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Washington Monument Reopens Monday After Post-Earthquake Repairs

By Lalita Clozel, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The Washington Monument will emerge bruised but not broken for its reopening Monday, when visitors will once again zip up on the elevators of the capital’s tallest attraction.

The 555-foot obelisk has been closed since August 2011, when a magnitude 5.8 earthquake chipped and unsettled some of its granite and marble stones.

Since then, stonemasons have been busily filling cracks with epoxy, relining stone interstices with more than 14,000 feet of mortar, and installing metal cradle anchors to reinforce the stone ribs sustaining the monument’s pyramidion.

The arduous process began soon after the quake, with engineers rappelling from the top of the structure to investigate the damage, stone by stone. Ultimately, 132 chunks of stone were replaced. Fallen chunks of marble were replaced with pieces from the same Maryland quarry that produced some of the monument’s original stones.

Some locals are sure to look back wistfully at the years of repairs, an occasion for the neoclassical-style structure to don stylish scaffolding covered with a blue scrim that glowed at night with lighting from 488 lamps.

The protective structure, designed by New York architect Michael Graves, enveloped the monument for almost a year and was praised for its blocky modernism.

Some say the scars on the monument add to its mystique.

“That stone has been weathered for more than 100 years,” said James Perry, chief of resource management at the National Park Service. It has been “patched and cracked and chipped and hit by lightning…. It’s not meant to be pristine, it’s meant to retain that character.”

Anticipation surrounds the monument’s emergence from the most damaging event in its history. Tourists will be treated to a new exhibit on George Washington’s legacy and the history of the monument’s construction. Park officials estimate that 800,000 people will come through every year.

Half the $15 million repair bill was paid with a donation from David Rubenstein, a founder of the Carlyle Group, a private equity firm.

Photo: Eschipul via Flickr
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National High School Graduation Rate Exceeds 80 Percent For The First Time

By Lalita Clozel, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The national high school graduation rate has reached a record high of more than 80%, but disparities based on students’ racial, socio-economic and disability status remain alarming, according to an annual report by America’s Promise Alliance, a nonprofit group founded by former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

An estimated four out of five public high school students obtained their diploma in 2012, according to the report, which used the latest available data from the Department of Education. But figures were lower for minority students. Seventy-six percent of Latino students and 68 percent of African-American students graduated, the report found.

“We have to be honest that this is a matter of equity and that we have to change the opportunity equation,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Monday. “All of America’s children are our children.”

Recent improvements in the nation’s high school graduation rate — which has risen 8 percentage points in six years — have been driven by the closure of so-called “dropout factories,” typically high-minority schools that graduate less than 60 percent of students. In 2002, those schools enrolled almost half of all African-American students but by 2012, that number dropped to only 23 percent.

The results underscore the need for more federal funding to ensure that all students are provided with the same opportunities, said Daniel J. Losen, the director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA.

“We still have many school districts where it looks like apartheid in America,” he said. “It’s going to require more than the contributions of the private sector and the competitive grants of the federal government.”

Several categories of students face persistently lower odds of graduating, including those with physical and mental disabilities, those from low-income families and those learning English as a second language.

The nation’s graduation rate began decreasing in the 1990s, but with rising awareness of the dropout crisis in certain school districts, states and districts began implementing reforms in the 2000s, which are now beginning to bear fruit.

“Schools were for a long time ignoring this facet,” said Losen. “They were focused for the longest time on test scores.”

Joanna Hornig Fox, the deputy director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University and one of the report’s authors, attributed the improved rates in part to recent federal education reform bills, including No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, which implemented nationwide standards and performance-based funding for public schools.

Fox said that thanks to efforts to ensure “students do a great more deal of writing and explain their thinking,” now students in poorer districts are “not just filling in the blank.”

In California, which enrolls 14 percent of the nation’s high school students and the largest number of Latino and low-income students, the graduation rate is encouraging but still uneven. The overall rate reached 79 percent in 2012, but was only 61 percent for students with disabilities and 62 percent for those not yet fluent in English.

If California does not succeed in delivering more high school diplomas to disadvantaged and minority students, the national graduation rate might stagnate, the report suggests.

“California has been doing better,” said John Gomperts, president of America’s Promise Alliance. But he added, “California is not where it needs to be.”

One troubling and unexplained factor is the disparity in how many students are disciplined or required to repeat a grade, experts say. Statistics released in March by the Department of Education revealed that black students were three times more likely to be suspended and expelled than white students, and were disciplined at a higher rate than their peers as early as kindergarten.

“There’s no champagne corks being popped, I don’t think,” Losen said. “We still have racial and socioeconomic isolation in our public schools.”

Photo: Flickr via alamosbasement

National High School Graduation Rate Exceeds 80 Percent For The First Time

By Lalita Clozel, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The national high school graduation rate has reached a record high of more than 80%, but disparities based on students’ racial, socio-economic and disability status remain alarming, according to an annual report by America’s Promise Alliance, a nonprofit group founded by former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

An estimated four out of five public high school students obtained their diploma in 2012, according to the report, which used the latest available data from the Department of Education. But figures were lower for minority students. Seventy-six percent of Latino students and 68 percent of African-American students graduated, the report found.

“We have to be honest that this is a matter of equity and that we have to change the opportunity equation,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Monday. “All of America’s children are our children.”

Recent improvements in the nation’s high school graduation rate — which has risen 8 percentage points in six years — have been driven by the closure of so-called “dropout factories,” typically high-minority schools that graduate less than 60 percent of students. In 2002, those schools enrolled almost half of all African-American students but by 2012, that number dropped to only 23 percent.

The results underscore the need for more federal funding to ensure that all students are provided with the same opportunities, said Daniel J. Losen, the director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA.

“We still have many school districts where it looks like apartheid in America,” he said. “It’s going to require more than the contributions of the private sector and the competitive grants of the federal government.”

Several categories of students face persistently lower odds of graduating, including those with physical and mental disabilities, those from low-income families and those learning English as a second language.

The nation’s graduation rate began decreasing in the 1990s, but with rising awareness of the dropout crisis in certain school districts, states and districts began implementing reforms in the 2000s, which are now beginning to bear fruit.

“Schools were for a long time ignoring this facet,” said Losen. “They were focused for the longest time on test scores.”

Joanna Hornig Fox, the deputy director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University and one of the report’s authors, attributed the improved rates in part to recent federal education reform bills, including No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, which implemented nationwide standards and performance-based funding for public schools.

Fox said that thanks to efforts to ensure “students do a great more deal of writing and explain their thinking,” now students in poorer districts are “not just filling in the blank.”

One troubling and unexplained factor is the disparity in how many students are disciplined or required to repeat a grade, experts say. Statistics released in March by the Department of Education revealed that black students were three times more likely to be suspended and expelled than white students, and were disciplined at a higher rate than their peers as early as kindergarten.

“There’s no champagne corks being popped, I don’t think,” Losen said. “We still have racial and socioeconomic isolation in our public schools.”

Photo: Quinn.anya via Flickr

First Lady Emphasizes Fun And Fitness At Annual Easter Egg Roll

By Lalita Clozel, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Instead of chocolate and candy baskets, the hordes of children gathered Monday on the South Lawn for the White House’s Easter Egg Roll got an Eggtivity Zone and a Yoga Garden.

To mark the 136th annual Easter event, first lady Michelle Obama threw in some exercise stations and healthy eating tips along with the traditional fun and games, which included egg-rolling races and storytelling.

Speaking from the Truman balcony alongside President Barack Obama and the Easter Bunny, the first lady said this year’s theme, “Hop into Healthy, Swing into Shape,” was an “issue that is near and dear to my heart.”

“We want our kids to be the healthiest and the strongest they can be, so they can do well in school and live up to all of their God-given potential,” she said.

Donning flowery dresses, petticoats and sweater vests, toddlers and children visiting from all 50 states and the District of Columbia were largely oblivious to the celebrities around them. Among those in attendance were actor Jim Carrey, celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz and Miss America, Nina Davuluri.

One group of egg-rolling contestants was joined on the lawn by the president and his wife, who cheered the participants on from the sidelines.

The children then got to salute the president. Eight-year-old Elisabeth Golton of Weston, Mass., was among the lucky kids. “He was like getting high-fives from a lot of kids,” she said. “Then I high-fived him.”

The White House expected more than 30,000 visitors during the daylong festivities, which it has hosted since the 1870s.

Prior to Monday’s celebration, the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals made a plea.

The week before the event, PETA released a video of three young girls demanding that the first lady end the traditional distribution of colored hard-boiled eggs.

“How many chickens have to spend their whole life in a cage to lay those eggs?” one of the girls asked. “Please, stop using real eggs.”

This year, the leftover eggs will be distributed as souvenirs outside the White House gates by Secret Service agents and staffers to reduce waste.

AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski

D.C. Councilwoman Beats Mayor In Democratic Primary

By Lalita Clozel, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Muriel Bowser, a relatively little-known District of Columbia councilwoman, triumphed in Tuesday’s Democratic mayoral primary over incumbent Vincent Gray, whose tenure has been tarnished by a corruption scandal. The win most likely means she will be the next mayor in the overwhelmingly Democratic city.

Bowser emerged as the front-runner in a field of seven challengers after federal prosecutors tied Gray to an illegal “shadow campaign” that helped him win the mayor’s race in 2010. In court and in documents, prosecutors alleged Gray had worked with a prominent businessman who funded the effort, a charge Gray has repeatedly and vehemently denied.

In her victory speech Tuesday night, Bowser, 41, presented herself as a clean break from Gray’s administration.

“Corruption in City Hall is unacceptable,” she said. “We know we need a fresh start. Are you with me?”

In the November election, she will face another council member, David Catania, a Republican turned independent. Recent polls indicate that she would beat him in a potential matchup by 20 percentage points or more. Since 1974, when Washington began to elect its mayor, Democrats have always won, making the party’s primary the crucial election.

Much of Bowser’s support appears to have come from voters exasperated by the corruption scandal. At 22.5 percent, voter turnout was strikingly low compared with the 2010 mayoral primary, which brought out 40 percent of registered Democrats.

“The only thing I know about her is that she is not Vince Gray,” said Jonathan King, a 34-year-old patent attorney who voted for Bowser at a polling place just a few blocks from her campaign headquarters. “I did not fall off an apple cart … and I think he knew about it,” he said, referring to Gray and prosecutors’ allegations.

Until the last month of the election, Gray led in the polls, remaining relatively untarnished by the scandal despite guilty pleas by people connected to his 2010 mayoral effort.

But in early March, Jeffrey E. Thompson, an influential businessman in the health care industry, pleaded guilty to running a number of illegal campaigns, including one to benefit Gray. Prosecutors alleged that Gray knew about Thompson’s plan to channel more than $600,000 in illegal contributions to help elect him and that he had presented Thompson with a $425,000 budget request, according to documents and statements made in court.

Gray denied the charges and said that if indicted, he would refuse to step down as mayor. He has not been indicted.

Bowser has close ties to former mayor Adrian Fenty, who lost the 2010 election when many African-American voters, disillusioned by the impact of accelerating gentrification in the city, turned to Gray.

She first joined the council in 2007 in a special election to replace Fenty, benefiting from his support after volunteering in his campaign. Some of her top aides had run Fenty’s campaign.

But on Wednesday, Bowser sought to distance herself from Fenty’s record, saying she had “a bird’s-eye view of the things that went right during those four years, and the things that went wrong.”

“This will be the Bowser administration,” she said at a news conference at the National Press Club.

Re-elected to the council to represent the northern tip of the city in 2008 and 2012, Bowser has brushed off accusations that she has insufficient experience. On Wednesday, she said that she would focus on school reform, “open and honest government” and “policies that grow our middle class.”

Bowser has been involved in the city’s politics since she was a child, when she helped her father campaign for a seat on a neighborhood commission in the 1970s. Her first elected position was as a member of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission for Riggs Park, the neighborhood where she still lives. She served two terms.

A native of Washington, Bowser graduated from Chatham College, an all-women’s school in Pittsburgh, and earned a master’s degree in public policy from American University.

Photo: Matt Dunn via Flickr

Harsh Realities Set In For Some Immigrants Shielded By Dream Act

By Lalita Clozel, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Working as a Jack in the Box cashier, Marissa Cruz Santos breathed a sigh of relief last year when she qualified for an Obama administration program that defers deportation of young immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children.

With high expectations and a freshly minted work permit, Santos, 27, hit the job market, hoping to leverage her new status and a Cal State Fullerton degree into an entry-level office position. But after applying for several jobs near her Riverside home, Santos got only two interviews and no offers.

Yes, she said, the president’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program has made it easier for her to apply for jobs that were previously out of reach, but obstacles remain to actually getting them, mostly because of gaps in her skill level and a weak resume caused by years toiling at low-paying fast-food jobs.

“I don’t think we were ready for the fact that a lot of us have been out of school for a long time and that we don’t have experience,” Santos said.

As prospects for comprehensive immigration reform this year fade, many young immigrants like Santos are confronting the limits of the president’s program, saying it has not transformed their lives as much as they had hoped.

The program offered a two-year deportation deferral and work permits to hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants who came to the country illegally before age 16. Santos and others, dubbed the “dreamers,” were encouraged to come out of the shadows and build new lives. The program was hailed as an important first step in addressing the plight of more than 11 million immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.

But since the program started, more than 40 percent of participants have failed to land new jobs after receiving work permits, and only 45 percent reported getting pay increases, according to early results from a 2013 survey of 2,381 participants, conducted by Roberto G. Gonzales, an assistant professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.

He said the “prototype dreamer” that most immigration activists talk about — straight-A students and valedictorians who are now free to pursue successful, productive careers — represents the minority. Most participants, he said, are having “a hard time re-entering mainstream life.”

Many have been unable to take advantage of new opportunities because they lack a high school diploma or college degree, Gonzales said. He noted that the program did not make participants eligible for financial aid or in-state tuition in every state.

“The biggest barriers to higher education … still exist,” he said.

Maria Del Carmen Reyes, 31, an unemployed Santa Ana waitress, said she had enrolled in a program to become a licensed vocational nurse but quit after four months because she realized it was futile. “I was almost going to finish,” she said, but “people were telling me, ‘You don’t have a Social Security (number). … You’re not gonna be able to work.'”

Through the program, she received a work permit and hopes to go back to school. But that could take years. Reyes, who is expecting a baby in July, recently quit her restaurant job to take care of her other three children and a husband, who is in the country illegally and cannot qualify for deferred deportation because of his previous gang ties.

Even those with degrees and education are finding that they lack adequate work experience to get jobs in their desired fields. Some have internalized the stigma of growing up in the country illegally and lack confidence during job interviews.

Antonia Rivera, 32, who moved from Mexico when she was 6, received a degree in literary journalism from the University of California, Irvine. After graduating in 2006, Rivera applied for a position at an insurance company but didn’t reveal her immigration status. Rivera said she just wanted to see whether she could get a job on her merits.

Rivera not only got the job, but the firm also offered her a better position than the one she applied for, she said. When the company asked for a driver’s license, however, she never called back, knowing it would not hire someone in the country illegally.

Nearly a decade later, she has almost no experience except for fast-food and customer-service jobs.

Now with a work permit, Rivera renewed her search for a job at another insurance company. But when potential employers review her resume, they invariably ask her to explain the long gap since graduation and why she took such low-level jobs.

“They would kind of look at me weird,” she said, wondering to themselves, “Why haven’t you done anything with your abilities?”

She said she was still nervous about explaining her circumstances to potential employers. “I’m so used to being undocumented. When I go into an interview, I think that’s kind of holding me back,” she said.

Hoping for a fresh start, she recently moved to Des Moines, where she found a job as a clerk at Wells Fargo’s home services division. But because the deferral program is temporary, Rivera and other applicants say it’s difficult to make long-term plans. Though the two-year program is expected to be extended, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services still has not released instructions on the general reapplication process.

Santos, who recently quit her job at Jack in the Box to devote more time to her job search, said she too feels on shaky ground.

“If deferred action is not renewed or the government takes it away, it’s going to send us back to basically nothing again,” she said. “I’m just kind of taking it day by day.”

Photo: Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times/MCT

IRS Chief, House Panel Clash Over Scandal-Related Documents

By Lalita Clozel, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The head of the Internal Revenue Service said Wednesday that it would take years to turn over all the documents subpoenaed by the House Oversight and Government Reform committee in its investigation of the IRS’ alleged targeting of conservative groups.

During a confrontational hearing, IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said he needed more time to comply with the committee’s request for the email correspondence of Lois Lerner, a former IRS official in charge of the agency’s nonprofit division.

Lerner refused to testify before the committee earlier this month, invoking her Fifth Amendment rights. That sparked a feud between committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA), and ranking Democrat Elijah E. Cummings (D-MD), who called Issa’s investigation “one-sided” and “un-American” after Issa ordered Cummings’ microphone turned off. Issa later apologized.

On Wednesday, Issa’s anger was focused on Koskinen.

“Unfortunately, you’ve been more concerned with managing the political fallout than cooperating with Congress or at least this committee,” Issa said, accusing Koskinen of “slow rolling” his investigation.

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), threatened to hold Koskinen and the IRS in contempt if the materials were not provided fast enough.

Koskinen said delivering all the emails sent to and from Lerner and three other top IRS officials embroiled in the controversy would be a “fruitless task overwhelming the investigators.” But he added, “If that’s the way the committee wants to go, we will go that way.”

But Koskinen said it would take several years to release all requested documents, including tax-exempt status applications from 2009 to 2013. He said the IRS would first need to review all documents and make redactions to ensure it did not improperly release personal taxpayer data or other sensitive information.

Koskinen defended his agency’s cooperation with Issa’s investigation and five other inquiries into the IRS scandal. The IRS has spent up to $14 million and compiled more than 690,000 pages of documents, he said.

But Republicans and a few Democrats on the committee pressed the IRS to deliver entire blocks of correspondence, instead of batches of emails that respond to specific search terms related to the agency’s mismanagement.

“We want them all,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH). “What if there’s an email from the White House … to Lois Lerner (that) says, ‘Hey Lois, keep up the great work. We appreciate what you’re doing?’”

After an investigation last year, the Treasury’s inspector general for tax administration said the IRS’ actions did not appear to be driven by the White House and stemmed from low-level incompetence, not political bias. Some progressive groups also were targeted.

The organizations were seeking recognition as tax-exempt social welfare groups, which are permitted to do a limited amount of political activity as long as it is not their primary purpose.

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-VA), accused Issa on Wednesday of using the investigation to appeal to conservative voters. “It’s designed to get certain groups all riled up in time for the midterm elections,” he said.

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

U.S. Schools Plagued By Inequality Along Racial Lines, Study Finds

By Lalita Clozel, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Two-fifths of the nation’s public school districts offer no preschool programs, and most of those that do offer only part-day programs. Black students account for less than a fifth of those in preschool across the nation but make up almost half of the students who are suspended from preschool multiple times.

Those results from the first comprehensive survey in nearly 15 years of civil rights data from the 97,000 U.S. public schools show they remain marked by inequities. The report released Friday by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, which includes data from the 2011-12 school year, offers no explanation for the stark differences.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who unveiled the report at J.O. Wilson Elementary School here, urged states and school districts to take steps to eliminate the disparities.

Duncan denounced the inequities as “socially divisive, educationally unsound, morally bankrupt and economically self-destructive.” He said the report “paints a stark portrait of inequity,” adding that “this must compel us to act.”

The report found that black students were three times more likely to be suspended and expelled than white students.

Holder said these results confirmed that the “school-to-prison pipeline” is a reality for boys of color. “A routine school discipline infraction should land a student in the principal’s office,” Holder said, “not in a police precinct.”

But he also said there were no plans to modify security measures in schools. “We want to support schools and make sure that we keep these schools safe,” while being mindful not to contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline, he said.

In January, the Education and Justice departments unveiled new guidelines urging schools to implement alternative discipline solutions and avoid discriminatory practices.

Friday’s report also highlighted racial inequities in access to education. For example, a quarter of the high schools with high percentages of black and Latino students do not offer Algebra II.

Minority students were more likely to be taught by first-year teachers, and in many districts schools with high proportions of black and Latino students paid their teachers less than schools with lower minority populations.

Blacks, who compose 16 percent of the total school population, represent 27 percent of students referred to law enforcement and 31 percent of students subjected to a school-related arrest, according to the report.

Pacific Islander, Native American and Native Alaskan children were also two times as likely as their white peers to be held back.

The report found that more than 8,000 toddlers out of more than 1 million had been suspended from preschool.

Walter Gilliam, an associate professor at Yale University who has conducted research on expulsion rates among black preschoolers, said the report did not provide enough context for a deep analysis but confirmed previous findings on early childhood school discipline.

There is a “grave overreaction to discipline” in early education, he said, citing a 2012 incident in which a Georgia kindergartner was arrested and handcuffed for throwing a tantrum in the classroom.

Preschool programs play a major role in reducing educational inequities, Gilliam said. Disadvantaged students profit most from these programs, which correlate with higher high school graduation rates, higher future incomes and a lower likelihood of committing crimes.

“The reason that we have preschool programs in the first place is to help give children an opportunity to be successful,” he said. Expelling kindergartners makes as much sense as “taking sick people out of hospitals.”

Another finding revealed that 1 in 5 high schools lacked even a single counselor.

Secretary Duncan chided school districts for failing to adopt local measures to end these systemic inequities.

He noted that President Barack Obama had proposed a $300-million program in his budget to encourage “state and district efforts to aggressively tackle achievement and opportunity gaps.”

“We just need Congress to catch up with what’s going on in the real world,” Duncan said.

But, Holder acknowledged, “achieving these goals will not be easy, and progress will not take hold overnight.”

Photo: Greg953 via Wikimedia Commons