Waiting for Daniel: The Slow Journey from the D.C. Streets to a GED

For one former drug dealer and dropout, the journey from D.C. streets to GED is slow.

J. Weston Phippen
April 1, 2015, 8:19 a.m.

Wash­ing­ton, D.C.—At 6:30 a.m. Daniel Childs opens his eyes and lifts his head from bed with hopes to rise above what he calls his “con­sist­ency prob­lem.” The tem­per­at­ure out­side is ex­actly freez­ing. Without a car, it will take the 21-year-old more than an hour on the bus to reach his first week of GED ori­ent­a­tion class, with trans­fers in the icy wind. The two-bed­room apart­ment he shares with an aunt and two cous­ins is si­lent. The room is dark. He is so far from what he hopes to be­come, and with change comes the pos­sib­il­ity of fail­ure. So many reas­ons to lie back down.

Two months ago, Childs walked in­to the D.C. ReEn­gage­ment Cen­ter search­ing for help. There, he found Dana Simpson, an in­take coun­selor with a per­man­ent smile who greeted him with a hug.

Childs told her he’d grown up in a rough, poor neigh­bor­hood. When he was still young, his fath­er left—”just lost in­terest,” Childs’s moth­er puts it. Then his mom lost her job. Then they lost the fam­ily home. His little sis­ter and moth­er moved in­to an apart­ment sev­en miles away, and Childs shuttled between friends and re­l­at­ives. About this time, as he entered high school, Childs real­ized that the guys who wore the new shoes and fresh clothes didn’t head off to punch time cards every morn­ing. They stood in the streets all day—sold drugs or robbed homes.

Life out there seemed like the rap lyr­ics he’d grown up on. Childs joined them.

When Childs dropped out of school in 2008, about 5 mil­lion young men and wo­men were con­sidered “dis­con­nec­ted,” in the cat­egory of 16- to 24-year-olds who neither at­tend school nor work. By 2011, after the re­ces­sion, the num­ber of dis­con­nec­ted youth had in­creased by more than 800,000. 

The River­side-San Bern­ardino area claims the highest per­cent­age of dis­con­nec­ted youths, fol­lowed by De­troit, Char­lotte, and Phoenix, ac­cord­ing to a 2013 study by Meas­ure of Amer­ica, a pro­ject of the So­cial Sci­ence Re­search Coun­cil. In Wash­ing­ton, D.C., like many of those oth­er cit­ies, young black and Latino youths drop out or are un­em­ployed at rates two and three times high­er than their white coun­ter­parts. As the coun­try’s minor­ity pop­u­la­tion grows, this trend poses huge risks to our glob­al com­pet­it­ive­ness. It threatens to im­mensely ex­pand so­cial spend­ing—each dis­con­nec­ted youth costs $755,900 over a life­time. And be­cause already one of every four young black men who drop out ends up be­hind bars, it also threatens to con­demn more black youths to pris­on.

(RE­LATED: This May Be the Year That Crime Fi­nally Stops Be­ing an Is­sue)

Pres­id­ent Obama has called this dis­con­nec­tion crisis both a “mor­al is­sue” and “the eco­nom­ic is­sue of our time.” Wash­ing­ton launched the ReEn­gage­ment Cen­ter last fall to ad­dress the crisis, with lead­ers call­ing it part of the city’s “second-chance sys­tem” for out-of-school youth. The ques­tions are the same, wheth­er puzzled over by White House poli­cy­makers or ReEn­gage­ment staff mem­bers like Simpson: What drives this dis­con­nec­tion? And how can we fix it? 

At any one mo­ment, the chal­lenge can be as simple and as com­plic­ated as get­ting one young man back on track to earn a high school equi­val­ency de­gree. 

Lately, when Childs pic­tured his fu­ture, he saw a tele­phone pole wrapped in t-shirts that me­mori­al­ized a murdered friend. He thought of a deathbed prom­ise to his fath­er.

