The Academic Calendar Working Families Really Need: How one D.C. nonprofit is bridging the gap between workday and school day

by Lindsay Russell

“Urbaaan!” Christy Brock called out, cupping her hands around her mouth.

“Adventure Squad!” 20 little voices called back in response.

In the basement of 16th Street’s Mosaic Church, it was time for the Morning Meeting.

Students sat on the floor in a misshapen circle as Brock began to tell the story of the Blagden boys. Sons of one of Washington D.C.’s most powerful mill owners in 1860s, the boys lived along Rock Creek. They ran and played in that nearby forest more than 100 years ago. Today, Brock and her squad were on the hunt for historical evidence.

Brock and the children are part of an organization called Urban Adventure Squad.

Four years ago, Elana Mintz started Urban Adventure Squad, a D.C. nonprofit aimed at providing families with structured, hands-on learning for students on the days that school is out of session. The organization runs half-day and full day programs and summer camps.

When the idea for UAS began to take shape, Mintz, 46, was working full time as an editor and struggling to find an affordable, reliable, structured environment for her children when school was closed. It wasn’t a unique problem.

American adults work an average of 250 days per year. In 2017, D.C. Public Schools were in session for 184 days.

“Right away, you have a 70-day gap,” Mintz said. “That’s why we started. That gap is what presents the biggest financial and logistical strain for families.”

Most school districts in the United States settled on the current academic calendar in the early 1960s, when only a third of adult women were working. Today, 75 percent of women with school-aged children are working.

Between 1979 and 2006, the median middle-class work week increased by 11 hours. In half of all married-couple families today, both parents are employed outside of the home. While 70 percent of those couples work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., the median closing time for elementary schools is 2:30 p.m.

Mintz understands the stress that those working hours place on families. She ran 120 program days in 2017 to help bridge that gap.

Heather Curtis has been sending her third-grader to UAS programs since he was in kindergarten. Mintz and Brock check the academic calendars of the D.C. schools and plan program days accordingly, which Curtis says, “takes that burden and emotional labor off of me.”

UAS programming allows Curtis and her husband to show up for their full-time jobs as usual on days that schools are closed for holidays and professional development days.

“My emotional well-being is what they really provide,” Curtis said.

The lives of American families have changed drastically since the 1960s, but the school day hasn’t. A report from the Center for American Progress estimated that child care costs families an average of $6,600 every year.

“Summer is a really expensive proposition for working families,” Mintz said. “When we had our third child, I was like, ‘Wait a minute. What on earth are we supposed to do during the summer?’”

From the beginning, Mintz has tried to make UAS programming affordable for all families. She applies for grant money and holds fundraisers to support the scholarship program that makes UAS accessible for families who cannot afford their regular rates. Programs typically cost $70 per day for one child, or $50 per day for each sibling.

“If we’re saying we’re supporting working families, we can’t do that if we’re only supporting a set of working families who can afford to pay,” she said.

As Mintz looks to the future, she is thinking about how to broaden access to UAS for all families. Almost 1,000 students have come through the squad, but most programs fill up, and Mintz has to turn families away. The wait lists frustrate parents and limit Mintz’ ability to support working families.

“We have to make sure that as we grow, we grow carefully. I don’t want to be in a position of getting so big and unsustainable that I have to turn to people and say that a grant ended so I can’t pay their salary anymore,” Mintz said. “So we’re working right now on our grant strategies … It’s an everyday learning experience.”

Back in 2014 when Mintz founded Urban Adventure Squad, she was still working full time, so she enlisted the help of her former babysitter, Brock, to help get the project off the ground.

Brock, a 32-year-old former preschool teacher, is the director of programming. She researches and develops curricula for all UAS program days.

“If I’m not excited about a program, we’re not doing it,” Brock said. She puts an emphasis on exciting, skill-based learning for her students, whom Brock and Mintz call squad members.

Mintz and Brock like to keep squad members outside for about four hours of their program days. Connecting with the outdoors is a key component to the UAS model.

“There’s just this sort of magic to being in the woods,” said Brock, who tries to get the squad members into green spaces as much as possible to balance the urban living of D.C.

There is also an emphasis on screen-free learning and playing at UAS. The students aren’t allowed to bring electronics, and programming rarely calls for it.

“Kids are connected too much, there’s no question,” Margot Susca, an American University professor, said. “We expect screens to educate us, to entertain us, and to distract us.”

Susca, who has a doctorate in mass communication with a focus in children and media, said that when screen time becomes a replacement for, rather than a supplement to, the outside world, children’s socialization skills are impaired.

