School Choice Saves a Life in Washington, DC

Published January 1, 2004

Although she’d already raised two children on her own, Virginia Walden Ford found her youngest son William to be more than a handful. An ear infection as a baby had left him with some hearing loss and although he did learn to talk, his mom was the only one who could really understand him.

When he started school in the District of Columbia, his teachers diagnosed him with a learning disability and tried to place him in special ed classes. Knowing William was a bright boy struggling with hearing loss, Virginia argued his real need was speech therapy.

She managed to keep him out of special ed classes, but by the end of 2nd grade he was not keeping up with his classmates. She asked the school to hold him back. Instead, he was promoted. After he completed the 5th grade, she again asked that he be held back. Again he was promoted.

The problems continued. Every year she found herself wrangling, unsuccessfully, with the school district over one issue or another. William attended three different elementary schools. At one, a teacher even suggested she needed to “get him out of this school.”

She did as much as she could to help him with his school work at home, but as a single mom working long hours, by the end of the day she was exhausted. At some point, she says, “I just got tired of fighting the school district.”

As William got older, his rambunctious friends at school were becoming insolent, even violent. The school often called for her to come in, sometimes three times a week. Then, in 8th grade, he began skipping school, sometimes disappearing for two or three days. Fearing he would drop out, Virginia confronted him. His reply was simple, and searing.

“They don’t care if I come,” he said, “so why should I go?”

Matters came to a head the following year when Ben, one of William’s classmates, began participating more actively in class. William’s friends, thinking Ben was trying to make them look bad, beat him up, leaving him bloody and paralyzed on the gym floor.

Virginia began looking at more drastic measures to get William out of that unsafe environment. She put him on the waiting list at two other schools in the district and even started looking at whether he could live with her parents in Arkansas. Unless something changed, William was destined to become another of the district’s dismal failures.

Then, unlike too many students in D.C. and around the country, William got lucky. A stranger, Bob Lewis, moved into the neighborhood and recognized William’s potential: He wasn’t a bad kid; he was just making the best of a bad hand. Bob offered to pay the $6,000 tuition so William could attend Archbishop Carroll, a Catholic high school in northeast Washington.

Now, five years later, with high school and a year of college at Montgomery County Community College under his belt, William is a Marine stationed in California. Two of his former school friends, who didn’t have their own Bob Lewis to get them on track, are in jail.

Virginia only hopes the new D.C. scholarship program will give other students what Bob Lewis gave her son–a little choice, a little hope, and a good education.

Royce Van Tassell is executive director of Education Excellence Utah. His email address is [email protected].