Haus Schwatz: Cati's DC Real Estate


Waiting For Superman In DC (And A Farewell To Supergirl)

I felt awfully tired and beat up when I walked into the office this morning, but it was worth it. I’d been to a late-night screening of Waiting for Superman, a chilling feature-length documentary on the state of the American public school system. How we got to where we are now, where we’re headed with changing job profiles in the future, and how we can get out of the current mess -- if we choose so.

As a mother of three school-age kids—two of them currently in public schools—I felt particularly pained by the images, statistics and interviews in the film. The plot followed about half a dozen families in different parts of the country in their quest to provide their kids with a safe and solid education—and a future. There were sad moments, funny moments, and many touching moments. And there was hope. It’s a must-see movie for anybody who cares about the future of this country, so I will stop here.

What this has to do with real estate? More than you think.

One of those nuclear families—an uneducated but loving and concerned woman and the grandson she was raising—lived in DC. The grandmother realized that if the kid stayed in his failing neighborhood school, he would likely have no better chance at life than his father (of whom we only learn that he died from a drug overdose). She eventually succeeds in helping the boy find an alternative public education, but many others will not. According to the film, the kids here in the wealthy nation’s capital have the lowest average reading and math comprehension scores in the whole country.

It seems every single US president in the past 50 years made huge promises to be the one who would turn the wheel around and fix public education, and so did every DC mayor.

Right at the beginning of my real estate career I learned that the future of the DC housing market would depend on whether the (then new) mayor Williams would be able to affect changes in the school system—too many tax-paying middle class families left the city for the better school systems in Maryland in Virginia.

On a federal level, “No Child Left Behind” was launched, but then came the realization that the new focus on test scores had changed little. Then came the charter schools who were allowed to choose or fire teachers based on performance, but you literally had to win the lottery to get a space. Then came Michelle Rhee, also prominently featured in the movie, who tried to clean up a mess with radical methods and was not loved for it, even though the measurable success of her sweeps and reforms (namely a new system to evaluate teachers) were incredible: In three years, reading and math comprehension scores in grades 4 and 8 increased up to 17%. (To give you an example, this year, 43% of junior high students can read at grade level, as opposed to the 27% in 2007. This is an average, mind you: there are middle schools where even today, only 1 out of 7 8th-graders can read well enough to enter high school. I’m not making this up—all of the information can be found on the DCPS website.)

Now, however, Washington DC has elected a new mayor. Vince Gray gave promises not to “turn the clock back” when it came to the city’s progress under Adrian Fenty. And “school reforms will move forward” under his reign as well.  

I very much hope that Gray will stick to his word.  (Supergirl Michelle Rhee, meanwhile, seems a little less convinced. She resigned last week, effective with the end of the month.) After all, experiments in many large cities have shown that it's not bad neighborhoods that make schools bad but rather, that good schools can cause significant improvements to neighborhoods and for the kids that grow up in them.

(The photo shows President Obama who invited the kids from Waiting For Superman to the White House--you can see a behind-the-scenes clip on the movie's website.)

© 2012, Catarina Bannier


Comment balloon 12 commentsCatarina Bannier • October 19 2010 05:58PM


With the departure of Rhee, I am very much afraid DC will not continue on the road to reform; her departure is a tragic loss for the children of DC.  

Posted by Susan Haughton, Susan & Mindy Team...Honesty. Integrity. Results. (Long and Foster REALTORS (703) 470-4545) over 8 years ago

Susan -- yes, I think we're all scared, in many ways.  She might have been radical, and she might have made mistakes here or there, but she showed results, and even better: she was not afraid to call the problems by their name because she did not see herself as a "career chancellor."  Well, let's not give up.  There are so many great parents in this city--in all parts of it.

Posted by Catarina Bannier, DC Real Estate The Smart And Fun Way (Compass) over 8 years ago

Cati, I think this is a very important post.  I'll have to see the film.  I, too, am concerned about what will happen here in DC.  It's almost impossible to imagine true school reform without a scorched earth approach, and Fenty was the only one with the guts to take on the unions.

Posted by Patricia Kennedy, Home in the Capital (RLAH Real Estate) over 8 years ago

Thank you for sharing this.  No one should eve give up on kids just because of where they came from.  Every child can strive for and achieve greatness no matter where they come from.  Involved parents and caring teachers with a drive to dedicate their lives to give the very best they have to offer for the tremendous job of raising productive members of society.

