One of the biggest agents of change at Raymond Elementary School stands 6’6″, weighs over 260 lbs., and carries a mop. David Clea, a graduate of Washington, D.C.’s McKinley High and former college basketball player, works as Raymond’s janitor. Unlike most janitors, though, when he finishes cleaning the building, Clea’s work is far from done.
Instead of going home, he uses his spare time to spearhead an extracurricular program at Raymond called “Boys to Men,” which brings a group of 70-80 boys together to teach them about the importance of good behavior and personal hygiene. Boys to Men also provides tutoring for those who are struggling in their classes.
Since the program’s beginning under Timothy Williams, a former Raymond principal and current District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) superintendent, Clea has communicated his message to hundreds of students. “The big thing has always been about respect,” said Clea. “Part of that program was every Friday, all the men and the students dressed up in shirt and tie. I basically carried it on from there.”
Once considered a high-performing public school, Raymond today grapples with the same problems facing many underperforming DCPS schools. Poverty is a big one: last year 40 of Raymond’s 250 students were homeless, according to principal LaShada Ham. Turnover at the local shelter, as well as the rapidly changing neighborhoods in Petworth, mean an itinerant student body. Many students don’t stay longer than six months.
These challenges, though, have only strengthened the resolve of Raymond’s staff to get their school back on track. Since becoming principal in 2006, Ham has seen her faculty and staff always ready to go the extra mile. Last year, every single adult on the faculty or staff worked with students to improve test scores.
“The adults in the building saw that there was this need,” Ham said. “It just kind of spread.”
In addition to Boys to Men, a number of other programs have been introduced in an effort to improve the education students receive at Raymond. “Capital Gains,” a program in which Raymond began participating this year, actually pays students for attendance, proper behavior, and good grades. A partnership with the Retired Teacher’s Association provides Raymond with free materials and tutoring, while the Fillmore Arts Center, which opened last year on Raymond’s third floor, gives students a chance to perform instrumental music, dance, and drama.
Coupled with the faculty and staff’s dedication, this willingness to think outside the box has produced some impressive results. Last year the school’s math and reading scores jumped by 32% and 26% respectively, a soaring improvement that DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee called “unbelievable.”
The multipronged nature of Raymond’s approach exemplifies Rhee’s prescription for all of Washington’s underperforming schools. Because its problems do not arise from a single pathogen, but from a complex of ills, Rhee argues that no single idea will cure DCPS. Instead of just “one 100% solution,” she’s looking for “fifty 2% solutions.”
Raymond’s janitor, however, might not be satisfied with being just 2% for the kids at his school. That could explain why he never works less than a 12-hour day. “These kids come from a background that — well, we wouldn’t consider normal,” Clea said. “A lot of them don’t have a support system at home, so when they come here, the school should be a safe haven.”
As students stream out of their classrooms and gather around the legs of their smiling “Mr. Clea,” it’s easy to see how he watches over them: like a father.
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