Opinion: Columnists

Sunday Reflection: School reform is helping make D.C. safer

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The nation's capital -- once one of America's most violent urban centers -- now ranks only 16th in the annual Forbes ranking of dangerous U.S. cities. The District has gone from 2,452 violent crimes per 100,000 people to just 1,130. The District had almost 500 homicides in 1991, but the total for this year is projected to be about 100.

There are many reasons why D.C. is becoming safer -- more effective policing, increased economic opportunities and the District's bulletproof status during the financial crisis. Some people even claim that the widespread use of cellphones has made the reporting of crime easier, causing it to fall.

But there also is a link between crime and education, an area in which significant changes have taken place in the District.

Research from the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston shows that one in 10 high school dropouts is caught up in the nation's criminal justice system. Among those earning a high school diploma and stopping there, it's one in 35. Among college graduates, it's just one in 190.

Our city has been doing a much better job of ensuring that its young residents graduate high school and are accepted to college than it did in the mid-1990s. At that time, about half of D.C.'s public school students graduated high school, frequently after more than four years in high school.

Today, the 43 percent of District public school students who attend independently run but publicly funded charter schools have a 77 percent four-year high school graduation rate. And most of the city's public charter high schools have 100 percent of their graduating class accepted to college. The four-year high school graduation rate for D.C.'s traditional public school system, at 56 percent, also is much higher than it was in the mid-1990s.

Many charter high schools have introduced more academically rigorous Advanced Placement courses. Some emphasize specialized areas of study, such as law or public policy. All of them are involved in the hard but rewarding work of securing college scholarships for students, without which thousands of children from the city's most vulnerable families would not be able to afford to attend college.

Economically disadvantaged students, of whom D.C. charters educate a larger share than the traditional school system, are more likely to score advanced or proficient on D.C.'s standardized reading and math tests than their peers in the city system.

Charter schools are disproportionately located in vulnerable District neighborhoods, where poverty and crime are widespread. They can create their curriculum and school culture independently of the city-run school system's central office and the union contract. Many of them have become catalysts for improvement of the long-neglected communities they serve by renovating formerly derelict or underused buildings that attracted criminal activity, replacing them with thriving schools that are community assets.

D.C.'s charters have also pioneered investment in early education, which studies show has pronounced benefits for children later in life. A long-term study of the HighScope Perry Preschool Project in Michigan found that at-risk children left out of the high-quality program were five times more likely to be chronic offenders by age 27 than children who did attend, according to research from Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a national nonprofit organization of law enforcement officers and violence survivors.

Children who attended the Chicago Child-Parent Center early-learning program were 29 percent more likely to graduate from high school than those who did not, research has found.

D.C. is reaping the benefits of education reform through schools that are systematically increasing the life chances of our children, benefiting every resident.

Robert Cane is executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, a D.C. nonprofit that promotes school reform via the development of high-quality public charter schools.

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