Even the “best” schools didn’t prepare him for college, but he refused to give up

A Georgetown University freshman has a compelling essay in the Washington Post on how poorly his schools, among Washington’s finest, did not prepare him for the demands of a highly selective college.

Darryl Robinson attended the Cesar Chavez Public Charter School for Public Policy, a well regarded prep school in the District where getting accepted to a college or university is a prerequisite for graduation. But Darryl says he still found a gap between what he could do and what his better-prepared classmates could do. He explains that his high school teachers did not push him “to think past a basic level, to apply concepts, to move beyond memorizing facts and figures.”

But Darryl understands the struggle that his teachers and now his Georgetown professors faced — playing catch-up with students who arrive in their classes ill prepared to handle the workload.

Darryl did not give up, crediting twice-weekly tutoring and regular sessions with his professors with helping him conquer his deficits. He devotes most of this time to studying, noting, “My social life isn’t as exciting as I hoped it would be because I’m spending so much time studying. But all my extra effort has paid off: I’ve gone from floundering to finally making it at Georgetown.”

Some of my regular readers will cite this essay as evidence that poor kids from inner city high schools cannot make it when admitted to elite colleges, admissions that they will deride as affirmative action. But I see it as evidence of how such disadvantaged students can succeed if they are determined and their universities are willing to work with them.

Here is an excerpt but please read the entire piece. It is worth your time today:

Since the third grade, my teachers told me I was exceptional, but they never pushed me to think for myself. And when I did excel, they didn’t trust that I’d done the hard work. They assumed I was cheating. Now, only 10 miles from those teachers and schools where I was considered a standout, I’ve had to work double-time just to keep up.

I first noticed the gap between me and my classmates after my first writing assignment at Georgetown. In an English class to help prepare incoming freshmen, we were asked to analyze the main character’s development in “Persepolis,” a graphic memoir about growing up in Tehran during the Iranian revolution. I thought it was an easy assignment. Everyone’s papers were distributed to the class, and it was immediately obvious how mine fell short: I merely summarized the plot of the book without making any real argument. I got a D-minus.

I did what I’d been taught growing up in school: memorize and regurgitate information. Other Georgetown freshmen from better schools had been trained to form original, concise thoughts within a breath, to focus less on remembering every piece of information, word for word, and more on forming independent ideas. I was not. I could memorize and recite facts and figures, but I didn’t know how to think for myself. Now, in an attempt to think deeper, I sometimes overthink myself into silence.

One of the biggest challenges I faced in my first semester in college was in my chemistry lecture and lab. Since I hope to go to medical school, this is a required course. I took chemistry in high school, but I didn’t learn enough to make it in this class. I was lost from the first lecture on. Despite going to a tutor three days a week, I ended up dropping the class so that I could study more on my own and be ready for it next year. The experience of dropping a class was devastating, but it was the right choice.

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

26 comments Add your comment


April 16th, 2012
12:24 pm

There is nothing as exhilarating as a self-motivated student, and nothing that they cannot do.


April 16th, 2012
12:32 pm

I read this excellent article yesterday and thought about the countless number of students who are in the same predicament as he. Your readers should also read the comments following the article as it appears that everyone knows someone in the same position. It took lots of courage for this young man to publish this story about himself. It is clear to most people that he will finish his career at Georgetown successfully. Hopefully this topic will not turn into another opportunity to bash teachers. I work in an excellent school and find the majority of the teachers to clearly love their jobs and their students and want to see them achieve. Unfortunately, with so many cuts to the educational budget, furloughs, the never-ending paperwork, and exceedingly large class sizes, it is not hard to see why there is so much frustration across the board. Believe me, if that student was accepted into Georgetown, he has the academic chops to succeed. He already has the work-ethic.


April 16th, 2012
12:35 pm

Colleges should NOT have to play make-up with their students. They should not have to offer remedial courses (classes that prepare you for freshman English). I am guessing that Darryl did ok on the SAT?


