where the public schools have failed. They enroll thousands of students per year—but manage to credential very few. In 1999, 417 GEDs were issued in the District.

The ultimate goal of most students at these programs is to earn a GED. The American Council on Education, which writes the exam, scales it so that only two-thirds of graduating high school seniors nationwide would pass, were they to take the test. Nationally, 70 percent of takers passed in 1999.

In the District, a paltry 34 percent of GED test-takers passed.

That startling statistic means that the District’s GED-taking high school dropouts—a distinctly ambitious and hard-working subset—are even less prepared to take the test than the average high school dropout nationwide. They have fewer skills and less basic knowledge of both academic subjects and the world at large.

“I think that a lot of people may perceive it as an easy test and may self-study on their own, and then they don’t pass,” says Bob Wittig, director of the Academy of Hope adult-education center in Columbia Heights. The pass rate, he says, is an indicator of the quality of the educational system students drop out of. “Vermont has a very high pass rate, and a very good [educational] system,” he explains.

Wittig’s group teaches adult basic education and GED courses to about 300 students a year. Of these, he says, about 30 are ready to take the test each year, and about 20 of them pass. “The rest are…a year away from taking the test,” he notes. “It’s really hard to cram seven or eight years of learning into six months.”

After the grammar quiz at Sacred Heart, Bengston moves on to a spelling test. He writes “alright” on the board. Is it spelled correctly? How should it be spelled? “A-L-L R-I-G-H-T,” he’s told by one of his students. Exactly!

Claiborne is baffled by this. Not the double-L part, though. It’s the “right” part that’s getting to him. “I thought that was ‘right,’ like right and left,” he says. “I thought ‘all right’ was, like, R-I-T-E.”

Bengston tries not to betray his surprise at this question, and after some back-and-forth about how there is only one word for “right,” regardless of meaning, he finally—but gently—tells an insistent Claiborne, “That’s not a real word.”

“Oh,” says Claiborne, still defending his position. “I ain’t think you spelled it like that.”

Claiborne calls out his comments as they go over the quiz. On the word “conscientious”: “That’s wrong somehow. I don’t know how to spell it, but that ain’t it.”

On being given the word “shriek” to spell: “Can I get a definition, please?” (He spells it “S-H-R-E-E-K.”)

On how “affect” differs from “effect”: “Is ‘effect’ a different tense?”

On the difference between the homonyms “soul” and “sole”: “Sol’ out!…Can you say, ‘sol’ somethin’?”

“You can’t say that.”

“Oh. OK.”

Coming up with the spelling of words you’ve never seen in print is difficult, especially if the sounds are foreign. Linguists use the term “reanalysis” to describe the process by which people incorrectly catch sounds out of the air, misplacing the sound breaks in words. We’ve all had the experience of listening to a song over and over, only to be shocked when we finally see the lyrics in print that we’ve been singing along to the wrong words—words that we have reanalyzed.

Claiborne has absorbed his language out of the air, but he’s struggling to move from his largely oral world to a heavily standardized written one. One of the challenges he faces is that his experience has been so limited, so poor in printed matter. For him, moving into a written world—and absorbing standard written English—is not just about learning grammar and spelling. It’s about confronting new words and ideas, even wholly different ways of life.

In April, Claiborne turned in a practice essay to Bengston on the subject of credit cards. It was fairly well-written, as far as grammar and spelling went. The problem was that he didn’t know much about the topic:

First of all, I don’t really know too much about credit cards because I never had one. I do know some things because I know people have them and I’ve talked with them about it. From what I know credit cards can have a positive effect on your credit, like if you were trying to buy a house or a car. Somehow, by making your payments every month on time gives you good credit.

Some of the negative effects to a credit card is if you don’t make these payments it can make things very hard for you by having something called bad credit. Bad credit can make it hard to by to that house or car you really wanted. Thats why I personally don’t want to be bothered with them. I would rather spend my money as I get paid weeky. I do have a bank account….I have a checking account, and that’s how I handle my money.

