Everyone wants to reform the struggling D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) these days. DCPS officials, parents, education experts, and even members of Congress are swapping proposals for everything from charter schools to privatization to Afrocentric education. So you might think the city would lend its wholehearted support to an existing program that each year helps 100 potential dropouts stay in school.
Instead, D.C.’s only dropout-prevention school has been forced to shut down. On Sept. 1, the five-year-old Options School became the latest program to fall victim to D.C.’s fiscal crisis. Owed nearly $200,000 from the last school year and lacking guaranteed funding for this year, The National Learning Center (TNLC), which runs Options, has decided that the school’s doors are staying closed.
“I have no choice,” says Michael Greenebaum, executive director of TNLC. “I could not open school without the money.” TNLC, a nonprofit, runs the Capital Children’s Museum, the Options School, and the Model Early Learning Center for preschoolers, all of which are located in the museum complex on H St. NE.
The Options School, like so many D.C. nonprofits, has been burned by the city’s chaotic government. Though Congress specifically approved $750,000 in federal funds for Options in 1995, that money still had to navigate the D.C. bureaucracy. But dollars that enter the D.C. government do not always get out: The District still owes TNLC $188,000, the final-quarter payment from the 1994-95 school year.
“Payments weren’t as timely as I would have liked,” Greenebaum says, “but I did not expect this to happen.” According to Greenebaum, DCPS has processed the late payment, but the mayor’s office is still holding up the federal money. City officials told him this month that the District can’t cut Options a check until October—at the earliest. Since he couldn’t rely on that payment, Greenebaum decided not to open school, figuring it would harm students to have Options shut down in the middle of the year.
Since it opened in 1990, Options has been considered a model program for at-risk kids. “It is the type of alternative education that is important for D.C. students,” says at-large school board member Jay Silberman. “I think it should be sustained.”
Each year, the program targeted 100 DCPS seventh graders who were considered likely to drop out. Most were working two or more years behind grade level, and most were troubled kids from troubled families. Options removed the children from their normal schools for a year and gave them special attention. The 18-member staff taught the regular seventh-grade curriculum (as well as remedial classes to boost students to the seventh-grade level), but the school also tried to excite the students with an extended study of media arts. Children learned photography, drama, animation, and TV and radio production. Many also had the chance to work at the children’s museum.
The school, says English teacher Elizabeth Burliner, tried to inspire kids who’d never found anything to like about education. “We were always saying, “Congratulations, you’ve done a great job today, you’ve learned subtraction, you’ve written a poem,’ ” says Burliner. “Once the children realized that they could succeed at one thing, they took off and wanted to succeed in everything.”
And succeed they did. According to the office of the DCPS superintendent, about 85 percent of Option graduates attend school regularly. (By contrast, D.C.’s high-school dropout rate exceeds 40 percent.) Options, according to school officials, kept kids off the streets and away from drug abuse, criminal activity, pregnancy, and prostitution.
“Our children are living a nightmare and they don’t dream anymore,” says TNLC Director of Education Sharon Hemphill, “and we teach them to dream.”
“Learning was never so much fun,” says 13-year-old Sirak Williams, who attended Options two years ago. “It was a great experience.”
“It was 90-degree turn for Sean,” says Arthella Sprow of her grandson, Sean Davis, who went to Options last year. “He is so motivated. He is a new person.”
It is not clear whether the Options School will ever reopen. No one is planning to fund it. The school did not ask Congress to renew its funding for fiscal 1996. Options expected DCPS to pick up the tab this year, and a DCPS administrator did write a letter promising to pony up $600,000. But the school system has since rescinded the offer, making it unlikely that Options will get any city money.
And even if the District does manage to find some cash for Options, it won’t help kids like Carlos McNair, who was supposed to enroll at the alternative school this month. “We are so hurt,” says his mother Patricia McNair, who hoped all summer long that this year at Options would turn her son around. “Carlos doesn’t want to go back to his old school. The teachers make him sick, and the kids are rough and streetwise and he doesn’t learn anything.”