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Photo Pro Bono Goes to School panel collage

DC Pro Bono Week 2021: Closing the Gaps in Public Education

By Delali A. Dagadu

Brown v. Board of Education, decided by the Supreme Court in 1954, unanimously established that segregation in education is inherently unequal and thus unconstitutional. “Separate but equal” had no place in our society, especially in the classroom. “Education is the foundation of good citizenship.”

That ruling was over half a century ago. Yet today, according to Kent Withycombe, Director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee Public Education Project, public schools in the District of Columbia and the surrounding region are more segregated, separate, and unequal now than they were in the 1950s. Brown v. Board of Education may have established equal access to education as a constitutional right, but it did not close the gaps in public education.

Getting legal professionals involved in the school communities, to help close the gaps in D.C. public schools, was the focus of the panel discussion, Pro Bono Goes to School: Closing the Gaps in Public Education, held on October 29, during D.C. Pro Bono Week 2021.

The panelists included:

Kent Withycombe, who moderated the panel, started the discussion with an overview of the DC public school system. He explained that in spite of some advances over the last 20 years, D.C. is still not doing well in closing the education gap. On average, only 59% of students in the District of Columbia graduate from high school; for Black and Brown students, that number is even lower. He also noted that 80% of students in the D.C. public school system are Black and Brown, who are also the student population with disproportionately high rates of suspension. He went on to emphasize that low proficiency on tests is an indication of how we are doing as a school system (and society) in closing opportunity gaps.

Kent further explained that this gap is due to the lack of resources and support within the public school system. Economic disparities in Black and Brown communities are affecting the ways students learn and interact within their communities. Students are disproportionally being left behind because of inadequate system structures such as poor access to health and wellness and digital inequity. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the lack of resources in Black and Brown school communities.  There is a problem in public education if Black and Brown students are disproportionally impacted in their learning, compared to their white counterparts.

As Kent explained, the purpose of the Lawyers’ Committees and the school partnership programs is to help close the gaps in D.C. school communities. Pro Bono Goes to School is a call for businesses, law firms, lawyers, and law students to get involved in the school communities in order to understand the challenges and address them.

Georgetown University Law Center’s Street Law Program has partnered with D.C. school communities to address learning challenges in public education by teaching high school students how to think critically and apply the law in one way.  Charisma explained the methodology used in Street Law to teach high school students to engage in critical thinking to analyze complex legal concepts, such as the right to free speech. Started in 1972, the Georgetown University Law Center’s Street Law Program and Mock Trial (Street Law) is the oldest civics-based program that deploys law students and legal professionals to teach law-related concepts. As a school partnership program, Street law is helping to close the gap in public education by teaching the law and trial advocacy skills to high school students in the classroom and the community. The program hosts classes in every Ward of the District.

As Professor Charisma Howell acknowledged, the strength of the Street Law program is in part due to lawyers, legal professionals, and law students volunteering to teach legal skills to high school students. More lawyers, judges, and law students volunteers are still needed to teach these legal skills to students. She noted that Vice President Kamala Harris is an alumni instructor.

Next, Camille Thompson explained the importance of students working with mentors who are currently in the field. The Marshall-Brennan program was created to help students find their voice and what it means. Started in 1999, Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project and Moot Court at American University’s Washington College of Law teaches constitutional principles and oral advocacy skills to high school students. Students learn how to express their voice through Moot Court competitions and art, such as painting and spoken words. Camille encouraged lawyers and law students to get involved by becoming a mentor for students and by volunteering as judges for Moot Court competitions.

Robyn Lingo noted that the best way students can learn about democracy within their community is by doing democracy. At Mikva Challenge, Participatory Civics Education program (Mikva): “Democracy is a Verb!” Molding students to be engaged citizens and empowering them to get involved in their community is a key programmatic goal.

Karla Morin-Castilla described the Mikva Project Soapbox as a platform to show students how to be engaged citizens. She noted that schools and classrooms shape a student’s identity and attitude about learning. Project Soapbox is a civic duty platform for students to learn about civic issues and public speaking. Everyone is encouraged to volunteer to share their experience with students.

David Trigaux explained that students who participate in debate education have improved grades and test scores and are more likely to enroll in college. Developed as an educational intervention program thirty years ago, the Washington Urban Debate League, which focuses on Title I School students, serves over 48 public middle and high schools by advancing debate education.

Students learn valuable life skills and improve their overall learning experience by engaging in the art of debating and public speaking. The goal is to prepare students to be effective future leaders and engaged citizens. Thus, David noted, debaters are more likely to engage in civic duties such as voting and campaigning. The program currently needs judges, coaches, and lawyers, to help students throughout the school year.  To get involved, contact David Trigaux.

How can you help? By getting involved and volunteering with local programs that empower students to be good citizens and future leaders. Volunteering is one of the many ways you can help close the gaps in public education.

Brown v. Board of Education already established that the right to learn must be equal for all students. However, equity in education requires community partnership with schools to make sure all students have the access to which they are entitled. As these speakers emphasized, true education equity requires pro bono to go to school and bridge the divides in public education.

Delali A. Dagadu is a law student at the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law.

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