To pass the GED and fix his life—Claiborne’s broader goal—he knows he has to reintegrate himself not just into the educational system, but into a variety of supportive social institutions and belief systems from which he once withdrew. One of these is religion.

“I got saved when I was still in county jail,” Claiborne explains. “I didn’t understand it. But I knew I had to study up on what I had just done. I did a lot of studying. The more I studied, the more I learned, the more I wanted to learn.” From reading the Bible and Mary K. Baxter’s The Divine Revelation of Hell and The Divine Revelation of Heaven, he moved on to secular books and interests: “I had never really done that much reading before in my whole life that I did in jail.”

Now, Claiborne goes to the same church his grandmother used to attend. And he’s been trying hard not to join in when the men on his work site start gossiping, because gossiping is a sin. He especially won’t engage in banter about what used to be one of his favorite distractions—girls. He doesn’t want to be “lustful.”

Most policymakers and politicians fret about low test scores and what they bode for America’s international economic competitiveness. They speak less about how ignorance drains and frustrates the human spirit.

Federal definitions of dropping out minimize the impact of disruptions in schooling on the lives of young people by not counting as dropouts those who return to school or earn a GED. By thus defining dropouts more narrowly, education officials can more easily claim to have stabilized or improved the high school graduation rate.

Sure enough, dropout rates have been going down since the ’70s, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. Today, nearly 85 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 have earned a high school diploma, one way or another.

But something strange has happened over the last decade: The proportion of high school students who actually finish and graduate from high school in the standard manner has been going down, while the proportion who earn their diplomas through alternative means has been increasing. In 1999, 12 percent of those between 18 and 24 who had completed high school had done so by alternative means, such as the GED, compared with just 5 percent a decade earlier.

Remove these alternative students from the figures and the effective high school graduation rate for whites is just 80 percent, for blacks

71 percent, and for Hispanics a shockingly low 51 percent.

This week, Adalberto Umanzor, an American-born son of Salvadoran immigrants, will join that bare majority and earn his high school diploma. Though he dropped out of high school at age 16, he is now poised to graduate at 20. To understand how he joined this year’s graduating class, it’s necessary to look not only at the resources available to him but at the damage done to him by his years as a wayward dropout. His years out of school set up a fresh series of obstacles to ever getting a high school diploma, making his achievement all the more remarkable.

Dropping out is a social, as well as educational, phenomenon. So is coming back.

If you stand with your back to the front door of Bell Multicultural High School on Hiatt Street NW and look up, you cannot avoid the physical markers of faith. To the north, the back of the Sagrado Corazon cathedral on 16th Street appears as a Hopperesque epiphany of planes and curves, a brick cross built into the swoop of its sanctuary. To the south, the spire of the National Baptist Memorial Church draws the eye heavenward.

But if you stand at the front door and look into the school, you’ll see a chipped and broken series of steps leading to the second floor and a banner advertising upcoming Stanford 9 tests. Turn around again—this time, you’ll see a raggedly sprouting tree stump, a dented chicken-wire fence, and two police cruisers parked in the back lot of Abraham Lincoln Multicultural Middle School across the street. Two abandoned tires lie on the grass a little way down the street, across from a graffiti-covered abandoned auto-body shop.

For a long time, Umanzor looked only down. He attended Lincoln in his early teens and then dropped out of Bell Multicultural in his first semester of ninth grade. Though he was born in the District, at D.C. General Hospital, his mother sent him back to El Salvador as a toddler, to stay with grandparents in the rural hamlet of La Union, after his father ran off with another woman. (The story told in the family is that his father also stole the couple’s life savings, hidden in the apartment. Illegal immigrants at the time, they were afraid of banks.)