Research also shows that extended screen time is shortening children’s attention spans, which is making them more irritable. The shorter attention spans cause trouble with concentration, which makes small tasks feel much more difficult than they are.

When young children struggle or fail to complete those tasks, it can often lead to temper tantrums, according to a study done by the American Psychological Association.

Dexter Coburn, a third-grader who regularly attends the programs, said that he’s much happier as a squad member than he is at home when he’s off from school.

“At home I would really just play some games and watch TV, but at UAS we get to be outside, explore and hike. I get to play with all my friends,” the 9-year-old said.

Spending time outside is a benefit to children, wrote Dr. Claire McCarthy in a recent article.

She said unplugging from electronics in favor of outdoor time fosters an appreciation for the nature, which is crucial because of the ways pollution and climate change are threatening the planet.

“We always talk about the next generation, and this next generation has a lot ahead of them,” said Laurel Clark, a squad leader who helps Brock lead program days. “Showing them how to interact respectfully with their environment is one of the most important things that we can do.”

Melanie Coburn, Dexter’s mom, has been sending her two boys to UAS programs for three years. She said she has seen positive changes in her sons.

“My boys have talked so much more about recycling and saving the Earth. I’ve noticed a shift in their mindset and being more proactive with that,” Coburn said.

Brock centers many of her programs around environmental education. Earlier this year, Mintz and Brock won the 2018 Community Stormwater Solutions Grant from the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment to implement a curriculum on D.C.’s hidden waterways for the students at Stokes Public Charter School.

The grant created a partnership between UAS and Stokes that allows Mintz and Brock to bring their curriculum and programming into the school days. They work with teachers to provide a hands-on approach to understanding the pollution of the Anacostia River.

“It was a huge accomplishment for us because it meant that the D.C. government was funding curriculum work in an area that is really important for the futures of the kids – the health of the Anacostia River,” said Mintz.

Mintz and Brock take the children on hikes around the school where they can see the impact that D.C.’s waterways have on the river. 

Squad Members learn about the impact of their litter by identifying the way trash travels from the street, through the storm drains, through the underground waterways and eventually to the Anacostia.

Mintz said children have more answers than they’re typically given credit for. She sees her job as framing problems for the kids to solve.

At that Dec. 7 morning meeting, Brock framed the problem: How do we know for sure that the Blagden boys existed here? The squad members were searching for evidence of the mill that stood a century ago.

The children bundled up and headed for Rock Creek. Brock led the way across 16th Street and through residential neighborhoods. After about a mile, the squad reached a dead-end road with an entrance to a hiking trail that was so overgrown you could almost have missed it.

They started on the path, twisting and turning through the narrow trail until it met the bed of Rock Creek. Brock sat the children down along the water’s edge and asked everyone to take a minute and look around for something that would help them understand what it might have been like to be a Blagden boy.

It was quiet for a moment until a small voice echoed through the forest.

“There was a bridge there!” one child yelled, pointing to the overgrown remains of a stone bridge on one side of the creek.

Brock grinned. “That’s right. That bridge connected the Blagdens’ home to Blagden Mill,” she said. But that wasn’t all.

The group continued their hiked to Pulpit Rock, the very place where the Blagden boys used to play. There, carved into the rock, were the initials of each of the Blagden boys. It was a physical representation of history. The Blagdens had left their mark, and the squad had found their evidence.

1967 Revisited: The Women’s March on the Pentagon

by Lindsay Russell

ARLINGTON, Va. – Burning draft cards. Scaling walls. Bloody arrests. The scene at the Pentagon on Oct. 21, 1967 was grim. The first national anti-war protest turned quickly into a riot. But exactly 51 years later, a different scene unfolded outside the Department of Defense headquarters. The same cause was championed with a message of peace.

The 1967 March on the Pentagon brought 70,000 people from around the country to the National Mall. Protesters rallied at the Lincoln Memorial all day in opposition to the war in Vietnam.

Later that evening, the 30,000 remaining protesters crossed the Memorial Bridge into Arlington and headed for the Pentagon. Protesters were met by military police, and the rioting began. Close to 30 protesters pushed their way through the line of U.S. Marshals into the Pentagon, where heavily armed troops forcibly removed them.

The riots continued into the night. By the time the sun came up, 682 protesters had been arrested, and 47 people — both protesters and U.S. Marshals—were injured.
Fast forward 51 years. The crowd is smaller, the protest tamer, but the anti-war sentiment is still alive and well.