Icing on the cake:  How many kids get to meet a President of the United States?  Way, way cool.

Posted by Charita Cadenhead, Serving Jefferson and Shelby Counties (Alabama) (Keller Williams Realty) over 8 years ago

Pat, yes, the unions were a part of that--it's ironic that the well-deserved and well-intended job security for teachers now backfires in many districts because it makes it harder to allocate money in productive ways (and ultimately creates terrible work conditions for many teachers as well.  But that's not all of it, of course.  Go see the film!

Charita--you are so right; the movie actually shows many wonderful examples of kids that could be reached and who ended up doing great things despite the adverse conditions they came from.  And I do think there is a public responsibility we have to see to that.

(And meeting the president, well, that will be life-long motivation for some of them...)

Posted by Catarina Bannier, DC Real Estate The Smart And Fun Way (Compass) over 8 years ago

Our school system is a bloated, self-serving, money-grubbing machine. The best thing parents can do is to go around it and get their kids an education despite it. There's one huge thing the politicians and unions refuse to allow, and it's the one thing that will give poor families a chance to make choices that will make a difference.

We have charter schools and school choice here in Colorado. Yes, the best ones are hard to get into. Just goes to show we need more. The established system needs to be dismantled to make way for a better one. Anyone who denies that isn't thinking of the kids first.

Great photo op for the prez though.

Posted by Joetta Fort, Independent Broker, Homes Denver to Boulder (The DiGiorgio Group) over 8 years ago

Joetta, we have seen a similar development here--parallel to the reform attempts in DCPS.  The Washington Post just reportet on their online blog that more than a third of DC public-schooled kids are now enrolled in charter schools--clearly, many parents have recognized that way to "dismantle" the system by pushing for stronger alternatives.  Unfortunately, though, there are local politicians who think this has gone too far--not because it's bad for the kids, but rather because it threatens their power (i.e., the monopoly some of their campaign supporters would like to hold onto).  Similarly, per-child spending is enormous here, but it's not always easy to see how it benefits the kids.

Posted by Catarina Bannier, DC Real Estate The Smart And Fun Way (Compass) over 8 years ago

It's frustrating that education takes back seat to just about every other national priority.

Posted by Chris Olsen, Broker Owner Cleveland Ohio Real Estate (Olsen Ziegler Realty) over 8 years ago

Public education is frustrating.  Our system just won the Broad Award for excellence.  And my 6 year old is with one of the best 1st grade teachers in the county... but there are SO many bad schools and crappy teachers... and the union protects the worst of them with zeal. 

And money is NOT the answer...

Posted by Lane Bailey, Realtor & Car Guy (Century 21 Results Realty) over 8 years ago

It seems ridiculous as the world's "super power" we have some of the lowest educational scores of the first world countries.

Posted by Christine Donovan, Broker/Attorney 714-319-9751 DRE01267479 - Costa M (Donovan Blatt Realty) over 8 years ago

Chris, yes, and ironically, every politician, no matter if on a local, state or national level, will tell you exactly the opposite;  that it's their foremost priority.

Lane, you're very lucky (and so is your little boy!).  What do you think is it that they're doing right in your school district that others can't or don't get?

Christine, at least we don't seem to feel too bad about it.  Did you see the trailer?  There's a lovely quote from the movie in it: Out of 30 First-World countries, American kids rank #25 in math, but #1 in .... "confidence" when asked how they think they're doing!

Posted by Catarina Bannier, DC Real Estate The Smart And Fun Way (Compass) over 8 years ago

That is the $1M questions...  But they spend under $9k/student, while Atlanta spends over $12k/student... and even with the new scandal showing that they cheated on reporting their drop-out rates, and altered their test scores, Gwinnett is kicking their butts. 

I think that the first thing is parental involvement.  I can go into my son's class any time I want... and do.  There is ample communication from the teacher to the parents.  She lets us know what we might be able to do to help him perform better... and we do it. 

Next is peeling away the overhead.  The big growth area is non-teacher staff.  Too many schools have too much administration. Then you get into "central office" staff.  The accountants can ALWAYS justify more accountants. 

If I thought that he would be better in a private school right now... he would be there.  For our 2 year old, we want to make sure he has the same opportunities.  If the best teachers are in another school, we would consider moving...  This may be one of the most important things we do... facilitate our kids education.

Posted by Lane Bailey, Realtor & Car Guy (Century 21 Results Realty) over 8 years ago