Umanzor was 7 by the time his mother, who works in housekeeping at a DoubleTree Hotel downtown and has four other children, sent for him. He arrived in D.C. knowing no English. His younger brother, who had grown up in the District, tried to help teach him the language—which helped him start first grade at age 8. But it didn’t help enough; he was held back in third grade.

For Umanzor, life in poverty has meant traveling among decrepit worlds. It’s meant waking up to ugly plaster walls, murky lighting, and an overstuffed red velveteen living-room set but no coffee or side tables. It’s meant well-worn carpet in a color his mother did not choose and curtains hung between his room and hers, instead of walls. It’s meant going from the untrimmed hedges and ragged unmown grass outside his home in Petworth to broken steps, untrimmed trees, and rusting fences outside Bell Multicultural. From home to school, his environment didn’t improve.

Yet within the last year, Umanzor has become obsessed with self-improvement. On June 12, he will graduate from the Luke C. Moore Academy—otherwise known as the D.C. Street Academy—near the top of his class. In the fall, he will start as a freshman at St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh, N.C., a historically black college that is Luke Moore Principal Reginald D. Elliott’s alma mater.

Umanzor’s street education began in the sixth grade when he got involved with the local Latino gang scene. He was small, his crooked teeth as yet uncorrected by braces. “I don’t know if I’m that attractive now, but back then I was really ugly,” he explains. Starting a crew with his best friend, Luis, a Nicaraguan immigrant, was one way to gain popularity at Ross Elementary School at 17th and R Streets NW. Though the group, as he describes it, sounds more like a clique with colors than a real menace, by the time middle school started, Umanzor had graduated to hanging with the more criminal members of an older gang—and the fights and turf battles had grown into something genuinely threatening.

When he started seventh grade, at Francis Junior High School at 24th and N Streets NW, Umanzor found that it was a stronghold for a rival gang. “I didn’t know I had a rival gang, but I did,” he says. In eighth grade, he transferred to Lincoln Multicultural in Columbia Heights to escape his enemies and be with the brethren in his own gang—and Luis. His mother tried to get him to tone it down; she wouldn’t let him wear L.A.-style baggy clothes and the brown bandannas around the house. He ignored her, putting on his colors as soon as he left home.

“When I started hanging out with [the gang], I started using a lot of drugs, a lot of alcohol. School just wasn’t that fun anymore,” recalls Umanzor. “In sixth grade, I was 13. That was when I first tried cocaine, cigarettes. I started drinking. I used to skip school, go to the zoo, smoke cigarettes….I was learning so much, but it was all bad stuff. But I thought it was cool.”

In ninth grade, Luis moved to Virginia. “I just lost interest in coming to school after he left,” says Umanzor. “I was left in Bell by myself.” He says he took on the leadership role in the gang. He’d go get high at lunchtime, or maybe get drunk. He started sleeping later and later, coming into school after 11, then spending the afternoon chilling out at skipping parties on Park Road. His mother, who, he says, used to yell at him all the time to shape up, just stopped telling him what to do. By the middle of ninth grade, he’d left school.

He tried entering the Job Corps, but he got kicked out for fighting. He moved into the basement in his family’s home, got a job as a maintenance worker, and started paying his mother $400 in rent a month. And having parties: raucous, all-night drink-fests. He didn’t care who came. As long as there was drink. Heinekens. 405s. Coronas. Olde English. 211. Cases. Anything.

When he was 17, he hit bottom. “A lot of small things got to me,” he says. He would get drunk with strangers in parking lots, then kick himself for following liquor “like a dog.”

He went back to Bell and finished ninth grade. Then a friend told him about Luke Moore; he transferred there two years ago. Principal Elliott took an interest in him, inviting him to come to the 19th Street Baptist Church with him. Elliott kept on Umanzor, day after day, to pray and study. Umanzor started going to church. Elliott pushed him to study harder, to think about college. Over time, this had an impact, although he still struggled with his drinking.