The Women’s March on the Pentagon was a dream of organizer Cindy Sheehan’s after she saw how little attention the Women’s March on Washington paid to world peace as a universal goal.

“This is NOT a pink-pussy-hatted event to only oppose Trump and Get Out the Vote for the treacherous and warmongering Democrats: This is a principled nonpartisan march on the bipartisan U.S. war machine,” she wrote on her website.

Sheehan became involved in anti-war activism after her son was killed Iraq in 2004. U.S. Army Specialist Casey Sheehan was promised by his recruiter that he would never see combat. But just a few weeks into his deployment to Iraq, Sheehan’s unit was attacked by rocket-propelled grenades outside of Baghdad.

After her son’s death, Cindy Sheehan found solace in the anti-war movement. But when President Obama was elected in 2008, Sheehan realized that the anti-war movement was actually more of an anti-Bush movement. Obama did not face the same scrutiny over decisions made as commander in chief, but Sheehan believed him to be equally responsible.

The group of about 350 protesters – a number estimated by a U.S. Pentagon police officer – gathered outside the Pentagon City metro station to begin the march just before noon on Oct. 21. That number fell short of the 600 people who RSVP’d “going” to the event’s Facebook page.

Sheehan posted the protesters’ demands to her website ahead of the event: “The complete end to the wars abroad; closure of foreign bases; dramatically slash the Pentagon budget to fund healthy social programs here at home: the only good empire is a gone empire.”

The opposition to politics was felt in most of the protesters. Many have no faith in the current political system.

Al Johnson, 72, attended the protest as part of Veterans for Peace, a group of military veterans who support an end to foreign wars. Johnson was drafted into the Army during the 1960s but refused orders to Vietnam. He was placed in a military stockade.

When asked about his hopes for the midterm elections, Johnson said he hasn’t voted in years. Some members of Veterans for Peace are currently trying to flip an Ohio congressional district from red to blue, but Johnson wasn’t impressed.
“The midterms aren’t worth my time … Action in the streets is more important than midterm election day,” he said.

Former Naval Petty Officer Third Class Chuck Andriotakis agreed with Johnson.
Andriotakis, also with Veterans for Peace, enlisted in the Navy during the Vietnam War and served as a hospital corpsman. He also does not vote because he believes all political parties are the same. Andriotakis, like Johnson, would rather take to the streets.

The Green Party also had representation at the protest. Paula Bradshaw, a retired emergency room nurse, attended the protest because the Democrats and Republicans are both “despicable war mongers.” Bradshaw has never voted for a Democrat or Republican for president.

Back in Illinois, Bradshaw ran for an congressional seat three times on the Green Party platform: peace, social justice, environmental wisdom and grassroots democracy.

“Those just aren’t issues the voters care about,” she said of her three defeats.
Miriam Jovanovic, 23, and Joe Gale, 25, attended the protest together on behalf of their New York-based political organization, Students and Youth for a New America.

“I feel deeply moved about joining forces with other people to take our message to the streets,” Jovanovic said.

When asked about their hopes for the midterm elections, Jovanovic and Gale said that a systematic change from capitalism to socialism was the only solution for America’s political problems.

They handed out fliers that read, “Only Socialism Can Save America!” The handout idolized the socialist policies of Mao Zedong, among others. It encouraged the United States to adopt a similar form of socialism.

Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward killed 45 million Chinese peasants. They were overworked and starved to death.

As the crowd reached their final destination– a rally point in a parking lot a quarter of a mile from the Pentagon – their cheers continued. “Show me what democracy looks like!” leaders chanted. “This is what democracy looks like!”

#PACKED!: Politics and Prose in the Time of Trudeau

by Lindsay Russell

Politics and Prose bookstore was teeming with politically minded comic lovers on Monday night as they anxiously awaited the arrival of their lifelong hero. Garry Trudeau, creator of the Doonesbury comic strip, was scheduled to speak about his newest book at 7 p.m., but the bookstore’s 150 folding chairs – the maximum number allowed by the fire department – were full by 6:15. By 6:45, rows four or five people deep had formed behind the chairs. By 6:55, bodies flooded the aisles and the space along the walls. The Vietnam Generation had arrived.

Trudeau’s newest book, “#SAD!:Doonesbury in the Time of Trump,” is a collection of his comic strips that chronicle the first 500 days of the Trump presidency, everything from his improbable election to his reckless Twitter habits. It follows Trudeau’s 2016 book, “Yuge!: 30 Years of Doonesbury on Trump,” a collection of older Doonesbury strips that included the controversial New York real-estate mogul long before he considered a run for office.

