A rose grows in Washington

WASHINGTON—When people ask how things are in Washington, you almost have to reply: Which Washington are you talking about?

Last week, official Washington took note of the signs that President Clinton and his administration were finally beginning to function as a government—one day managing a narrow but significant Senate victory for his budget package; another, ordering and executing a necessary retaliatory strike at Saddam Hussein. These were not extraordinary achievements, but for a White House all too prone to shoot itself in the foot, they were hopeful signals.

Washington’s local news was dominated by a run of appalling stories about random, mindless violence—drive-by shootings, drug wars, domestic murders and maimings and, worst of all, a sniper who fired his gun at youngsters playing in a neighborhood pool, wounding six of them.

But beneath those two Washingtons, there is a third city, which draws far too little attention, a city where individuals, families and institutions struggle against official inertia and demoralizing social conditions to build decent, responsible lives.

Eleanor Holmes Norton, the city’s elected delegate to the House of Representatives, spoke of that third Washington last Wednesday evening when she told a small audience in a George Washington University auditorium: “I spend a lot of time dealing with the problems of this city and of this society. This evening, I am looking into the faces of the solution.”

Norton had no idea this reporter was in the room, or that I had already planned to write this column. So she went on to say, “I regret that this class is not considered news, in the same way that the young person who shot up the pool was considering news. Young graduates, you are not only news—you are the good news.”

She was right on all points. And it made me cringe to think that it was by the sheerest chance that I had learned, just two nights before, of the ceremony Norton was addressing:

A bit of background: Four years ago this summer, the then-superintendent of D.C. schools approached the national capital area chapter of the American Society of Public Administration (ASPA), a group of government bureaucrats and management scholars, asking for help in developing a high school curriculum that might prepare young people for government jobs.

In time, the project partners expanded from ASPA to include George Washington University, the University of the District of Columbia, Howard University and several private firms and foundations, including one headed by former Secretary of Labor Bill Brock.

The decision was made to create “a school within a school,” and in the fall of 1990, the first class was enrolled in the Public Service Academy. It was located in Anacostia High School, which serves the poorest, most crime-ridden section of Washington. Anacostia struggles to maintain a 50 percent attendance standard and graduates barely half its students.

The first Public Service Academy class began with 41 members. They were all sitting there, with proud family and friends, to accept their graduation certificates from principal Zavolia D. Willis and from Constance Berry Newman, the undersecretary of the Smithsonian Institution who, as head of the Office of Personnel Management in the Bush administration, had helped enlist a dozen government agencies to assist the Public Service Academy. She and the other outside partners arranged “shadow” assignments for the students following government officials on their jobs. They got the student summer internships at the end of their junior year and half-time government jobs as seniors. In return, the students were required to give frequent verbal and written reports to their classmates, polishing their language skills.

During their three years in the program, the Academy students maintained a 97 percent attendance record. And 36 of the 40 are going on to college, many of them aiming at some form of government service.

It was not easy. The students expressed resentment toward the Academy’s eight faculty members, who stayed with the first class for three years and added a similar-sized class each September. But any Academy student who failed to show up for class, or seemed to be slacking off or getting discouraged could count on quick support—and a lot of nagging—from the others in the program.

The people who argue that public schools are incapable of innovation should have heard what these students and their teachers had to say about the Academy. They should have witnessed the camaraderie and pride.

This was big news. It said that in the finest circumstances, youngsters will respond to challenge, responsibility, attention and concern. It said that bureaucracies can change. It said that the private sector and government can collaborate to achieve notable success.

That, too, thank goodness, is Washington.