When you are young and do not yet know the boundaries of what you can live with, it’s as easy as flicking a Bic to slide way past the limits of your own conscience and violate not just others, but your very sense of self. Umanzor knows this about his own history, and it gnaws at him.

It wasn’t just the services part of a church community that Umanzor needed, he now realizes. It was the God part. He needed salvation—from the Latin salvatio, to be delivered from a dire situation. He needed some way of grappling with his own guilt at what he’d done and seen others do as a member of a gang—someone who would forgive him and wipe the slate clean, allowing him to begin anew.

Umanzor brought his desire for redemption to his activities at Luke Moore. He was elected senior class president, after giving a campaign speech titled “Prove Them Wrong!”:

Prove them wrong. All of them. Prove wrong all those that said you will never pass this class or never graduate or “People like you make people like me look bad.” Prove that judge wrong, the same judge that gave you that same look when he gave your boys 30 years downstate. Prove that prosecutor wrong, that prosecutor that vowed to take you down just like he took the rest of your boys down. We need to prove them all wrong. That’s what Luke C. Moore is all about, [and] that’s what I’m all about, proving wrong all those who don’t believe that I and other people like me can change.

Despite Elliott’s success with Umanzor, attending Luke Moore is no panacea for most students. As might be expected at a school of last resort, Luke Moore has one of the highest nonpromotion rates—which measure dropouts and held-back students—in the city. More than 53 percent of students are not promoted from year to year, compared with rates of 5 percent to 30 percent at the 14 neighborhood high schools. If Luke Moore worked for Umanzor, it was because he also had extracurricular assistance.

Umanzor is in recovery. This, too, is essential to his ability to turn around his life. The Montgomery County courts, under which he is on probation for a 1998 fight at Silver Spring’s City Place mall, sent him to Alcoholics Anonymous when he was 18. There, he learned the language of hitting bottom. In church, he learned the language of salvation. And in school, he has mastered the self-promotional language of the meritocracy, writing narratives that move from accomplishment to accomplishment, delicately avoiding mention of the troubles of his past.

“Unlike many children, as a child I loved going to school,” Umanzor wrote, somewhat improbably, in his application for a scholarship from the Frederic B. Abramson Memorial Foundation. “There, I was introduced to social skills and made keenly aware of how others really lived.” He has compiled a list of community-service and volunteer activities, including “countless hours of active work and support in the effort to create amends between two long-time rival gangs in North West DC,” as a member of anti-gang activist Luis Cardona’s now-defunct youth-support group, Barrios Unidos.

Though Umanzor doesn’t use the word “depressed” to describe himself, it’s clear from his own self-descriptions that he has suffered from what many would call depression. For him, though, it seemed like less a personal condition than the normal emotional condition of the inner city—an overwhelming combination of despair, hopelessness, and nihilism. “I tried to take my life a few times,” he tells me one day. He never thought of the future, he says, because he never expected to grow up. “I never thought I’d make it to 18,” he admits another day, recalling the fatalism that was so much a part of his life.

We’re sitting at a picnic table outside Luke Moore, eating the day’s boxed lunch of soggy french fries and bland microwaved pizza. The school has no cafeteria; lunches are delivered daily to a hallway by DCPS. Umanzor wears a neatly pressed blue shirt and elegant mustard-and-green tie; his hair is brushed up and slicked back with gel. He is one of only two students at the school who wear ties regularly. He is also one of five Hispanic students among the otherwise entirely African-American student body.

It’s hard to believe sometimes that Umanzor has been sober only since last November—about seven months. After school, he works as a staff assistant at State Farm Insurance Co., assisting Spanish-speaking customers. The office is located on Vermont Avenue, right off K Street NW, in the central downtown business district. The lobby is lined with pink marble. It is the neatest, most orderly environment Umanzor enters all day.

Says Cardona of youth-gang members like Umanzor: “You’re talking about a 50-50 chance that this young person is not going to make it. They’ll either wind up incarcerated or dead. There are not many who end up like Adalberto. It takes a serious commitment.”

