Children dodge broken glass on the baseball field. The plumbing in the girl’s bathroom doesn’t work. Green water stains streak the walls.
Welcome to public school in our nation’s capital.
“It’s just not fair,” says Jacquelyn Davis, a second-year law student at Georgetown. “Kids are influenced by their learning environment. If it doesn’t look enticing or inviting, they can’t do as well.”
Six years ago, Davis cofounded Hands on D.C., an event that one Saturday each spring sends 3,000 volunteers to spruce up Washington, D.C., public schools. The group now repairs about fifty schools annually and has raised $300,000 in college scholarships.
Davis dreamed up Hands on D.C. after reading startling news about crumbling city schools and pre-teens who plan their own funerals. “It struck me,” Davis recalls, “that they must have no hope.” One day, while stopped at a traffic light on her way to work, Davis watched a group of young African Americans walking to school accompanied by a police officer. She wondered, “What must it be like to grow up in a place where you worry you might have a funeral instead of a prom?”
She called friends, who called their friends, and a few weeks later the Hands on D.C. organizing committee was born. To this day, the program is run entirely by volunteers. The “work-a-thon” involves such tasks as carpeting libraries, covering peeling paint, picking debris from playgrounds, and trimming overgrown athletic fields. “I think it’s important,” Davis says, “for kids to see, when they walk into school on Monday morning, that all the walls are really white. They’ll know they haven’t been forgotten.” Volunteers also raise money for scholarships that have helped send more than sixty city students to college, Davis says.
This year Davis spent her day at Ballou High School, where she also teaches a class called Street Law, which is aimed at helping adolescents learn everything from criminal law to constitutional rights. The school is just ten minutes from the U.S. Capitol, yet until Davis organized a field trip, only two of her fifteen students had been there. What’s more, she adds, some were actually shocked to learn that there are African-American legislators.
Critics charge that as a one-day event Hands on D.C does not have a real effect. “The impact is much greater than one day,” counters Davis, citing examples of volunteers who end up working on other city projects. Another lasting benefit, she adds, comes from bringing white-collar workers into Washington’s poorest areas, thereby breaking down a “barrier of fear.”