Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Youth Voice: Make the Wilson Building Work for You(th)

This week, we're sharing the perspective of Henry Eisler, a youth participant in Mikva Challenge DC who is spending his summer writing a blog to elevate the voices of DC youth and inspire them to play an active role in the District's political system. We thank Henry and Mikva Challenge DC for their contribution to this blog!

There is a building on Pennsylvania Avenue that influences the life of every young person living in Washington, DC every day. In this building, elected officials govern, pass legislation, and make monumental decisions that determine the way the entire city functions. This building, despite what you may have been thinking, is not the White House; this is the John A. Wilson building, home to the City Council of the District of Columbia. This City Council is a group of accomplished men and women who craft and pass the laws and regulations that determine the manner in which the city operates and its residents may act. 

Introduction to the Work of the Council

As the DC City Council quickly works to finalize a budget for the new term (Fall 2016), their focus is beginning to shift towards an improved education platform that will have positive effects on young people across the city. The Council’s Committee on Education, chaired by Councilman David Grosso, has been increasingly pushing the addition of education reforms to the 2017 budget deal. These reforms primarily aim to expand school reading and library projects, support nutritional health and on-campus medical aid programs, and lower rates of truancy in schools throughout the District.

Reading Initiative

The most immediate changes to the 2017 education budget will focus on public schools’ library collections and relationships with the local Books from Birth program, a DC-centered group that sends free books to children throughout the city during the first five years of their lives. These changes in the budget are part of the Council’s greater effort to combat the steadily rising rates of illiteracy in the District. In 2007, the University of the District of Columbia paired with American University to conduct a census regarding rates of literacy in DC. The study found that more than one in every three city residents is functionally illiterate, with illiteracy rates varying in different wards. Wards 5, 7, and 8 produced numbers double the national average of 25%, with illiteracy rates hovering around the 50% mark collectively.

Now, the Committee on Education, through long work with the Council and Mayor Bowser, has diverted an additional $800,000 to expanding public and school library’s resources for 2017 alone. This adjustment will spur immediate change across the DC public school system, increasing the number of books available to kids of all ages in schools throughout the city. Additionally, there have been large increases in funding of the Books from Birth program. The local government’s recent attention to the importance of reading will hopefully expand literacy rates and commitment to education for people of all ages living in the District.

Healthier Schools

Since a bout of bad publicity surrounding the quality of the District’s school lunch plans, support for a renewed nutritional health program has grown substantially. The Committee on Education recently passed a new initiative against unhealthy school environments for 2017 which includes expanded funding for a number of health and safety programs on public school campuses. With this adjustment, DCPS cafeterias will be paired with Healthy Tots, an organization that seeks to improve the standard of school lunches nationwide. Healthy Tots will ensure that all DCPS lunches meet the CACFP meal requirements and are locally grown and unprocessed. This program pairing should lower the surprisingly high rates of childhood obesity in DC found by the Council’s 2015 study. Despite commonly being referred to as one of the nation’s healthiest cities, 14% of low-income preschoolers (ages 2-4) and 15% of all teens are obese, rates that parallel national averages for urban communities. Also, additional funds were diverted to increasing the number of school-based health centers available to students across the city.

Addressing Truancy

Finally, the Council’s Committee on Education is working to finalize a program that could considerably cut truancy rates across DC public schools by the end of the upcoming school year. Nicholas Stauffer-Mason, a recent DCPS graduate and Mikva Challenge DC intern in the office of the Deputy Mayor of Education, has been assigned to a task force that is working to find the root causes behind DC high school’s high rates of truancy. When asked about his experience, he said: “It’s exciting to be able to work on an issue that’s so relevant to young people’s lives. Truancy is a multifaceted issue that needs multifaceted solutions; I think that the role students play will make all the difference.” The Deputy Mayor’s office is organizing a roundtable open to DCPS students and hopes to speak with students on their experiences with the school system. Details regarding the time and place of the meeting will be posted soon on their website.

Making Your Voice Heard

One of the Council’s greatest goals of the summer has been the implementation of more inclusive ways to garner feedback and input from students during the budget process. The City Council holds routine legislative meetings in the Wilson Building, right in downtown DC. Members work to craft and pass the bills and regulations that will affect young people across the District, in and out of school, every day. There are weekly open sessions during which residents are invited to come express their opinions and share their ideas with the very people who control local legislation. To anyone who has ever had a complaint about the work of the DC government, please, check the Council’s schedule posted on and head over to a meeting to make sure your voice is heard.

Henry Eisler is working with the Mikva Challenge DC  this summer to write a blog that describes the work of the DC City Council and the ways in which it will affect young people throughout the city. His goal is to increase youth engagement and involvement with their political system. Issues that affect kids in DC are best understood and can be most effectively fixed by the people that come into contact with them every day. He hopes that his blog will help to bridge the gap become DC youth and the city’s political system.

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