Ward 4 D.C. Councilmember Adrian Fenty calls the D.C. Council budget oversight meeting on DCPS to order. Though Education Committee Chair Kevin Chavous and At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson will arrive later, at the start of the hearing, Fenty is the only legislator on hand. He knows that some high school students are scheduled to speak, and he calls them up first so that they can get home early to study. Umanzor is slated to be among the speakers for YOUTHink, a national youth-outreach initiative of the Education Trust, a group that advocates for more pre-college courses in high school curricula. But by the time Umanzor will arrive at the hearing from work, the kids’ section of the testimony will already be over.

The other YOUTHink teens read haltingly—and with evident difficulty—from prepared testimony urging a more rigorous school curriculum. “At Spingarn High School, for example, where 77 percent of students currently perform Below Basic on the Stanford 9, there are three times as many students enrolled in Office Reprographics as in pre-calculus and calculus combined,” says one. “For those of you who aren’t familiar with Office Reprographics, please allow us to read the course description from the district’s master course offering material:

Office Reprographics: Teaches various methods of duplication. Students make copies of any finished product, describing the best form of duplication for the number of copies needed. Trains students to use machines commonly found in business offices. Since the need for duplicating and copying equipment has increased over the years, every secretary should be familiar with different kinds of machines and processes for making copies.”

Umanzor himself is taking a course called Office Assistant, which basically consists of performing secretarial duties for Elliott or studying for his other classes. Under the program, students get assigned as office assistants to individual teachers; the school gets help with its mundane administrative duties, and—so the theory goes—the students get to develop a close, mentoring relationship with adults.

According to Spingarn STAY Principal Earline Whittaker, many of her 265 night-school students take vocational courses, as well. These courses include Computer Tech 1 and 2, which teach basic keyboarding, word processing, use of a computer mouse, basic spreadsheets, telephone skills, and dressing for the workplace. Childcare Assistant classes can lead into the early-child-care program at the University of the District of Columbia and jobs at day-care centers. Topics covered are “basic parenting concepts, working in a child-care facility, things like that,” says Whittaker. Students in the sewing and crafts class make aprons and tote bags.

“The pride with which they make them is just awesome,” enthuses Whittaker.

Most of Whittaker’s students learning these skills are over the age of 18 and previously dropped out in the second half of 11th grade. “A lot of the girls get pregnant in 11th grade,” Whittaker explains. But welfare reform and the desire to make a better life for their babies encourage such girls to come back to school. Around three-fifths of the students at Spingarn STAY are women. As for the men, says Whittaker: “A lot of men are incarcerated. I’ve found that it’s very difficult for a male to sustain himself once he has dropped out of school without somehow being connected to negative activity—and you and I both know that negative activity is connected to incarceration.”

Umanzor did not escape the curse of the male high school dropout. Both he and Claiborne were arrested, convicted, and jailed within two years of dropping out. Umanzor served a month and a half in juvenile detention after a gang fight; Claiborne served 17 months of a three-year sentence in adult prison. Both are still on probation.

George Gaudette, the principal of the city’s only other DCPS-run night school, Ballou STAY, estimates that around half of his 390 students have had some sort of involvement with the court system. “It’s a huge number,” he says. “It’s juvenile stuff, most of it—drugs and fighting.”

Though neither Gaudette nor Whittaker mentions it, some students at Luke Moore suggest that there is a connection between not-particularly-taxing classes and dropping out. Solomon Lock, a 19-year-old 11th-grader at Luke Moore, was kicked out of Spingarn for getting “straight flags up and down,” or failing every class. He describes himself as the class clown at Spingarn, a person who’d roam the halls, bopping into this class and that, chatting up the girls, making jokes. “I was high on that,” he says. “Sometimes you weren’t even in school—I was just doing school hours.” As if it were jail time.