April 16th, 2012
12:53 pm

One theme I get in this story…what should we teach and evaluate in K-12 schools? It is CRCT season. Aside from identifying woefully unprepared students and punishing teachers & principals, what do these tests really do for learning? In most grades, doing poorly on the CRCT doesn’t stop promotions. I suspect teachers have a good idea which students will struggle long before they take the test. I would guess that Mr. Robinson got good grades and did well on the DC equivalent of the CRCT. It’s not enough.

I’d like to see more critical thinking in high school education. One challenge for many good students in less than great schools is getting a good handle on how to grow critical thinking skills when many graded tasks are simply about memorization.

I wish the young man well. He seems to have good ideas about how to pull himself forward.


April 16th, 2012
1:01 pm

Somewhere along the way, Mr. Robinson had someone who let him know that he COULD make it–that he “belonged” at Georgetown. God bless to that person, and to the young man who believes it and is making it happen.


April 16th, 2012
1:16 pm

I have an interesting paradox that I’ve noticed in my classes….. Students complain when they are spoon-fed the information that they need to regurgitate for the EOCT because they are bored, but then they complain when I ask them to think about the material (so that they really learn it) because thinking is too hard.

Actual learning in the public school? Not on my watch!

April 16th, 2012
1:57 pm

Schools have been undergoing a steady decline over the past 10 years. Garbage programs like “Learning Focus” which sprang up as a result of NCLB have contributed much to this.

Teachers are working themselves to death creating plans, rubrics, graphic organizers and what not to make learning easier for students (a.k.a. “spoonfeeding”) while students themselves have spent less time actually contibuting to their own education. I have noticed my own work week is at least 6 hours longer than it was 15 years ago.

Teachers are being criticized by administrators and the general because students are not succeeding.

The student, meanwhile, is passed on because it might hurt their self esteem to be held back and because it might reflect poorly on the school if they are. Each grade finds them more and more behind.

It’s nice to see students like the one in the essay. I just wish there were more like them.


April 16th, 2012
2:00 pm

Well written story by Mr. Robinson! It reminded me of a similar realization I had during my first year in college. It was easy to look around and recognized that I lacked the same preparation that my classmates had coming to college, despite being labeled as ’smart’. When we got the ‘look to your left, look to your right, one of you won’t be here in 4 years” speech, I thought I would be the one not to make it. I’m glad to say I was the one that did. It took a lot of hard work and sacrifice to make it. I’m confident Mr. Robinson will finish Georgetown as he is also making the necessary sacrifices to succeed.

That is probably why I push my children beyond the smart label and have higher expectations for them. Unfortunately as Mr. Robinson indicated, I also encountered some teachers that did not share the same level of high expectations as I had for my children. That is where I supplemented their school instruction with that from the world classroom. I knew to do that yet empathize with those students that did/do not have someone pushing them also.


April 16th, 2012
5:53 pm

If you read John Taylor Gatto’s material, his research shows that the point of public education (which I know those who want to really believe in publc eduation really dispute) is the antithesis of critical thinking and self development — it is to become citizens who can regurgitate facts and figures to a very basic level. Only a very few very self motivated ones can make it through and succeed. If you read the material and think about your own experiences very critically and with an open mind — along wtih pieces like this essay– it really does all add up. I realized not so long ago — re-reviewing my college transcript just how unprepared I was for an “elite” college from my “blue collar” public high school — I did very well high school #13 of 385 kids (with a number of kids not in advanced classes between #3 and me) but I was totally unprepared for the upper level thinking requred of me when I got to college. I ultimately figured it out and have done well. But, no, I really wasn’t prepared. My eyes have really been opened recently seeing the differences between what one son was taught in a DCSS public high school and what his brothers have been taught (and how they’ve been taught) in private school. It’s very eye opening. Layer that on what Gatto’s research shows and it’s striking.


April 16th, 2012
5:56 pm

Also, if the true “goal” of “public education” were to actually, really educate the children, I firmly believe that the way it is being done would be handled very differently because each child is truly unique. You can’t treat the children as one and the same and society doesn’t ultimatley need them to come out at the end as they can be treated with “pacing charts” and all at “grade level” and meeting “standards’ becuase they are all unique…. think about it. But if the public school system is really supposed to be really a jobs program by design — if you get out of your box and critically assess it that way — well, then — it has been very effective. It all depends on what the real, true, goal of the system really is (not your goal or my goal but the goal of the system itself as determined by those really in charge at the top and at its foundational roots). Just think some about it without reacting when you read a piece like this.

NW GA Math/Science Teacher

April 16th, 2012
6:27 pm

So, what IS the true purpose of public education? We’re often expected to recite the mantra that “all children can learn,” but learn what? Are we saying that all students can reach the same levels? Only if we work to hold those back who would have reached higher levels. Hmmm… critical thinking may be leading me into dangerous territory…

Truth in Modertion

April 16th, 2012
7:38 pm

We use creative thinking frequently in our home school. Today the kids spent time on “Zillo” to research housing prices in our area and notice the cost/sq. ft., size of lot, ranch or 2-story, etc. Each student is given a budget and will be designing their dream house (with green features) within the given constraints. They will make a working blueprint of their design drawn to scale. They must use math, creativity, drafting skills, research skills, et. to complete their project. So far they are very excited to work on it. As a bonus, I found some great real estate deals on Zillo…….


April 16th, 2012
8:42 pm

Unfortunately, I think many students have this experience.

I teach at a Dekalb high school with many good students. However, these students (and their parents) often prioritize grades over ideas. Thinking? Well, ask these same students how many essays (isn’t this one of the best ways to cultivate analytical thinking?) they write for any class, much less an English class, when their teachers work with 130+ students every day? Then factor in the pointless county mandated grading requirements and”data-driven instruction” promoted by “educators” who’ve spent little to no time ever teaching students.

I resent how many students like Darryl are denied the opportunities they deserve while heaps of “educators,” “instructional specialists,”and ________ ________ ________ superintendents earn salaries that eat away at the funds needed to employ more teachers-the very people who work with the Darryls (and others far more deficient) of public schools.


April 16th, 2012
8:45 pm

I’ll reserve my sorrow for the poor Asian kids who studied harder than this guy in high school and got better grades and SAT scores but didn’t get into Georgetown because their skin isn’t dark enough. I’ll bet Darryl got a full scholarship to boot.

Maureen Downey

April 16th, 2012
8:48 pm

@Suavez, Some of those Asian kids probably lost spots to student athletes, golfers, tennis players, soccer players, children of big donors, children of politicians and kids from geographically underrepresented areas such as North Dakota and Utah.


April 16th, 2012
9:34 pm

@ Maureen.

So what? Getting “preferential” treatment for having some unique skill (like atheletics), being from an underrepresented geographical area, or having family connections is completely different from preferential treatment based on race.

Our society has a history of struggling with racial equality. Race in the United States is a unique issue that is treated differently from the other considerations you list — from a historical, moral, social, and certainly legal standpoint. Unlike any of the other considerations you cite, distinctions among people based on race are subject to the highest scrutiny. And for good reason.

Race is immutable: you can become an accomplished tennis player or choose where you live more readily than you can become some other race (and at least theoretically, you’re parents can become big donors — it’s at least possible). Race is random: no one can choose their own race, but you can choose to focus on soccer or apply to a school that seeks students from North Dakota (and even with family connections, someone in your family chose to go into politics or donate money to a given school). Race deserves special consideration because people have engaged in racial discrimination (both pernicious and reverse discrimination) historically — non-golfers, children of non-politicians are not part of a specially protected class.

If affirmative action has merit, then say so and tell us why. But this tired argument that race should be considered because it’s just like any other factor is absurd. Giving preferential treatment based on race is not the same as giving preferential treatment for legacy status or tennis rank or residency in North Dakota. Race is different — we all know that. The implications of that are up for debate.


