Yvette Ross’ job is to help bright kids succeed, but she can’t get the time of day from the District of Columbia Public Schools.
Ross runs Project Match, a tiny non-profit organization that helps D.C. students of color get into independent boarding schools, including some tony New England ones like Phillips Exeter Academy and the Deerfield Academy. The program has a pretty impressive track record: 95 percent of its students go onto college. And the top 10 colleges attended by Project Match’s students include Harvard, Yale, Stanford and Brown. Let’s just say that DCPS’s statistics don’t come close.
“The results speak for themselves,” says Ross, herself a product of Project Match who went from Jefferson Junior High School in Southwest to the Groton School in Massachusetts, and from there on to Wellesley College and business school at Duke.
Project Match currently helps about 12 to 15 students a year, Ross says, but wants to expand. Ross says many elite boarding schools, long the home of privileged whites, are eager to find students of color from the D.C. area. (For the private schools, the concept isn’t new; a similar program in New York, called Prep for Prep, gets 6,000 applicants a year.) Project Match doesn’t pay for tuition, but its 500 or so alumni have received more than $15 million in financial aid directly from the schools who accept them.
Is Project Match a panacea for the city’s awful public schools? Obviously not. But it has done some good for some lucky kids. “I think it’s the best thing for some people, it’s completely life changing,” said TV pundit, Daily Caller editor and Project Match board member Tucker Carlson, summing up what all of Project Match’s supporters told LL.
Growing the program, though, may prove difficult. Ross says she’s had to confine her recruitment efforts to a handful of charter schools and rely on word of mouth to find the right kids. Her efforts to get approval from DCPS so she can pitch the program directly to middle school counselors at traditional public schools have gone nowhere.
Why? That’s a great question—and not one DCPS seemed interested in answering. When LL called up Shereen Williams, the director of DCPS’ Office of Community Partnerships, and asked her if she’d heard of Project Match, she replied, a bit dismissively: “I’ve heard of them,” before referring LL’s next questions to the DCPS press shop.
A few days later came this reply from DCPS spokesman Fred Lewis: “Sorry it’s taken so long. Unfortunately, at this time we don’t have any comment for your story. Sorry/fred”
On one level, it’s an unsurprising “no comment.” Wanda Hill, an 83-year-old who started Project Match and ran it for more than 25 years, says she always encountered resistance from unhelpful school officials and had to rely on friendly staff for help identifying possible recruits. Only two middle schools ever really went along with her efforts. Hill says she understands the opposition, and doesn’t think it’s unique to D.C. She’s taken gruff from her own black friends as well, who argued that bright students shouldn’t be removed from their own community.
But on another level, DCPS’ silence on Project Match is at odds with how outspoken ChancellorMichelle Rhee has been about making decisions based on what’s best for a child. Rhee’s message is that kids should go to school wherever they can do best—and that DCPS is ready, willing, and able to compete with other alternatives.
When many in the city recently frothed with faux-outrage afterPresident Obamahad the gall to say that he’s sending his daughters to the pricey and private Sidwell Friends school because DCPS can’t offer the same quality education, Rhee calmly called it a “fair assessment.” “DCPS welcomes competition and is working for the day when all DCPS schools can effectively compete with the best private schools,” she said in a statement.
But when it comes to actual competition for specific kids, it seems Rhee’s boasts fall a little short. Project Match’s Ross says a high-ranking DCPS official essentially told her that it “seems odd to take students out of a system we are trying to fix.” (Rhee and Mayor Adrian Fenty have touted rising enrollment numbers after decades of decline as proof that their approach to school reform is working.) Hill says school officials were sometimes unwilling to part with some of their brightest students, who bolster test scores and provide role models for other students. That’s the flip side to reform efforts that use tests as the linchpin of measuring success; schools aren’t particularly interested in losing the smart kids who keep their averages up.
That kind of resistance drives Project Match’s supporters crazy.
“No parent ought to be required to sacrifice his kids for the larger social good,” Carlson says. “The idea that you’d hold a child back because he’s talented or unusually bright is grotesque.”
Ross is similarly annoyed at what she says are incorrect perceptions about what her program is trying to accomplish. She says Project Match doesn’t skim off DCPS’ best students, nor work only with the most exclusive boarding schools. Project Match kids’ scores in the standardized test boarding schools use range from the 5th percentile to the 98th, according to Ross.
And while there are certainly stories of Project Match helping kids overcome horrible situations to thrive in elite boarding schools, there are also plenty of examples of students with less dramatic back stories.
One case is the son of Theresa Day, a former DCPS teacher and single mother. Tawfiq Abdul-Karimwas accepted to School Without Walls, one of the District’s best public high schools, but chose Woodberry Forest School in Virginia instead, which he found through Project Match. Day said she and her son were blown away from day one by Woodberry’s faculty and facilities, and she’s willing to pay a small part of the school’s $43,000 a year tuition so her son can enjoy a less “hectic” lifestyle. (Financial aid covers the rest of the costs.)
“Oh my goodness, it’s better than a postcard.”
It’s easy to understand why DCPS wouldn’t want to spend its time helping Project Match entice a student who was probably going to get a great free public school education skip town. Ross, who used to work in the DCPS budget office, says she understands the pressure to keep students in public schools. But she also believes that parents ought to be given as many options as possible when it comes to educating their kids—and all she wants is a chance to make her case.
ELECTION? WHAT ELECTION?
Last week, Washington City Paper’s cover story focused on how the football-kicking, beauty-product-selling, socially conservative, Utah Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz is itching to start meddling in D.C.’s affairs if the GOP wins the House this November. LL was curious what Almost Mayor Vincent Gray was doing to prepare for dealing with a congressman who thinks D.C. autonomy is unconstitutional, and whether the future mayor has appointed anyone to his transition team to think through congressional engagement. Turns out, Gray hasn’t: “No, I have not addressed that,” he tells LL. “I actually would like to think that we will continue to have…Democratic control of the House—we’ll face that when we get to it. But no, I haven’t appointed anyone to address that issue.” LL realizes Gray may not be paying much attention to when the general election is, since the D.C. primary is the only election that really matters here. But Nov. 2 is just around the corner—might be time to start thinking about it, Mr. Almost Mayor!
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery