More than 400 students turned out for the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. day of service Saturday, sloshing through leftover snow to schools, parks and community centers across the District.
Against a backdrop of city-wide budget cuts, volunteers provided much-needed upgrades to five schools and 13 recreation areas in some of the poorest neighborhoods of D.C.
At M.C. Terrell/McGogney Elementary School in Southeast D.C., 80 volunteers spent the afternoon splashing color on bare walls and cataloging new books in the school’s library. Several students stood on chairs and sang along to an old radio while painting a Walt Disney quote onto the wall of the teachers’ lounge.
Located in the city’s poorest quadrant, the school has more than 75 percent of its students scoring below standard on the District reading and math tests, according to this year’s D.C. Public Schools scorecard. Nearly 90 percent of the school’s 255 students qualify for free and reduced-prices lunches.
The school’s principal, Atasha James, voiced gratitude to students for their service to a school and a community in need.
“I think that Dr. King would be very, very proud to see a partnership that leaves tangible evidence that [the volunteers] were here,” James said. “The students are going to be so happy, the aides are going to be so relieved. This would have been a never-ending task for [the aides] to do.”
The elementary school, which has failed to meet the city’s standard for “adequate yearly progress” for six years, is in transition, James said. The school is adding an accelerated reader program and a parents’ association this year.
At nearby Stanton Elementary School, volunteers spent the afternoon helping organize classroom materials. About 10 teachers, many in their first or second years of teaching, coordinated efforts of about 30 volunteers, sharing stories from their experiences at one of the District’s worst performing elementary schools. Students cut out flashcards, sorted worksheets and created reading packets about leaders like King and President Barack Obama.
Like Terrell, Stanton is also seeking to strengthen its academic performance, and saw a 27-percent uptick in math scores last year.
University President Steven Knapp, who spent part of the afternoon painting a mural at a community center in North Michigan Park, hoped students would think about the city’s history during their time volunteering.
“This is really putting words into actions. The way to really appreciate the connection to history is to get actively involved in it,” Knapp said. “We have an advantage in Washington D.C. where so many great events of civil rights movements actually took place.”
Director of the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation Jesús Aguirre joined Knapp to kick off the service event at the Marvin Center. Aguirre underlined the mounting financial pressure on his department, which limits its upkeep efforts, and the importance of volunteers in open areas across the city.
“The revenues in cities and public agencies have declined quite a bit, so we’ve come to rely tremendously on the support of volunteer groups such as yourselves and the University to help improve the quality of life,” Aguirre said, adding that he hopes the organization’s partnership with GW would outlast this year’s event.
He also urged students to honor King’s legacy for not just one day, but to engage in “a lifetime of community service and civic engagement.”
While working at the elementary school, junior Izzy Parilis said the service day demonstrates the importance of students investing time in the community.
“We are all temporary residents here in D.C., for the most part. We are here for a limited amount of time,” she said. “This city is our home, this city houses us and we have to contribute to it in some way.”
This year’s participation cap of 500 students was filled in early January, with a wait list of more than 100. Last year’s event drew more than 500 students for the largest MLK Service Day in University history. The service event was held on a Saturday this year for the first time because classes started the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day instead of the week before.
This article was updated on January 23, 2011 to reflect the following:
The Hatchet incorrectly reported that Christina Ravelo is a sophomore. Ravelo is a junior.