April 16th, 2012
10:47 pm

Truth in Mod. -and Dekalbed and NW Ga — your comments beautifully dovetail into what Gatto’s research shows.. and it’s not, generally, the teachers who are out there thinking that they’re not trying to actually educate the kids (yes, there are some teachers who are so uneducated themselves that they can’t truly educate the kids) — for the most part, teachers go into teaching to really teach the kids but then they are up against the walls thrown at them in the form of the regualations and testing and mandatory “scripts” and pacing charts and “it doesn’t matter where the kid is at… but they must be at grade level by the end of the year and it’s your fault if they are or they’re not and this is precisely how you’re going to get there [enter scripted curriculum and pre-test, test and post-test, etc.”. Then you say, how is it that in other environments (e.g. home school or private school, maybe in charter schools, you can actually get to “critical thinking” or “classical” education but by and larger in public schools around the country, you can not get there? Maybe, just maybe, it’s becuase the point of public school isn’t really to get there at all? Maybe, just maybe, it’s because there real point (from the point of view of those really in charge) is to create a beurocratic jobs program through the use of massive amounts of taxpayer money that “appears” to educate but doesn’t really? That’s the question….. It’s hard to swallow … remember — my mother was a teacher, my mother-in-law was teacher, my father-in-law taught and was an assistant principal, I went through 12 years of public ed, my husband was in public school thrrough his masters degree, my grandparents were teachers… public school runs through the inner core of my blood and I had my children in public school until I just saw them suffer a little bit too much….. and absolutely had to pull them private. We went private kicking and screaming…. it’s been so eye opening. I ask you to consider these questions and critically think through it — thinking about this essay, thinking about the APS cheating scandal and about the pending indictments in DCSS, thinking about all the other scandals in education floating about. Read Gatto’s book — I’m not saying it’s the Bible and 100% true — I’m saying it rung true based on what we’ve been seeing locally.

Another comment

April 17th, 2012
12:30 am

I Graduated 5th in my class from another Catholic University in DC 30 years ago. I came from a lower income, yet white family. My mother never graduated from high school. I knew going in that it was my money that I was spending and that partying, visits home were not an option. Graduating in 4 years with high grades were what was important. I see over and over where he thought like too many college students that he was going to go and party. He grew up in D.C.. what was so important about going out in Georgetown. Seeing some drunk gay Congressman or Senator out in one of Georgetowns gay bars. That was the big deal of my days in DC, where you would see the limo’s of the smashed Congressmen going. It is more important to study and get good grades. You can party when you graduate. I turned down partying a zillion times in college. That is how you graduate 5th and get a free ride to graduate school. That is the equalizer, being self motivated and studying.

My daughter’s SAT/ACT tutor tells us their are plenty of dense students at Westminster and the other Privates that he tutors.

Truth in Moderation

April 17th, 2012
7:59 am


I too come from a family of educators. I’m the family renegade! I’ve been home schooling since the 90’s and was inspired to do so by the research of Charlotte Iserbyt (Deliberate Dumbing Down of America) as well as my own. Later, when Gatto published his book, I became a fan as well. Over the years, I have concluded that the so called “classical” model of education has merit and my teaching style is loosely based on it. Young children have the ability to store vast amounts of information in the brain, without necessarily understanding all of it. Memorizing long passages of poetry or math facts is more efficiently done at this age. I use a curriculum that takes advantage of this, and all of mine were reading and writing in cursive by kindergarten. However, as the child matures, the brain also goes through changes such that by 5th-8th grades, their logic system begins to mature. Now they want to know the “how” and “cause and effect” of the information they have learned. The education style should change at this point from rote memorization to the introduction of logic. That’s why the old fashioned method of teaching geometry proofs should be taught to 8th-9th graders. If students have been taught many facts since K-5th (especially chronological history), they are now ready to synthesize this info into useful and meaningful information. Integrated subject assignments should reflect this “logic” stage of the brain. If this is done consistently, by high school, a student is ready to delve into the deeper meaning of things (philosophy, religion) and be able to express his ideas to others in a coherent and persuasive manner, through writing, speaking, or the arts. In conclusion, rote memorization has its place, as well as integrated, hands on learning. To me, it is the sequence in which they are used that is important. Many of the Founding Fathers had this classical education, and our founding documents, such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, are a product of it.

