Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Youths Air Grievances at City Hall Forum

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 14, 2007; Page C12

Dozens of young people ages 11 to 21 painted a bleak picture of the District's public school system yesterday during the D.C. Council's first hearing on youth issues, a monthly free-for-all allowing those 21 and younger to talk about topics that affect them.

The council chambers at the John A. Wilson Building was so packed that people spilled out into the hallway during the seven-hour hearing. Another room was opened to accommodate the overflow.

Youths focused overwhelmingly on the school system, describing students who disrupt classes and teachers who don't teach. They also worried about violence in their neighborhoods and a lack of extracurricular and after-school activities.

Hezekiel Gregory, 11, told council members that "someone came to school with a knife" when he was enrolled at Harriet Tubman Elementary School. He now attends a public charter school, where he said he learns more and feels safer.

Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) said he held the session, televised live on cable in the city, because he was so inspired by the number of young people who showed up for a hearing in February on the mayor's school takeover plan. All told, 59 youths testified yesterday.

The council approved the takeover, allowing Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) to take the helm of public schools. Although some facilities are improving, most students said their education is not.

Francisco Velasquez, 17, a senior at Dunbar Senior High School, said he had a teacher who gave only two tests during an entire semester, both of which were "open notes." Victoria Cortez, 16, a junior at Wilson Senior High School, said one of her teachers "has his days when he doesn't feel like teaching."

"That's usually every Friday," she said.

Bright spots included testimony about nonprofits that are working with young people. Some students smiled and giggled about teachers who had reached out to them or made learning fun. Velasquez lit up when he talked about the history teacher he had last year. "He was really a good teacher," he said.

When Tiara Brawner, 17, testified about her education at H.D. Woodson Senior High School, she said "Mr. P" was her favorite teacher. "If you're watching, Mr. P, don't say I didn't acknowledge you," she said.

Mr. P is math teacher Aris Pangilinan; none of the students could pronounce his last name.

But some students said that there are not enough teachers and support staff at their schools and that the good instructors can't do their jobs because of troublesome students.

Donnell Kie, a junior at Ballou Senior High School, said there is only one counselor for more than 300 students. Other speakers said they need guidance on how to find decent housing, jobs and higher education options after graduation.

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