Boy sought help from the top in changing schools

Carlos Jackson with the letter and photo he received in response to his letter to President Obama.
Carlos Jackson with the letter and photo he received in response to his letter to President Obama. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 21, 2013

When 10-year-old Carlos Jackson decided he wanted to go to a different school, he took his request all the way to the top.

First he told his family. Then he sent e-mails to several charter school principals asking for admission. But he wanted to ask a higher authority.

So he sent a letter to the president of the United States.

One month later, Carlos happily wears the uniform of his new charter school and shows off his signed response from Barack Obama. The two developments might not be related, but he's pretty proud of both.

Janelle Lee-Berrian, Carlos' mother, says she watched him run to the mailbox every day to look for a response from the president. Even though her son had only been placed on some charter schools' wait-lists while other kids on his block got in, he was sure that President Obama would take care of it.

"I thought that he could help me," Carlos explained, "because he would have to know and learn a lot and become educated for him to be president."

Two weeks before school started, Carlos snagged a spot at the Mathematics, Civics and Sciences Charter School through the ordinary application process, not through executive order.

The envelope with the return address 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue that arrived later was an added bonus. Inside, Carlos found a map of the White House, a pamphlet about the presidential mansion's famous artwork, photographs of Obama and his dog Bo, and a letter about the importance of education with the president's signature and raised seal.

Carlos said he decided he wanted to change schools after a frustrating fourth-grade year at Francis Hopkinson Elementary, his neighborhood school in Juniata Park. His teacher spent so much time scrolling through Facebook posts on her phone rather than teaching the 31 students in her classroom that when Carlos told his mother about it, she went to the principal to complain.

Still, he enjoyed gym, art, and music classes. Watching the news on TV over the summer, he learned that those extra subjects were being cut back in the troubled school district.

"Every time they were saying what was cut from the school, he was like, 'Oh no,' " Lee-Berrian said. "He was crying, 'I don't want to go back.' "

His public school was right at the end of his block, and his new school is an hour-long bus ride away. But Carlos is undeterred.

He enthusiastically recounts his new experiences there - the quiet classrooms instead of the constant talking that drowned out his old teachers, the surprise of seeing two teachers for his class of 21 students, the no-touching policy that reduces fights in the hallways. One of the biggest adjustments, he said, was being handed a stack of textbooks.

Each student received one book to keep at school and one at home. Rather than handing out photocopied math homework, as his fourth-grade teacher did, his new teacher writes page numbers on the board and tells students to complete the problems after school.

"I asked my mom, 'What is this?' " Carlos said. "I had heard of textbooks but I didn't know what they were."

Now that he has achieved his goals of switching schools and contacting the president, Carlos' next pursuit is angling for a MacBook from his parents. He is fascinated by YouTube videos of surgical procedures.

When he grows up, he says, he wants to be an orthopedic surgeon. And now that he is studying cells in his new science class, he thinks he can achieve that goal, too.


Contact Julie Zauzmer at jzauzmer@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @JulieZauzmer.

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