Safe Streets for Children and Families
Public Testimony Before the State Board of Education
September 20, 2018
Good evening State Board of Education and community members.
My name is Rhonda Henderson. I am a resident of Manor Park, and long-time advocate for quality public education in the District of Columbia.
I am here today to suggest a bold vision for safe passage to quality schools that expands current thinking on who is responsible, and what equitable safe passage can look like for children and families in the District of Columbia.
Safe passage to school is a very personal issue to me.
In the mid-1990s, to arrive to Banneker High School on time for early morning classes, I left my house around 6:30am, walked nine blocks to Georgia Avenue, and waited at the corner of Georgia Avenue and Rittenhouse Street for the 70 bus. It was about 35 minutes to Euclid Street, and I usually passed the time reading or studying. Because of the early hour, most businesses were closed, and the streets were fairly empty. It was not the safest environment for a teenage girl. But the 70 bus was the most direct route to school, so I learned to walk quickly, be aware of my surroundings, and project confidence. Fortunately, by the time I arrived at the Euclid Street stop, the lights were on at the Howard Deli, and the owner, Kenny, was greeting my friends and serving bagels.
Safe passage became personal to me as a school leader when I met a family I will call the Johnsons. Miss Johnson had experienced housing instability for many years until she secured Rapid Rehousing and found an apartment walking distance from our school. For the first few weeks of school, her daughters achieved 95% attendance and punctuality. Unfortunately, within a month, she was evicted, and temporarily sheltered in Maryland, twenty miles from school. Her family of three girls under five years old faced an impossible commute: an unreliable bus ride to the metro, followed by a forty-minute Metro ride, and a 15-minute walk to school from the metro. To arrive by 8am, they left their hotel by 6am. The girls' attendance plummeted to 60%, and the family was in an almost consistent state of stress.
Unfortunately, my experience from years ago and those of Ms. Johnson are not anomalies. While we have made improvements like Kids Ride Free, and designating that schools provide transportation, safe passage can take on greater child-centered meaning in the District of Columbia.
A bold vision for safe passage calls on community organizations and business owners to commit to creating child and family friendly streets.
An equitable system of safe passage school creates structures for our most vulnerable families to travel to school safely and consistently. We must not compound the stress of housing instability with an impossible commute to school.
What can we do?
If safe passage is a priority, we need to make it a priority and not a side item. As advocates for our children and families, it is our job to push our government, our businesses, and our neighbors to do more.
What does this look in practice? Each State Board of Education member can convene their civic associations, school leaders, and neighborhood businesses to educate the community on safe school routes, and encourage members to literally step outside, and acknowledge kids as they travel to school. Children of the District should be known, and not anonymous. More means that we can send an email to support safe passage and walk the neighborhood during our morning coffee or afternoon lunch breaks.
I have seen glimpses of this work guided by Chalon Jones and the DME’s office and borrowing from the Man the Block initiative headed by Dr. Marco Clark.
As State Board of Education representatives, you can use your bully pulpit to meet with homeless liaisons, to discuss best practices, and describe how the city is working closely to improve school travel for vulnerable families. Work hand and hand with council members to guide the work of policies like the recently proposed Students in the Care of D.C. Coordinating Committee Act of 2018. This policy is designed to establish a multi-stakeholder committee to identify challenges and resolve issues that students in detainment, commitment, incarceration, and foster care face in order improve educational outcomes
Recently, I chatted with a school principal during arrival. He said to me, “I believe in the work my teachers do with our students every single day. If we could get the students in the classroom everyday…” Let us leverage the tremendous city resources to finish the sentence for our principals, children, and families. Safe passage begins the moment children and families leave their homes, and is a right for every child, in every neighborhood.