Elizabeth Everhart, 16, went to school with Lock at Spingarn and is now at Luke Moore with him and her twin, Alisha. “I be funning all day,” says Everhart of her own unimpressive school career. “You realize all the time you wasted.”

At schools with more rigorous classes, fewer students, and better classroom discipline, it is hard to imagine a student being allowed to float from class to class, striking up conversations in the back, picking up girls. But if classwork is not a very serious matter—and in Office Reprographics, it’s hard to imagine that it is—there’s plenty of time for chitchat and “funning.”

The uneven curriculum leaves even some top students with only a rudimentary education. Says Cafritz: “Too often it is the case that you cannot answer a kid when he says, ‘Why am I here?’”

Umanzor, an A-minus student at Luke Moore, will graduate without ever having taken geometry, second-year algebra, trigonometry, calculus, chemistry, physics, economics, or psychology. Nor will he have taken a course in the humanities, religion, or sociology. Or done advanced work in a foreign language. Though he understands and speaks Spanish, he admits that his language skills in that tongue are poor. He speaks with a strong Salvadoran countryside accent, doesn’t write well in Spanish, and has no knowledge of any nation’s Spanish literature.

But he has taken courses in “contemporary issues,” street law, test-taking skills, essential problem solving, building thinking skills, and woodworking. He’s also studied U.S. history, world history, first-year algebra, and cell biology.

In short, Umanzor will graduate from high school and enter college knowing about what students from more competitive high schools have mastered by the end of ninth grade.

To be sure, much of the more advanced coursework is not, in fact, essential to either the GED or success at less competitive colleges. Typical questions on the practice tests distributed by the GED Testing Service of the American Council on Education include such queries as this one, from the social studies section:

30. Job hunting is often stressful, and regular physical activity is one of the best cures for stress, say medical experts.

According to this writer, people can reduce the stress that can accompany looking for a new day job by doing which of the following every day?

(1) looking for a new job

(2) going for a walk

(3) sleeping more at night

(4) trying not to worry

(5) watching television.

GED questions often try to be educational, as well as measure basic knowledge and skills. They also are targeted to the test-taking population: Many questions focus on African history and economics, minority literatures, and, in the math section’s word problems, child-care workers and maintenance people trying to figure out workplace calculations.

Preachiness is not avoided. A test essay in the writing skills section concludes: “Parents should remember when they name their children that it’s the child, and not the parent, who has to spend a lifetime with the name.” Another urges: “If you enjoy outdoor sports such as tennis, jogging, or bicycling, remember that exercising in Summer heat requires special precautions.” The math section provides test-takers with all needed formulas—such as a2 + b2=c2, the Pythagorean theorem describing the relationship between the sides of a right triangle. Starting next year, test-takers will be allowed to use calculators during the exam.

Of course, if you have never studied geometry, it will be harder to apply the formulas. And if you can’t read at a high school level, you can’t pass the reading section.

Sandra Johnson kept her secret until she was 30 years old. It took determination, creativity, and a remarkable ability to fade into the background, but she managed to make it that long without disclosing that she didn’t know how to read.

Johnson says she dropped out of school after the eighth grade. “I was still in junior high school at 18,” she explains the first time I meet her. We talk in the library of the Booker T. Washington Public Charter School, where she has been taking GED night courses four days a week since October. Johnson wears her hair short and straight, a gentle smile and welcoming demeanor accompanying her mauve floral hospital scrubs. She seems like exactly the kind of person you’d want around if you were in the hospital having a baby. For the last 12 years, Johnson has worked as a medical technician in environmental services for the labor and delivery department of Prince George’s Hospital Center in Cheverly, Md. She cleans up delivery rooms after women have given birth in them.

“I chose the job,” she says, “because you didn’t have to know how to read.”