Pardon My Blog

April 17th, 2012
8:10 am

@another comment – You, like many of us prior to HOPE, had “skin in the game” so to speak, in other words, we were paying for our education and knew that it was important to get good grades and to finish as soon as possible. What is disturbing to me is the lack of initiative that many students display. Perhaps this article could be used as a “wake up” call for many in high school who have been “skating” through. @dekalbed – you are absolutely right about the lack of essays required but what shows through is the inability of many otherwise straight A students do not have the fundamental grasp of how to even write one. The one thing that bothers me about this article is that it appears that he was encouraged to attend a school that he was totally unprepared for and that perhaps Georgetown is to blame just as much as the school district who is not doing right by the students.

East Atlanta

April 17th, 2012
8:21 am

This has a lot to do with grade inflation at inner city schools. The valedictorian at South Atlanta HS would be a C student at Walton HS in Cobb county. Lots of mainstream white kids lose out on admission to top colleges because affirmative action means unprepared black kids get those slots in the freshman classes.

HS Public Teacher

April 17th, 2012
9:01 am

Teachers, like me, are being forced to stop challenging students to think.

I joined the profession to help students prepare for those big-time colleges. However, the “system” of education totally dissuades teachers from doing this.

In order to teach higher level thinking, teachers actually must plan more and be more creative. The “system” of education does not allow for that time.

The “system” of education only cares about students passing the most basic of standardized tests. These require the memorization of facts/definitions. No real analysis or in-depth thinking is needed.

Funding has been cut to the bone. This means that teachers cannot order advanced material. This means that the teachers workload increases to include work that used to be done by custodians, secretaries, etc.

Neither teachers or students are rewarded in any way for high level thinking. In fact, it is discouraged.

If I try to challenege my students to think at this point, I get angry emails from parents. The parents yell because their child has never been asked to think before and now they believe it unfair. These parents are only happy when their child makes an A by memorizing some facts.

This is what it has come to…..


April 17th, 2012
9:05 am

Truth in Moderation… that’s the type of curriculum we should be teaching all of our kids! The “classical” model! But I’ve concluded that this isn’t what the “foundation” of public ed wanted and the system isn’t designed to do this… the system does not want kids to be able to do this and public schooling is deliberately designed to have them not to be able to do this … but, as much as that might have been good in the Industrial Age of our nation and the post-Industrial Age of our Nation; this model is not good for our country in the 21st century. We no longer have “cradle to grave” employment and the US faces stiff competition from elsewhere in the world. We need to return to this “classical” model…. Until all of us come to shift this paradigm, all of the dollars we are spending on public education are really not being used effectively and may be being used most ineffectively.

Truth in Moderation

April 17th, 2012
11:12 am

@ Anonmom
You are preaching to the choir! I didn’t want my children to be victims of the conspiracy….
This year, one of mine took a fabulous home school Speech and Debate class. By the end of it, the students were able to confidently orally present their opinion and back it up with facts and persuasion on the spot. They were taught principles of logic and had to make use of them. Students had a great time trying to challenge the opposing team’s arguments. This is the perfect medium to develop logic and thinking skills in teenagers. This should be a required course for all high schoolers (even older middle schoolers).

Ole Guy

April 17th, 2012
3:52 pm

Good for you, Darryl. It’s not a very pleasant experience dropping a class because you find yourself ill-prepared…been there/done that, pal! However, I know you will view this setback simply as an opportunity to evaluate your tenacity; your willingness to go the extra mile(s) in attaining your goals and objectives…not only in chemistry class; not only in college/med school, but throughout your career. This is only the beginning, pal!

no mas

April 18th, 2012
5:23 pm

I was unprepared for college as well, even though I came from a public school system that was (at the time) considered one of the best. My classmates who attended private schools seemed better prepared, although it might have been partly due to the other opportunities they had had (overseas travel, exposure to the arts). I was solidly lower middle class.

I think everyone who enters a competitive college is in this situation to some extent. My child experienced it her freshman year, but she said the fact that she attended an International Baccalaureate program in (public) high school helped a great deal.She complained sometimes, but it was the best decision we could have made. The teachers and students were not constrained by “teaching to the test” – it was assumed that if they did OK in their classes, they had what they needed to pass GHSGT. They learned to think, which is a stated goal of IB.

She also learned to ask for help, talk to teachers, go to tutorials and submit the optional drafts, which has been invaluable in college.