So he spent the month of Novem­ber get­ting a new So­cial Se­cur­ity card and birth cer­ti­fic­ate, to re­place the old ones that had been lost in nu­mer­ous moves. In Decem­ber, he found the ReEn­gage­ment Cen­ter on­line. The next day, he walked in­to Simpson’s hug and told her, “I’m try­ing to get in­to school.” A place­ment test told him that while he ex­celled in writ­ing, he struggled with math, and be­cause the cen­ter doesn’t host classes, Simpson drove him to GED pro­grams around the city. Childs signed up for one in South­east, where a close friend of his hap­pens to work. As Childs waited for classes to be­gin, he spent nearly five days a week at the cen­ter, wary of fall­ing in­to old habits. 

(RE­LATED: Manu­al Labor, All Night Long: The Real­ity of Pay­ing for Col­lege)

Up to six months of classes and tests in four sub­jects stood between Childs and his GED. But the most im­me­di­ate battle re­quired that he show up. Every week­day morn­ing, at 9:30 a.m, for three hours. First to a week of ori­ent­a­tion, fol­lowed by his first week of classes.

On this first day of ori­ent­a­tion, as the clock nears nine, Simpson stands from her chair at the ReEn­gage­ment Cen­ter. Childs had told her he’d meet here be­fore ori­ent­a­tion. She glances at her phone. Childs has no cell.

Be­hind the ReEn­gage­ment Cen­ter runs the Anacos­tia River. To one side, the neigh­bor­hoods are mostly white, pop­u­lated by people with money, whose kids had un­re­cog­nized ad­vant­ages. To the oth­er side of the river, black teens weigh sur­viv­al against a seat in class.

* * * 

For a few anxious mo­ments, Simpson sits in her chair as her row of sol­ar-powered bobble heads nod back. She walks to the base­ment from the glass build­ing’s second floor, eases in­to a gov­ern­ment sedan, and heads south on Min­nesota Av­en­ue. In the pas­sen­ger seat rides a 21-year-old moth­er named Bria Craw­ford.

Craw­ford dropped out of high school her seni­or year. She’d been ex­pelled for fight­ing. She only needed a few cred­its to gradu­ate, but her pride and em­bar­rass­ment wouldn’t al­low her to trans­fer. Now she couldn’t find a job, and she couldn’t pay rent. Along with her two-year-old daugh­ter, Craw­ford lives in a Qual­ity Inn fun­ded by the Vir­gin­ia Wil­li­ams Fam­ily Re­source Cen­ter. A so­cial work­er there re­ferred her to the ReEn­gage­ment Cen­ter, where Simpson asked what was stop­ping her from fin­ish­ing her de­gree.

(RE­LATED: Rais­ing a Daugh­ter in a De­troit Squat­ting Com­munity)

It is of­ten small bar­ri­ers that de­rail re-en­roll­ment, and since the ReEn­gage­ment Cen­ter opened last fall un­der the Of­fice of the State Su­per­in­tend­ent of Edu­ca­tion, it has formed con­nec­tions with city­wide so­cial ser­vices. When a young man or wo­man walks in, Simpson or one of her col­leagues can dir­ect them to hous­ing, food, child care, men­tal-health ser­vices, edu­ca­tion­al pro­grams. The Cov­en­ant House in South­east is one such re­source, and after a 15-minute drive, Craw­ford and Simpson walk in­to the lobby.

As they do, Childs stands and says hello. He’d ar­rived 30 minutes early. Simpson says noth­ing, just smiles and hugs him. Then she leads Craw­ford down the hall­way.

