As an education researcher and a former teacher, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the plight of urban schools and their challenges with poverty, student achievement, and teacher quality and turnover. Amidon-Bowen Elementary School in Southwest faces many of these issues: Test scores are low, and 78% of students qualify for free and reduced-price meals. Yet I decided to send my child to Amidon-Bowen this year.

Before we made the decision to send our three-year-old to Amidon, I asked around and attended open houses for some of the most sought-after public and charter schools in the city. But I left the open houses feeling somewhat discouraged. Sure, they had amazing gardens and tastefully appointed art rooms bursting with supplies, but there was also a lack of racial and socioeconomic diversity. And while the principals and parents would rave about the school, they would also tell us that we would be lucky to go there. And it would have taken luck—one no-boundary school expected eight open spots in PreK3 after sibling preference and more than 600 applicants.

Like a lot of parents in DC, I felt like I had only two choices: hoping for an improbable spot in a desirable school that would surround my child with resources, wealth, and privilege; or risking a local elementary school that confronts real student achievement challenges. It doesn’t have to be this way; Amidon-Bowen can be a school that our neighborhood can be proud of, but only if we fight for it.

On the first day of school, I braced myself to feel overwhelmed, but to my surprise, my son didn’t even cry. He saw the well-stocked play kitchen and didn’t look back. Weeks and months went by, and we can see that our son is really happy. When I ask him whether he prefers daycare or preschool, he always says preschool. He loves learning at Amidon and feels empowered. He loves his teachers’ enthusiasm. He loves his new friends who run up and give him a hug almost every day. He loves playing on the playground. And he loves music class. I can honestly say that on most days—he’s a three-year-old, after all—he is excited to attend school, and he is happy when I pick him up.

Plenty of things still need to be improved at Amidon. Yet many of its challenges arise from the over-concentration of students living below the poverty line, the corresponding lack of middle-class family engagement, and the overall dearth of parental and community involvement. Historically, most middle-class people in Southwest have not sent their kids to Amidon, and if they do, it’s only for a few early years before moving elsewhere.

Of course, we all want what’s best for our own kids. I understand that. None of us wants to put our children in a situation where they cannot thrive. But individual decisions have left our community with a highly segregated elementary school that, despite the efforts of its dedicated staff, does not serve its students as well as it could. Other nearby communities have rallied to create a vibrant neighborhood school, but Southwest, on the whole, has not. Although Amidon has many valued friends and partnerships, we still need much greater engagement from all members of the community for the school to meet the needs of all its students.

There are costs if we fail. Unless we continue to improve Amidon’s educational outcomes, neighborhood families will either spend hours commuting across town to other schools or leave Southwest altogether. New families moving into the DC area will choose to live in other neighborhoods with better schools. Property values will lag behind those of nearby areas with better schools. And, most importantly, many students who remain at Amidon will not receive the education they need and deserve.

We cannot truly alter Amidon’s trajectory without breaking through the status quo of racial and socioeconomic school segregation and integrating the school to reflect the diversity of our community. I like to think that most people in Southwest believe that integration works because we have such a diverse and lovely neighborhood. And there is a growing cohort of involved parents working to make a difference. If even a few middle-class families were to enroll their children at Amidon each year, there will be a significant improvement in the socioeconomic diversity of the student body in a short period of time. And if we’re able to recruit more volunteers, we could take steps to make concrete improvements to Amidon—and thus to our community—right now.

We have the opportunity to do something unique at Amidon: to create a school that is integrated, both racially and socioeconomically, in the way that our neighborhood is, and in a way that is otherwise increasingly difficult to find. But to make it happen, we need the sustained effort of our entire community.

Ways that you can get involved:

Attend an open house (open to prospective families and community members alike):

  • Wednesday, Jan. 6 at 9:30 a.m.
  • Wednesday, Feb. 3 at 9:30 a.m.

Join us for a community strategy session about the school’s future on Saturday, Feb. 13. Details forthcoming.

Take the prospective or current parent surveys (families who anticipate having children in the next few years are also encouraged to take the prospective parent survey):

Serve on a committee:

To get involved in other ways, email the Amidon-Bowen PTA at amidonpta@hotmail.com.

To donate to the school, contact Marty Welles (PTA president) or Lucy Rojansky (PTA treasurer).

Follow us on Twitter at @AmidonBowenPTA.

By: Betsy Wolf

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