D.C. mayor’s race: Robert White proposes boarding schools for at-risk kids

Placeholder while article actions load

D.C. mayoral candidate Robert C. White Jr. said he wants to open more public boarding schools in the District, perhaps for students as young as kindergarten.

White announced this new plank of his campaign platform in a speech Wednesday, in which he said the city’s traditional public and charter schools are failing to meet the educational and developmental needs of many students. He proposed vocational education that will prepare students for jobs in plumbing and carpentry that do not require college degrees, as well as boarding schools for students whose home lives hinder their academic performance.

“Some of our students need a 24-hour academic support environment,” said White, an at-large council member who is challenging Mayor Muriel E. Bowser in the June Democratic primary on a platform that includes several sweeping and expensive public programs.

D.C. already has two public boarding schools, and both have been deeply troubled. Monument Academy Public Charter School, which opened in 2015, has about 100 students and previously reported hundreds of serious safety incidents, including sexual assaults and 88 instances of students leaving without permission one year. The school’s governing board voted to close it because of safety concerns, then it reopened.

The warnings about safety came for months. But regulators didn’t force Monument Academy to make changes.

At SEED Public Charter School, a 12-year-old died by suicide in her dorm. The school later closed its middle school and now operates only as a high school.

But White said providing students with a safe place to live, healthy meals and a good night of sleep would help many who have unstable lives at home, including some of the more than 5,000 D.C. public school students whose families are homeless. He estimated the city’s annual cost per student to be about $40,000, though in 2019, SEED spent more than $48,000 per student in D.C. funding. Monument spent more than $63,000 per pupil that year in D.C. funding and a total of more than $84,000 per student when including grants, compared to a median of $19,863 in local funding for charter school students.

White said that despite the safety problems at SEED, at-risk students there — those identified by the city as homeless, in foster care, in families receiving welfare or food stamps, or significantly behind grade level — have better outcomes than at other schools.

Data suggests the opposite: In 2019, just 8 percent of the school’s students achieved scores deemed at least “meeting expectations” on standardized math tests — half the rate for at-risk students across the school district — and 13 percent met expectations in English, compared to 21 percent of at-risk students citywide.

The proposal is unusual from a candidate who speaks about the need to bolster the city’s traditional neighborhood schools and who has been critical of opening new schools rather than investing in existing ones. But pointing to examples locally and nationally — including the nonprofit Milton Hershey School in Pennsylvania, which enrolls low-income students as young as 4 in boarding school — White said that he wants to offer boarding options beginning in elementary school, and would be open to either extended days or overnights for students as young as kindergarten.

A handful of D.C. residents, including some in White’s left-leaning base, quickly expressed concerns about the idea of children leaving their family homes. Some noted the history of Native American students being educated in government-run boarding schools that were sometimes abusive and designed to remove them from their culture.

“I was dead set on voting for Robert but government-run boarding schools are such a bad idea I’m not sure I can vote for him now,” one former advisory neighborhood commissioner tweeted.

Ronald Thompson Jr., who graduated from D.C. public schools and works as a local policy analyst, said boarding schools might have appealed to some of his classmates who didn’t have stable housing.

“In the Black community, there are perceptions of boarding schools as having positive aspects, in a city where we do have high housing costs, and we have a youth homelessness issue,” Thompson said in an interview. “How do you answer the questions — valid ones — about the history of boarding schools and their role acting as places of behavioral control?”

Thompson noted also that left-leaning D.C. advocates often ask for a halt on new schools, not an expansion. “The candidate himself has pointed out that we have too many schools,” he said.

White also said Wednesday that as mayor, he would beef up the District’s existing programs for training high-schoolers for the workforce, with an emphasis on teaching students a trade such as auto mechanics or information technology that does not require a college degree. Fewer than a quarter of the city’s students go on to graduate from college, White noted, saying the school system should be focused on making sure those students who aren’t college-bound are ready after high school for more than a minimum-wage job.

“Young people who don’t plan to go to college are leaving our schools without a career path,” he said.

White said he would enable students at any D.C. high school to participate in vocational education or an out-of-school internship, even if it means spending part of their school day at a site with a trade program that their school lacks. Pressed for specifics by reporters, he said he would convene a task force to make recommendations within 120 days on how to boost vocational training.

He also said the vocational program would come at minimal cost to taxpayers, pointing to other cities that have sought philanthropic grants and federal funds to support public education.

In a Democratic mayoral race between Bowser, White, council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) and former neighborhood official James Butler that has centered on the candidates’ differing views on how to reduce the crime rate, White pitched his educational plans as a way to prevent crime, just as he said his $1.5 billion plan to add 10,000 people to the city’s workforce would.

Trayon White has also pitched an expansion of career training as part of his campaign, and Bowser has supported vocational programs in some D.C. high schools as mayor and has recently spoken of the need to help high school seniors gain work experience.

Charles Wilson, an advisory neighborhood commissioner who teaches carpentry, said at White’s campaign headquarters on Wednesday morning that he agrees such programs could reduce crime. “People with skills don’t go out and ruin their lives,” he said.

Raymond Bell, who runs a program that trains high school graduates for jobs as security guards and IT professionals and prepares them to get commercial driver’s licenses, said none of the 2,000 graduates of his program have been arrested for a violent crime after completing job training. An impressed murmur rippled through the campaign headquarters. “Ladies and gentlemen, that is the answer to crime and violence in this city, and nothing else,” he said. White applauded.

Perry Stein contributed to this report.