Who’s Going to Save the Hero?


Last Friday night, I attended the premiere of the documentary Southeast 67 at the D.C. Independent Film Festival. The documentary film chronicled the lives of 67 students who, in the 1980s, were given one goal and one promise: Graduate from high school, and you’ll receive a four-year college scholarship from Stewart Bainum in conjunction with the I Have A Dream Foundation. There was never any mention of the typical minimum scholarship requirements like SAT scores, GPA, volunteer Experience, or AP classes—just make it from seventh through 12th grade in D.C., well-known at the time as the murder capital of America.

The students were all from Kramer Middle School, a school in the Anacostia neighborhood of Southeast D.C. and one of the worst-performing schools in Washington. Life outside of school was just as bad as inside, if not worse: Many of the students’ only option was just to normalize, not overcome, the dysfunction they experienced daily so that they could navigate the peril of their homes and neighborhoods. All had been affected by drugs, violence, poverty, teen pregnancy, and invasive government agencies.

However, despite director Betsy Cox’s focus on the students’ struggles as they endeavored to make good on their promise, I was most drawn to the story of the central protagonist, Steve Bumbaugh. Steve, along with Phyllis Rumbarger, was one of two mentors charged with guiding the students toward their goal.

Steve’s story resonated with me most because I am now in my sixth year of teaching in Southeast D.C. I began teaching in a D.C. charter school, and I currently teach in a D.C. public school. Every year, because I know all too well what my students face, I’ve exhausted every possible means within my control to ensure their academic, social, and emotional success. I’ve witnessed countless other teachers do the same—pick up students for school in the morning, provide free tutoring, take students home on the weekends, feed students, obsess over the smallest details of lesson and culture plans, give money to families in need, and divert any available time and resources from their own families. Whatever it takes to get the job done.

Nevertheless, despite the efforts of hundreds of teachers like Steve Bumbaugh within the District, we know that these efforts are only producing a minimally sustaining value for our students. We also know that, as individual teachers, most of us can only provide such a high level of service for a short number of years before we burn out.

When I evaluate my own work, I know that my students make significant interpersonal and intrapersonal gains while in my classroom. In general, they do well for a year or two, and they gain a new confidence that they can conquer the world. But then something happens. For example, I got a phone call from my wife today letting me know that she ran into the father of one of my most promising former students. During their discussion, he informed her that his son had been expelled from my former charter management organization and is now attending a District of Columbia Public School (DCPS). However, the DCPS school is not within his neighborhood boundary, and the kids from the neighborhood don’t want him there. When I spoke to my former student, he said, “Mr. Brown, I’m just trying to make it through school. I like my teachers. The sports are better. You know I still got it, academically. But the other kids are doing whatever it takes to make me fail.”

I’ve taught four more cohorts since that student; that’s approximately 180 students in four years. And similar to Steve, despite my best efforts, there is no way that I can ensure that everyone “makes it.” Then the bigger question becomes, what is making it? How do we define success? Is it going to college? Is it graduating from college? What if you have to turn your back on family and friends to get to there?

I have another question, though. Steve points out that a huge advantage of the program was that “over six years, year-round, Phyllis and I could focus exclusively on the same 67 students.” So what organizations, institutions, or establishments exist that could possible share in the overwhelming workload of providing wraparound services to students in need? Could they provide these services over an extended period of time in the authentic way that our students would need in order to be successful? What type of training would be required? How could you message and account for the type of commitment that would be needed? What level of compensation would be commensurate with the level of service required? What are the legal considerations? And how do we make this happen for all of our students?

Alex Brown, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
Randle Highlands Elementary School


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