At 9:30, Childs un­ce­re­mo­ni­ously walks up the stairs and in­to a classroom for ori­ent­a­tion. Six stu­dents, all Afric­an-Amer­ic­an, sit at three rows of gray tables. Childs wears a puffy black coat over his tat­tooed arms and a bean­ie pulled down to his soft brown eyes. He signs the roll and sits in the middle. Arms on his lap, back straight, he looks ahead, where two teach­ers write the day’s lec­ture on a white­board:

  • con­flict res­ol­u­tion
  • con­flict man­age­ment
  • dress code

“What’s a re­cent con­flict you got in­to and how did you solve it?” one teach­er asks.

The teach­er glances at the three wo­men in the room. “Come on, moms.”

“I have prob­lems every day,” a young wo­man in the front row says.

“How about cop­ing skills,” the oth­er teach­er asks. “How about just clos­ing your eyes and go­ing to that calm place?”

“My mind wanders too much,” the wo­man says. “It’s like a chat­ter­box. I wouldn’t be able to just close my eyes. I be think­ing about too much.”

“OK,” the teach­er says, “what are the prob­lems you had in oth­er school set­tings that made you wind up here?”

“Skip­ping class,” Childs of­fers. “You know, smoking, hanging out with the wrong crowd. Not do­ing school work. Get­ting bad grades. Or it could be, like, something go­ing on at home.”

Childs’s fath­er left his nine-year-old son a love of rap, par­tic­u­larly of Tupac Shak­ur—and not much else.

(RE­LATED: What the Great Re­ces­sion Taught Us About Long-Term Un­em­ploy­ment)

His moth­er was work­ing as a spe­cial-edu­ca­tion aide when she lost her job. Next went the home with the rose bushes his grandma had planted. Childs’s moth­er and young­er sis­ter moved in­to an already-crowded apart­ment with re­l­at­ives. Childs moved in with his grandma. He lived there for a year and the two grew close, un­til he found his grandma dead on the floor from a heart at­tack. “He called cry­ing and scream­ing,” Mar­tina King, his moth­er, says. He stayed with friends and re­l­at­ives, and one day in class as a sopho­more, Childs and his best friend, Saquan, got in­to a fight with a teach­er. To­geth­er, they walked out of high school and in­to the streets. Childs turned to what he calls “the mi­crowave life,” where he be­lieved money would come quick and easy, rob­bing homes or selling drugs.

His moth­er had fin­ished high school, and that led to a life of hard work with little to show. To Childs, money was the prob­lem. Also the solu­tion. And the surest way to that seemed to be through mu­sic. The rap­pers he loved grew up like him. They wrote about a life like his. They had money.

Childs re­con­nec­ted with his fath­er just be­fore he died of can­cer. He prom­ised to straight­en up, yet he still thought of edu­ca­tion as a means to sup­port his way out through mu­sic.

He says none of this in class. It just bal­ances atop those last words, “Something go­ing on at home.”

“Yeah,” the teach­er says. “Per­son­al stuff.”

After class, Childs sits in the lun­ch­room and spreads his feet wide. He leans back and his puffy coat re­veals his sweat­shirt, which he has had spe­cially prin­ted with the rap la­bel he hopes to start: “Straight Up D.C.” Be­low it are three let­ters: “G.M.C.”

“Get Money Crew,” he smiles.

The next day of ori­ent­a­tion cov­ers how to ef­fect­ively com­mu­nic­ate prob­lems, then soft skills like work­place etiquette, then how the staff will dis­trib­ute bus tokens. By Fri­day, Childs sits with his head in his hand while the teach­er asks, “Tell me what it is you ex­pect to get from Cov­en­ant House?”

Em­ploy­ment, a stu­dent says. Fin­an­cial sta­bil­ity, says an­oth­er. Re­spons­ib­il­ity.

Childs has learned that Cov­en­ant House owns re­cord­ing equip­ment, and already he has asked the staff to use it. When the teach­er calls on Childs, he re­sponds, “I just want to ex­pand my mu­sic ho­ri­zons.”

The teach­er pauses.

“Also, I want to get bet­ter at math,” he adds.

The teach­er writes it on the board.

