Education secretary visits Coolidge, a D.C. high school struggling with tragedy

Kaelia Minor was supposed to attend her Principles of U.S. Government class Friday. The Coolidge High School senior should have been there alongside a dozen classmates as John B. King Jr., the U.S. education secretary, delivered a guest lecture, talking about graduation rates and what schools can do better to keep students on track.

Her classmates — all black and Hispanic students — offered their theories on why minority students graduate at far lower rates than their white peers and discussed stresses outside of school that prevent students from going to and from class each day.

Kaelia, 17, who had her sights on college, was fatally stabbed Monday as she got off a city bus that was taking her home from dance practice at Coolidge. Police said that a former classmate killed her in a dispute over a cellphone.

King made no mention of the tragedy during class, but he later discussed it with reporters, telling a story of how one of his students, Herman, was killed.

“It was devastating for all of us who knew Herman,” said King, a former social studies teacher. “The question for me is, as a society, how do we protect Herman and how do we make life different for the student who killed him so his life trajectory is different and he doesn’t end up in that situation.”

King lectured at Coolidge, a low-performing D.C. public school in the Takoma neighborhood, to promote federal programs such as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and the College Scorecard, a website that aims to simplify the process of choosing a college by combining multiple sources of federal information in one place.

He later met privately with Coolidge guidance counselors about student needs — “counseling and mental health services are critical,” King said — and spoke to reporters about the importance of a well-rounded education. This was part of his efforts to help states implement the Every Student Succeeds Act, the new federal law that replaces the No Child Left Behind Act and shifts power to the states.

Despite the tragedy that shook the school and city this week, Coolidge students have remained focused, Principal Richard Jackson said. On Wednesday, students took the SATs during school as scheduled. He described the student body as “resilient” and said the youths have compartmentalized some of their feelings about the slaying for the sake of fulfilling their responsibilities. He said students decorated Kaelia’s locker and have poured their energy into positive activities.

“We want resilient but also empathetic students,” Jackson said. “They understand that education is their way to success.”

D.C. police have said Monday night’s stabbing at a bus stop in Petworth was linked to a phone that the suspect, Kyla Jones, 18, said Kaelia had stolen during an altercation on a Metrobus. On Wednesday evening, more than 200 friends and relatives of Kaelia’s gathered for a vigil at the bus stop where the teen was killed. Classmates on the cheerleading and dancing squads performed in her honor. Others brought candles and balloons that said “Miss you already” and “I’m sorry.”

Teachers have described Kaelia, the captain of Coolidge’s dance team, as an industrious and affable student who dreamed of college.

“She was a good student, a note-taker, someone who smiled when she came into the room,” said Hannah Johnson, a former Coolidge teacher who taught Kaelia in her entry-level Spanish course.

Although the students made no mention of the killing in class, they talked about the challenges they face outside of school that could trickle into their academic lives. They referenced job and family responsibilities, problems with friends and romantic interests, and even the frustratingly high costs of college.

“As students grow up, they have more problems at home, at school, with friends and boyfriends,” one senior in the class said.

Nearly all of Coolidge’s students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, and based on national standardized test scores linked to Common Core, only 8 percent are considered career- and college-ready in English; none are considered ready in math.

“They were very honest with me about things that were challenging for their peers, and I appreciated it,” King said after class.

King also asked students to provide solutions for how teachers and school leaders could more effectively engage students.

“Teachers should tell the students how important they are, so the students know that they can be the next president or a doctor and save lots of lives,” senior Jhordy Flores said. “The young people are the future of the United States.”

Peter Hermann contributed to this report.

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