Johnson tells me that she’s 35 years old and was held back once in elementary school at Kenilworth Elementary, twice in seventh grade, and then three times in eighth grade at Roper Junior High School (since renamed Brown Junior High School, in honor of former U.S. Commerce Secretary Ronald Brown), also in the Kenilworth neighborhood. “It was horrible,” she says. “Everybody there was about four, five years younger than me.”

At 20, she says, she got a job at the Pentagon as a file clerk. “Even though I couldn’t read at that time, I could file numbers in numerical order,” she says. So that’s what she did for nine months, before resigning, because she didn’t like being a file clerk. After that, she lived with her mother, not working, until she was 28. She says she did not have children, she did not get married, she did not go on welfare, and she did not party and carouse. What did she do? “Mainly, I stayed around the house,” she says. She hung out with friends in the neighborhood. She coached boys basketball at the Kenilworth Parkside Recreation Center, an activity she has continued to this day. (Her dream job is to be a physical education teacher working with disabled students.) She watched a lot of TV. Even now, she keeps the TV on 24 hours a day, falling asleep to its comforting glow.

Johnson still lives with her mother in a comfortable, newly renovated two-bedroom rental house in the quiet part of Kenilworth. It would be a lovely home, with its little front patio and new cornices, except that two of her brothers are also staying there, sleeping in the living room—which makes it really crowded. All told, Johnson has five brothers and one sister. One brother went to college; another finished high school; the rest did not. Three had trouble reading, dropped out, and, inspired by Johnson’s example, have recently entered the one-on-one tutoring program at the Washington Literacy Council.

“I don’t know if my mother finished high school,” says Johnson. (She checks with her mother and discovers that she didn’t finish, either.) “She’s not a good reader or speller….I don’t think my mother could help me.” As for her father, well, he wasn’t really around. Johnson has no idea what his level of education was.

“The only reason I didn’t try to get a job was because of lack of reading,” Johnson says. “I knew I needed to fill out a job application. I was scared of filling out an application because I was scared of reading. My mom was always trying to get me to go back to school.”

At the age of 28, Johnson says she enrolled at the Lt. Joseph P. Kennedy Institute in D.C., which provides job training to developmentally disabled adults; the program eventually led to her current job. Fortunately for Johnson, the Kennedy Institute sent someone with her to fill out the application at P.G. Hospital. It was a relief, after years of coming up with strategies to negotiate a world she couldn’t quite master, to not have to go it alone.

Around that time, she did have to go for a doctor’s visit alone and fill out the paperwork. So she wrapped her left hand in an Ace bandage and told the receptionist that she was left-handed and had sprained her wrist. Would the receptionist mind filling out the form for her? The secretary read her the questions, then dutifully wrote down the answers.

Johnson got the job and passed her physical. But when she first started working at the hospital, she couldn’t read the daily scheduling charts. So she’d go from floor to floor every morning, friendly as could be, talking to people to find out what was planned for the day. (For a woman who describes herself as shy each time I speak with her, this was a major act of courage.)

And she needed to drive. But to get her license, she had to pass the 20-question written part of the test. Because she couldn’t rely on her reading skills, she says she had her sister and a friend quiz her orally until she’d memorized the answers to all 103 possible questions. Still, she says she had to take the test four times before she passed, with a score of 80 out of 100.

Johnson coped, she kept quiet, and she tried not to let on when she couldn’t understand what was happening around her.

Then, 13 years ago, she says, she saw an ad for the Washington Literacy Council on TV. It took her three more years to call. “I was scared to tell someone you can’t read, that you’ve been hiding for so long,” she recalls. “That was a big step.”

“[In school] I never let anyone know. They just passed me right on through,” Johnson recalls. She would sit in the back and not say anything in class. If her teachers knew why she was failing, they didn’t let on. And Johnson didn’t tell them. She could memorize whole words if they were pronounced for her and pointed out, but she couldn’t decode new words. She knew the alphabet, but she didn’t know the sounds the letters signified or how to divide words into syllables. And besides, she often didn’t know what the words meant.