* * *

Childs ar­rives early to the first day of class.

At 9:30, the same six stu­dents take their chairs, and Childs again slides in­to the middle row.

The teach­er, an older white man, writes “a+b=c” on the board, for a les­son plan that will range from ele­ment­ary math to al­gebra.

“Don’t be afraid to count out loud if you want to,” the teach­er tells every­one. “You might be em­bar­rassed, but you’ll be em­bar­rassed with a GED.”

After five minutes, a stu­dent walks out. A man in the back row slips in an ear­bud. A wo­man clears her throat. She spits in­to the garbage. She spits again. And again.

“We’ll also learn why in my time, they wer­en’t called decim­al num­bers,” the teach­er says, paus­ing a bit for dra­mat­ic ef­fect. “They were called Ar­ab­ic num­bers.”

Childs leans his head against his hand. At 10:50, the class breaks. Only three stu­dents re­turn to dis­cuss decim­als and frac­tions, and by 11:20 every­one but Childs has van­ished. Now the teach­er lec­tures about the Moor­ish con­quest of Spain, then something about Al­ex­an­der the Great and the Mon­gols. Fi­nally, the les­son weaves back to num­bers. “So we call everything between zero and nine a di­git, be­cause what’s an­oth­er name for fin­gers?” the teach­er poses to the class, which is Childs. “And how many fin­gers do you have?”

“Ten,” Childs an­swers.

“Ex­actly.”

Childs walks down­stairs and slumps in­to a seat in the lun­ch­room, an ex­ten­sion of the lobby with six round tables and vend­ing ma­chines. His child­hood friend, Saquan, who he dropped out of school with and who now works at Cov­en­ant House, walks near with a laptop.

Saquan opens the laptop and scrolls through a list of their songs, re­cor­ded in his homemade stu­dio. Some of the titles read, “Club Shit,” “Out the Mud,” and an­oth­er that be­gins, “Time to get this money… money, money, money”…”

As the track winds up, Childs raps along and bobs in the chair.

Three oth­er men hear the mu­sic and join the table. Partly brag­ging, Saquan tells them he’s ex­hausted be­cause Childs and an­oth­er guy were at his house all night in his stu­dio.

“You see­ing me here?” Saquan asks the stu­dent. “I be drained. They do noth­ing but rap. That’s all they do.”

”Cause we try­ing to get rich,” Childs says from over his shoulder.

“And they don’t want me to get no sleep,” Saquan says. “They say, ‘Man, what you do­ing?’ I say, ‘I got to go to work in the morn­ing.’”

Saquan, 21, earned his GED a little more than a year ago. He first came to Cov­en­ant House for job train­ing. “He was ex­tremely raw,” says Cliff Ro­gers, who co­ordin­ates Cov­en­ant’s work-read­i­ness pro­gram. “No em­ploy­ment. No résumé. No soft skills.”

Ro­gers helped Saquan get his first job bag­ging gro­cer­ies. A few days later, Saquan wanted to quit. It was too far, he dis­liked his cowork­ers. Ro­gers told him no, first he had to find an­oth­er job. Saquan ground it out un­til he found one, and later when he com­plained about that job, Ro­gers stayed on him un­til he found an­oth­er. He even­tu­ally be­came the first former stu­dent hired full-time at Cov­en­ant House, where he an­swers phones and cleans the build­ing. 

“Now he’s really un­der­stand­ing that work is a com­mit­ment,” Ro­gers says.

The mu­sic rolls in­to a chor­us.

Childs’s first day of school had felt noth­ing like rap lyr­ics. It had not been quick and easy. The stu­dents sit around the table, and the chor­us sounds like a man­tra. “GMC, GMC we up now…”

On Tues­day, Childs again ar­rives early.

On Wed­nes­day, three stu­dents learn how to solve for “x.” Childs is not one of them. He doesn’t show the next day, either.

On Fri­day, still no Childs.

