Kwame Brown, Chairman of Washington DC’s City Council, is the youngest chairman in the history of the city. As a result, Brown says he’s constantly surrounded by young people. And it shows. Brown has spearheaded the development of multiple vocational high schools in D.C. and even leads college tours for young people. But this last week, Brown proposed a law that has the power to make him either wildly popular or unpopular among that same crowd. The College Preparatory Plan Act would require public high school seniors in Wash., D.C. to take the SAT or ACT and apply to at least one post-secondary school.
TURNSTYLE: Could you please explain the law you’re proposing for D.C. students regarding applying to college?
KWAME BROWN: The College Preparatory Plan Act requires D.C. public school seniors to apply to one post-secondary school. It is one of a series of bills that I have introduced.
When you’re in high school, the question is to ensure that every child has an opportunity to go to college; that’s what this law does. You can’t go to college unless you take the SAT or the ACT, as well actually apply.
TURNSTYLE: What was the inspiration for the law?
BROWN: The inspiration is to increase the graduation rate and to increase the number of students going to post-secondary [schools]. Clearly when you’re focused on SATs, when you’re focused on looking at colleges, then you’re more focused on graduating high school, because you have to get out of high school to get into a college.
We all know that a college degree, or some college education or post-secondary education, is important. There have been statistics by The Fiscal Policy Institute that show that those that went on to get some sort of post-secondary [education] over the last 20 years earned 37% percent more money. Those that did not, and only had a high school diploma, [their] income rose by 1%. So that shows that most jobs now require some post-secondary education and we need to prepare our students for that, making sure they exposure and the opportunity to succeed.
TURNSTYLE: Something I’m sure many critics will ask is, how many of these students are prepared enough to succeed at the college level? Are you just setting kids up to fail?
BROWN: So many adults will give you every reason why kids can’t learn as opposed to saying why they can. Here in D.C. we have a school called Thurgood Marshall Academy, located in Ward 8, which is a low-income area [and] has an unemployment [rate] somewhere between 30 to 40 percent. It is still one of the top public high schools in the city. They graduate 100 percent [of their students] and 100 percent of their students go to college…they require you to fill out five applications. And these students are from the [low-income] neighborhood, which shows that students can learn. It’s time for adults to raise the bar and raise the standards.
TURNSTYLE: Many school districts are expanding the academy model, where students receive career-specific training early on…sort of acknowledging that not every student will or should progress towards college. What do you think of that model?
BROWN: I love it. I have been the champion of vocational education here in the District of Columbia. I spearheaded the most modernized vocational school in the country, Phelps Architect, Engineering and Construction High School. We have Hospitality High, which deals to the hospitality area. We also have Carlos Rosario High School, which deals with health care, vocational training, and culinary arts. And then we have Cardoza Construction Academy, which deals with green construction for green jobs.
TURNSTYLE: Have you spoken to any young people regarding the law? If so, what have their responses been?
BROWN: They loved it, though some obviously don’t like it. They say, “I don’t want to take that test because nobody has ever told me to take that test.” And it’s sad because some of them don’t have anyone in their family that has ever been to college, so they don’t know how to fill out a college application. Some think it’s too expensive to go to college and don’t even know that financial aid is available for them. Some wish that someone would take time to help them understand how to go through the process. Frankly, those who have graduated from school probably wish someone had made them take [the SAT or ACT.]
TURNSTYLE: What are the consequences for students if they don’t apply to college?
BROWN: At this point, it would be a graduation requirement.
TURNSTYLE: So they would risk not getting a diploma if they didn’t apply to college?
BROWN: We want to phase it in over time, but the idea is that every ninth grader will understand that this is a requirement for their graduation, and that they should put emphasis on understanding how to apply to, and the benefits of getting, their post-secondary education.
TURNSTYLE: If the consequence is revocation of a diploma, wouldn’t that hurt students more than help them? Are there any safety nets set up for students who don’t follow through?
BROWN: In the top five schools [in the District of Columbia], two of which are in the top 100 [schools] in the country, they require [students to apply to college]. At the worst schools, they don’t require anything. So when you say, “Is it required? Is it going to work? Is it not going to work?” It’s working.
TURNSTYLE: When applying to colleges there are various financial restraints, such as application fees, and the costs of tests and official transcripts. The D.C. public school district currently has 11,618 students enrolled in high school and had one-third low-income residents in 2010. What sort of support system is set up for those struggling financially?
BROWN: First of all, the D.C. school system also spends a billion dollars more than any other school district on the number of children. And out of a billion dollars… maybe $100,000 dollars can be set aside to assure that young folks have every option to apply [to college] and increase their educational level through post-secondary education. We have enough money. The real question is, do adults want to get out of the way and set high expectations for our students? I believe that when you set those high expectations for students, students will achieve them. Unfortunately, we need more adults to believe that.
This story was originally published on TurnstyleNews.com on January 11, 2012.