The framework for Doonesbury was born in the ivy-covered halls of Yale University, where a young Trudeau began a comic strip that chronicled the goings-on of his undergraduate years. Bull Tales satirized the most outlandish campus happenings, including the event in which the president of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, a young man by the name of George W. Bush, was caught branding his pledges.

When Trudeau graduated from Yale in 1970, he continued writing comics but shifted his attention to the national stage. Bull Tales became Doonesbury, which debuted on Oct. 26, 1970, published by the Universal Press Syndicate as a daily strip that appeared in 28 newspapers around the country. The new strip satirized political events and public figures like the Vietnam War, the Watergate Scandal and Nixon’s senior staffers. Doonesbury created characters that represented larger societal movements of the time.

The strip initially portrayed a veteran of the Vietnam War, a newly-liberal feminist who left her husband and children to find herself; hippies; and a counterculture journalist hellbent on saving the world. Trudeau aged his characters in real time. Over the years they grew up, married, had children and settled into careers, just like Trudeau and his readers.

Those very readers who began their journey with Doonesbury as young adults trying to find their place in the world amidst the Vietnam War and the cultural revolution of the early ‘70s have since aged into senior citizenship. The demographics of the crowd at Politics and Prose did not go unnoticed.

“It’s like a Golden Girls convention in here… The median age of this crowd must be 70,” Ried Hiteshew said with a chuckle. Hietschew, who has been reading Doonesbury since he was a child, brought his 10-year-old to the event. For the Hiteshews, Doonesbury has become a family tradition.

As the clock ticked, the minutes pushing closer to 7 o’clock, the anticipation was palpable. Audience members fidgeted as they thumbed through Trudeau’s new book. Politics and Prose was the one and only stop on Trudeau’s “SAD!: Doonesbury in the Time of Trump” book tour. To attend this event was perhaps to attend the only public appearance Trudeau would make for the next several years. He is famous for avoiding the spotlight and instead letting his work speak for him.

“This is Christmas for me,” Cheryl Marquis said as she waited for the talk to begin. “Trudeau really resonated with my generation because of the Vietnam War … He’s a genius.” Marquis was a college student in Pittsburgh when the Vietnam War waged on in the early 1970s. Like most of the audience members, she has been following Trudeau for the last 50 years.

Doonesbury remained a daily strip from its creation until 2013, when Trudeau announced the strip would continue only weekly as a Sunday strip, much to the dismay of his fans. Despite the change, Doonesbury runs in as many as 1,500 newspapers today. Trudeau’s fans are still engaging with his work as passionately as they did when they were 20-year-old college students.

The moment finally arrived. At 7 o’clock, Bradley Graham, the co-owner of DC’s famous bookstore, stood to address the packed bookstore. He opened by reading some of his favorite Trudeau quotes, and the audience roared with laughter.
When Trudeau finally took to the podium, he did so with an easy smile and a twinkle in his eyes. He welcomed the audience, told a few jokes and read the preface to his new book. “If satire has a mission statement … it’s to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted,” he said, effectively summarizing the goal of his life’s work.

The preface mentions the tendency of Trump supporters to reject political satire. Sometimes people read it, get angry and cling all the more ferociously to their beliefs, Trudeau read on.

“Just because two-fifths of the country are still in the thrall of a humungous con, doesn’t mean that the rest of us – appalled, disenfranchised, writhing in embarrassment for our country – should forgo the comfort of laughter. At this benighted moment, it is all we have,” he read.

His tone was serious, and his words drew murmurs and then applause from a thoughtful audience. 

Trudeau then explained that he would not do any more reading. Instead, the event would take the form of a Q&A.

No one needed to hear that twice. Members of the audience climbed over one another to make it to the microphone.

The questions kept coming, one after another, with Trudeau giving generous and thoughtful responses to each person.

Perhaps the most compelling moment of the talk came when Trudeau addressed what he calls “the rot” that he believes has permeated every facet of the executive branch under the Trump administration. The role of the government has been warped in recent years. Trudeau’s guess is that people are going to start to understand how much they need government.

“Public service cannot continue to be reviled the way it is now if we’re going to survive,” he said. The crowd erupted into applause. Attendees looked to each other for a reassuring smile or squeeze of the arm.

In an era of divisive political rhetoric, the generation that came of age during another particularly dark time in our nation’s history looked to the man who had led them through the last 50 years for guidance. They came together, packed in tight at a little bookstore in Washington, to remember that there is still laughter, and there are still things worth fighting for.