* * *

The gap is, and is not, about race.

In schol­arly pa­pers, the gap is about poor neigh­bor­hoods and res­id­en­tial se­greg­a­tion. Hous­ing prices push lower-in­come fam­il­ies away from em­ploy­ment areas and in­to neigh­bor­hoods that lack ef­fect­ive pub­lic trans­port­a­tion. This cre­ates is­lands where un­em­ploy­ment is com­mon, high­er edu­ca­tion is scarce, and poverty is stand­ard.

(RE­LATED: When the Path to Homeown­er­ship Runs Through Pub­lic Hous­ing)

Rus­sell Krum­now, man­aging dir­ect­or of Op­por­tun­ity Na­tion, says in Amer­ica we’d all like to be­lieve that a per­son can come from noth­ing and rise to the top, that suc­cess is about the in­di­vidu­al. But the real­ity is that “cir­cum­stances and zip code of birth have way too much im­pact on how high you can climb on that lad­der of op­por­tun­ity.”

The gap is largely about poverty, and black com­munit­ies across Amer­ica face double the poverty rates of whites, double the un­em­ploy­ment. On the ground floor, to Saquan, that looks like this:

“Think about this, you’re around 10 people, and every­body goes to col­lege—you’re go­ing to be in­spired to go to col­lege, right? If you’re around 50 people, and 10 sell drugs, 15 rob, 10 locked up, and [the oth­ers] don’t do noth­ing but smoke all day, where is the in­spir­a­tion com­ing from? And when you see mom strug­gling, first thing you think is, ‘Let me get some quick money so she won’t struggle for the mo­ment.’”

“I was taught to take care and provide,” he says. “That’s it. To make sure your moth­er is good, your broth­er is good, sis­ter is good, and your little cous­ins. So my safety was nev­er really my con­cern. As long as I sur­vived enough to make sure that they’re good, to see them grow up—fuck my life. That’s how I car­ried it. And just now, I’m really start­ing to real­ize how valu­able life is.”

* * *

Simpson hears noth­ing from Childs all week. Mean­while, law­yers bring their young cli­ents in­to the cen­ter; a staff mem­ber speaks to law-en­force­ment agen­cies around the city. In­to the cen­ter walk single moth­ers, shy young men, teens with an­ger is­sues, the home­less, and those from broken homes. Nearly all are black. Nearly all from one side of the river.

On Thursday of the second week, Childs again walks in­to Cov­en­ant House. Ro­gers, the man­ager, pulls him aside.

Where has he been? Ro­gers asks. Why didn’t he at least call?

Childs says he was sick. He had no phone. Nobody’s num­ber. And when he got bet­ter, he’d spent a few late nights work­ing on mu­sic and was too tired.

Change is a pro­cess, and Ro­gers knows this. Any time you ask a per­son to re­arrange their habits, it’ll be dif­fi­cult. How of­ten has Childs’s own life ever been con­sist­ent? How of­ten has it been de­pend­able? Childs leaves the of­fice for a seat in class.

The fol­low­ing Fri­day, Childs takes a bus from Cov­en­ant House to the ReEn­gage­ment Cen­ter, as he has not seen Simpson in three weeks. He boards the bus with Craw­ford, the wo­man who rode with Simpson on Childs’s first day of ori­ent­a­tion. 

They sit be­side each oth­er, not say­ing much at first. Craw­ford asks if he has used the Cov­en­ant House re­cord­ing equip­ment yet.

“No,” Childs says. “I was go­ing to, but Mr. Ro­gers said I got to fo­cus on my school work.”

“Yeah,” Craw­ford says, star­ing out the win­dow.

“I’m try­ing to get all this go­ing,” Childs says. “It’s just—it’s go­ing to take time, you know?”

Next Amer­ica’s Edu­ca­tion cov­er­age is made pos­sible in part by a grant from the New Ven­ture Fund.

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