February has marked Black History Month ever since its founding by African-American educators at Kent State University, 49 years ago this month. These scholars expanded upon a weeklong commemoration of the subject begun in 1926 by the “father” of African-American history, Carter Woodson. Woodson chose the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.
Born in Virginia in 1875 to former slaves, Woodson worked to support his family, and so was often unable to attend school. He refused to let economic reality impede his academic progress, teaching himself through self-instruction. Aged 17, he hoped to attend Douglass High School, a new segregated public high school named for Frederick Douglass. But his work as a coal miner kept him from school before he finally entered Douglass full-time in 1895 aged 20, earning his diploma in 1897. From there, Woodson progressed to the tuition-free Berea College in Kentucky, where he received a bachelor’s degree, to the University of Chicago for his master’s — and then to Harvard, where he earned his doctorate. He would devote his life to further historical research, resulting in the “father” moniker.
As an educator, Woodson taught, researched and studied around the world, eventually settling in the District where he taught high school; with doctorate in hand, he also joined the faculty at Howard University. Among many lifetime achievements, Woodson founded what today is The Journal of African-American History. Through this ground-breaking initiative and his tireless research, this neglected part of history became an organized academic discipline, debunking much accumulated myth and misinformation in the process. Woodson noted how African-American contributions too often were “overlooked, ignored and suppressed,” whether by teachers or history textbook writers. To him, the connection between this injustice and racial prejudice was obvious.
Today, Woodson’s imprint on D.C.’s infrastructure can be seen at his former home in the District, which is a National Historic Site, and the cast bronze sculpture of him at the Carter G. Woodson Memorial Park, both in northwest D.C. You also find it in the academic achievements of a rising generation of young scholars who are headed for college and careers, thanks to the educational opportunities the nation’s capital offers.
For decades, a byword for urban public education’s decline, public education has been transformed in the District by new choices, most notably through public charter schools. Charters educate nearly half of District public school students, among the highest shares in the nation.
Taxpayer-funded and tuition-free, charters develop their educational programs independently of school districts, while being held accountable for student performance. This autonomy enables these unique public schools to adopt approaches that boost student outcomes. Charters bring school choice to low-income families, something previously reserved only to those able to afford private school, or to relocate to a higher-performing public school district.
Before charters were introduced in Washington, D.C., in the mid-1990s, half the students dropped out before graduating. Public charter schools dramatically increased high-school graduation rates — by 50 percent — and these gains were shared across the city. The graduation rate for African-American charter students in D.C. is almost identical to the citywide average for all charter students. And charter students in the city’s two most underserved wards are twice as likely to meet citywide benchmarks for college-and-career readiness as their traditional public school counterparts.
Charters’ success at preparing children for college spurred reform of the traditional public school system, enabling educators to absorb best practices in ways that the old centralized system discouraged. In place of substandard schooling that blighted students’ futures, charters developed high-quality, tuition-free public school options across the city, including in our most vulnerable communities.
District charters encompass and fully reflect the city’s diversity as they provide this strong start. Charters educate a higher share of economically disadvantaged students than the traditional system; additionally, 95 percent of charter students are African-American or Latino, compared to 88 percent in the D.C. Public Schools system.
These improvements are rooted in a diversity of educational options offering the adults of tomorrow opportunities to thrive in a fast-changing, knowledge-based, global environment. Quality choices abound — from world languages and bilingual immersion to classics-, law- or public policy-themed curricula; and from nationally acclaimed pre-K programs to college prep-intensive high schools and programs based around “expeditionary learning” and life skills.
Combined with scholarships, like D.C. Achievers and those of the Posse Foundation, our children are finally receiving the academic and financial tools necessary for success. As in Carter Woodson’s day, education is the surest road to empowerment.
Edelin is executive director of the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools.