PHOTO: Markus Batchelor, lifelong Ward 8 resident, community staple, and candidate for the Ward 8 seat on the D.C. State Board of Education./ Photo courtesy of Jamal Holtz 

At the age of 23, Markus Batchelor is far from a political novice. Since taking on the mantle of leadership in his adolescence, he has risen in prominence as president of the Ward 8 Democrats, ANC Commissioner for Single Member District 8C04, and most recently Ward 8 liaison in the D.C. Mayor’s Office of Community Affairs (MOCA).

As he gears up to challenge Tierra Jolly for the Ward 8 representative seat on the D.C. State Board of Education (SBOE), Batchelor reflects heavily on the experiences, elders and community programs that have enriched his short but fruitful life, pledging to do his part in creating a similar environment for thousands of youth if elected in November.

“Making sure children are successful is a community effort,” Batchelor, now the family and community liaison at the Far Southeast Collaborative, told AllEyesOnDC.

“My mother read to me at night and made sure to be involved at school. But she didn’t do it on her own. I had a neighbor who gave me chapter books to read. I had a deacon who took kids to vacation bible school for four weeks and that’s how he enriched the community. There was always someone on every block who looked out for me,” added Batchelor, a lifelong resident of Congress Heights in Southeast and an alumnus of the Marion Barry Youth Leadership Institute (MBYLI).

Earlier this year, Batchelor declared his candidacy for the Ward 8 State Board of Education seat, resigning from MOCA nearly 13 months into D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s term. Since then, it has been business as usual for the young politico who’s often found out and about at community gatherings, including ANC meetings and graduations.

During the D.C. Democratic primaries, he, along with members of his small campaign team, combed the main corridors, side streets, meeting spaces, and polling stations of Ward 8 with large blue, yellow and white signs in hand. Along the way, Batchelor cleared up any confusion about him running against D.C. Council member LaRuby May (D) and Trayon White for the Ward 8 Council seat. He also listened as parents and students vented about unresponsive administrators, culturally incompetent teachers, and unengaging school curricula.

For Batchelor, all aforementioned problems speak to what he described as the sitting Ward 8 representative’s lack of visibility and engagement with constituents.

This week, Batchelor started collecting signatures needed to place his name on the November general election ballot, affirming his commitment to challenging the status quo and getting parents more involved in shaping school policy. Plans if elected include restoring confidence in Ward 8 D.C. public schools, spurring parental grassroots organizing, pushing for allocation of additional resources, and the transformation of schools to centers that provide wrap-around services for families.

“I want to push for more PTAs and parent involvement. We need to empower both students and parents to advocate for themselves,” Batchelor said. “The State Board of Education members have to play that role as advocates for students and parents and galvanize them. No one is engaging our community. Our school board members have to get back to the basics and be community organizers, showing people that they have power. The schools don’t belong to the system or government. They belong to the community,” he added.

With the highest concentration of people under the age of 18, improving the quality of education in Ward 8 could cause a ripple effect for other facets of life for thousands of residents. The effects of high unemployment, a dearth of full-service grocery stores and amenities, drug abuse, mental illness, spikes in violent crime often follow youth into school, impeding learning and making parents feel powerless. Even worse, punitive measures taken against students maintain the school-to-prison pipeline.

Overall, D.C. Public Schools have a graduation rate of 58 percent, with the rates of Anacostia and Ballou High Schools, the only two of their kind in Ward 8, falling below 50 percent. Such conditions have compelled Ward 8 parents to look outside of the D.C. public school system, a trend that keeps Anacostia and Ballou underenrolled. Additionally, charter schools and private institutions outnumber public schools in Ward 8, a tell-tale sign of a national school privatization movement that has gained traction in recent years.

While some education experts have extolled these changes, some Ward 8 parents said they’re getting locked out of important conversations about their children’s education. For instance, Latiya Loring, a mother of two, said administrators at the D.C. Prep Benning Elementary Campus, formerly D.C. public school, don’t take her concerns about the Common Core standards and draconian disciplinary rules seriously.

“There are folks [in these schools] who are teaching just to pay their student loans. They go into poverty-stricken neighborhoods not knowing what these kids go through,” Loring told AllEyesOnDC, citing examples of when teachers punished her daughters for absences related to her bodily changes. “The kids get suspended for small things that could’ve gotten handled differently. It’s hard enough getting them through the door and we can’t keep discouraging them.”

Loring, an MBYLI alumna, said while she has never spoken to Batchelor extensively, she feels confident that he could bring a fresh perspective in the SBOE and ensure that administrators understand the complexities of life in Ward 8. “I’ve had a chance to see [Markus] in action and be that voice that gives us insight on the conversations young people are having. He sees what’s going on out there and he has access to certain areas because of his age.”

Jamal Holtz, a student who considers Batchelor his mentor, said he can attest to the young community leader’s ability to connect with residents and put his life on the line for D.C. youngsters. Since meeting Batchelor in MBYLI, Holtz has followed him around the city, learning the tricks of the trade and growing in his love for public service.

“I think Markus would make a great representative. He has been in the community his entire life,” said Holtz, a Bellevue resident and recent graduate of Friendship Collegiate Academy Public Charter School in Northeast.

“Long before he launched this campaign, he had visibility, going to graduations and talking to parents. He goes out in front of schools after hours. I know he’ll be very connected to parents and getting them involved. My entire family knows Markus. They look at him as a son and my mother [considers him] her son,” said Holtz, who’ll attend the University of Rochester on the POSSE Scholarship.

In late April, Batchelor took his outreach a step further when he accompanied a group of D.C. students to Flint, Michigan on their mission to supply those affected by the lead crisis with fresh bottles of water and connect with community leaders. The trip, organized by Black Millennials 4 Flint, a grassroots environmental justice movement, allowed the youngsters to better understand the effects of lead poisoning – and see Batchelor’s leadership firsthand.

“We didn’t have a lot of men present and the work we did was pretty tedious, requiring a lot of brawn to get things accomplished so we were grateful to have him,” Tricey Adams, founder of Black Millennials 4 Flint, told AllEyesOnDC. “He really encouraged some of the students on trip to be an intern for his campaign. It was powerful that all of the kids on the trip were from Ward 8. He inspired one of the young ladies on the trip to apply. That’s a testament to his commitment to the community and youth.”

Batchelor, who said he’s eager to revive elements of the Ward 8 community-oriented culture he knew as a child, admits that demographic changes and adult adverseness to interacting with rowdy youth impede that goal. However, he remains confident that he can do his part in helping parents and students to take charge of their school and communities.

For him, that’s the first of many steps in turning around a community that receives a bad rap for circumstances out of the control of those affected.

“We need someone on the school board who’s focused on quality of education and quality of life,” Batchelor said. “If they aren’t willing to talk about how poverty affects community and trauma and how home environment affects youth’s academic success, we’re doing them a disservice. Once young people get a better education, it’ll be easier for them to stand up for themselves. They can believe they can change things in their society,” he added.

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