The second time we meet, Johnson tells me she has a confession to make: She’s really 39. And she wasn’t held back that many times. After she turned 16 in eighth grade, she says she was sent to a school for mentally retarded citizens. As ashamed as she was about being illiterate, she was even more humiliated at having been sent to that school. She says she dropped out after a year and a half at that school and that she worked at the Pentagon when she was 22, not 20. Otherwise, she says, she was telling the truth.

Since signing up for the Literacy Council program, Johnson has had two tutors. The first broadened her mind but didn’t succeed at teaching her how to read. The second used the newly developed Wilson curriculum, now standard at the Literacy Council, and found Johnson moving ahead by leaps and bounds. Yet the Literacy Council reaches only about 230 students a year, in one-on-one sessions. It also holds “pre-GED courses” for those who might feel a stigma attending basic reading classes.

“It really made me get a different lookout on D.C. I’m not as bored as I was,” says Johnson of her transformation. “It’s more interesting. It used to be I couldn’t read—why go somewhere? I just stayed in my little area. Now I can read. I now like going sightseeing.”

Her newfound skills have been accompanied by new experiences. Her first tutor took her to a play for the first time. That tutor later moved to Vermont, and Johnson has visited her there, as well as in Boston. At the Literacy Council, “volunteers try to teach us things we missed out on in school,” like “the body,” maps, states, and “the people who do the voting—Congress.” That kind of information has come in handy, she says, in her new GED courses.

Johnson says she has taken the GED practice test four times. To pass the GED, she’ll need a score of at least 40 on each of the five sections and a test-wide average of 45 out of 60. Her third time trying, Johnson scored 31 on the social science section, 38 on the literature section, and a hope-crushing 11 on the written essay part, mainly due to her dreadful spelling. Her fourth time, she passed the social studies section, with a score of 48, and got close to passing in the three other subject areas. The written essay remains a challenge.

“It’s hard enough to try to read—to try to spell is even harder,” Johnson explains. Despite the progress she’s made, when she does read aloud, she still stumbles over words, looking up for approval that she’s got it right each time she reaches a difficult one.

“I’m actually not that dumb,” she tells me. “There’s just a lot I missed out on.”

Claiborne took his GED for the fifth time in mid-April. His test results arrived the Tuesday after Memorial Day. He’d finally passed the three sections that had been giving him a hard time. The next day, he went up to the GED office at the University of the District of Columbia, which administers the test in the city. They added his new scores to his old ones, giving him a total score of 236 out of a possible 300. He’d passed by 11 points.

“I have it right here, my diploma,” says Claiborne proudly, when I reach him by phone. His next step is to go for his apprenticeship with the union of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning technicians. But the application isn’t due until January 2002, and union classes don’t start until the following August. In the meantime, he says, “I’m-a just keep working and, you know, try to keep a good record [at work]…like, don’t get no bad reports” of fighting or slacking off or having a bad attitude.

Claiborne credits his success to the classes at Sacred Heart, to his Christian faith, and to some newly acquired test-taking skills: “What I did differently when I took this test—all the hard questions, I skipped over. And I did all the easy questions, then came back to all the hard questions. I think that helped me out a lot. That’s the thing—[on previous attempts] I would sit there and dwell on the hard questions for a long time, and I’d run out of time and I’d be filling in a lot of blanks without really looking at the questions.

“I was talking to a buddy of mine from Atlanta—I had ran into him and he had mentioned that [test-taking strategy] to me. I had heard people mention that to me before, but I guess it sounded different coming from him.”

Claiborne’s mother plans to take him out to dinner with his grandfather to celebrate. She’s proud of her son and thinks it’s brave of him to tell me about his tribulations and accomplishments. Says Claiborne, simply: “I feel relieved. I feel like I’m on the path that I expect to be growing on.” CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Pilar Vergara.