Greater Greater Education

DCPS spotlights the needs of African-American and Latino males

DC Public Schools has announced a new initiative that will train a "laser-like focus" on African-American and Latino males, two groups that fare worst on many measures of academic achievement. But the effort, which includes a new all-boys high school, will inevitably leave some students in relative darkness.


Photo of student from Shutterstock.

DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson recently unveiled a three-pronged program targeted at the 43% of DCPS students who are males of color. Spending $20 million over the next three years, DCPS plans to recruit 500 tutor-mentors, fund school-level programs aimed at engaging and supporting black and Hispanic boys, andmost ambitiouslybring in a successful Chicago charter network to replicate its prep school model in DC.

Many details are still unclear. DCPS is already recruiting volunteer tutors for the four well-regarded tutoring programs it is partnering with, but at least one of them uses only paid tutors. More fundamentally, it's not clear exactly where the $20 million will come from, although DCPS hopes to raise at least $7.4 million of it from private donors.

Another question is whether Urban Prep Academies, the organization that will run DCPS's prep school beginning in the fall of 2016, will enjoy the same degree of autonomy here that it's had running three charter schools in Chicago. Henderson promised that Urban Prep will have "as many autonomies as they need to make it work," but she added that the DC Council may need to change the law to make that possible.

Urban Prep has made headlines for getting 100% of its alumni into four-year colleges since it began graduating students five years ago. Its school uniform, which includes red ties and navy blazers adorned with the school crest and motto"Credimus," Latin for "We believe"calls to mind an elite boys' school like St. Alban's.

But, unlike most of those at St. Albans, Urban Prep's students are black, and many are from low-income families.

Joining Henderson at last week's kick-off event, the school's founder, Tim King, told an inspiring story about a homeless student who "would actually sit on the cold floor in the shelter bathroom doing his homework, because it was the only place there that had the lights on past 10 pm." That student, King added, became class valedictorian and is now a student at Georgetown University.

Snaring Urban Prep was a coup for DC, according to Henderson. "Let me be clear," she said. "Everybody in the country wants Urban Prep Academies to open a school in their city."

One reason DC won out might be that Henderson and King have known each other since their undergraduate days at Georgetown, where King was assigned to be Henderson's mentor.

Critics say school has high attrition and low scores

As with almost any successful charter school, Urban Prep has its critics. Some say the attrition rate is high, with the size of a class sometimes shrinking from 150 to 50 students between 9th and 12 grades. (Urban Prep did not respond to questions about this and other topics.)

Another complaint about charters like Urban Prep is that its students are a self-selected group, with more motivated families and a lower poverty rate than students in neighborhood public schools. Although the DC version of Urban Prep will be a traditional public school rather than a charter, the same criticism could apply, since parents will presumably need to take affirmative steps to enroll their sons.

One response to these critiques is that even if Urban Prep doesn't work for all kids, at least it works for the ones who get there and stick with it. But some question even that.

At one of the school's three campuses last year, only 9% of students were deemed ready for college-level work, defined as scoring at least 21 on the ACT. At the other campuses, the figures were 28% and 20%. The average for Chicago public schools is 27%.

Even if one does assume that Urban Prep does change the life trajectory of the young African-American men it serves in Chicago, will it do the same for the young Latino men that are also supposed to be part of DCPS's "laser-like focus"? (Speakers used that metaphor no less than six times during the announcement of the initiative.)

While the DC school presumably won't exclude anyone on the basis of race or ethnicity, the Urban Prep model is clearly geared to black students. And its planned location at some unspecified site east of the Anacostia River, an area that is almost entirely African-American, may make it difficult for Latino boys to attend in any event.

Black and Latino girls need help too

And what about black and Latino girls? While the legality of single-sex education used to be in dispute, the federal government loosened its rules in 2006, and since then single-sex schools and classes have proliferated.

Research has been equivocal on whether single-sex education produces better results. But some data indicate that it's most likely to benefit poor and minority students, although it's not clear why.

Single-sex charter schools like the Chicago version of Urban Prep are free to operate with no restrictions. But when a single-sex school is part of a traditional school district, federal policy requires the district to make another school of "substantially equal" quality available to the excluded gender. That other school can be either coed or single-sex.

Will black and Latino girls have a "substantially equal" option? That could become a matter for debate, and possibly even litigation.

Aside from legality, the plan for Urban Prep and indeed the whole "Empowering Males of Color" initiative raises questions of equity. On DC's standardized tests last year, the proficiency rate for black girls was about 45%, and for Latinas about 57%. That's better than the rates for black and Hispanic boysabout 35% and 49%, respectively. But it's way below the 90% proficiency rates for white students.

Of course, efforts that elevate the needs of one group almost always have an adverse effect on others. And in the case of young men of color, you can make a case that it's justified.

Perhaps a bigger problem is that Urban Prep, in combination with DC's many charter schools and its several application-only DCPS high schools, will further drain off the more motivated male students from neighborhood schools, leaving behind a higher concentration of those who are hardest to educate.

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A book-of-the-month club for infants and toddlers aims to narrow the achievement gap

A new proposal to send a book a month to every DC child under five could help narrow the yawning literacy gap between poor and higher-income kids, which has its roots well before kindergarten. But ultimately, disadvantaged kids will need a lot more assistance than a book a month to catch up to their more affluent peers.


Photo of family reading from Shutterstock.

Spurred by low achievement among DC's low-income and minority students, Ward 6 DC Councilmember Charles Allen has introduced a bill modeled on similar programs in Tennessee and elsewhere.

Fewer than half of all third-graders scored proficient or advanced on the District's standardized reading test last year, and literacy scores in general have remained stubbornly flat since 2008. Allen and others say that exposing young children to books and language from the beginning of their lives is the key to solving that problem.

In some low-income households, Allen says, "the only book may be a phone book."

Allen got the idea about six months ago, while visiting his brother in Tennessee. Allen's two-year-old niece was "completely thrilled with this book that came in the mail," with her name on the address label.

It was part of a program called Imagination Library, based in Tennessee and founded by singer Dolly Parton. Imagination Library, which began in 1995, now sends monthly books to almost 770,000 children across the country.

DC would have its own local program

DC could have signed up to become part of Imagination Library, but Allen decided it made more sense to start an independent local program, which he's calling Books from Birth. One reason was that he wanted the books to reflect the diversity of DC's population.

Another reason was to involve the DC Public Library, which already has a program designed to get parents to verbally interact more with their children, called Sing, Talk, Read.

The legislation calls for DCPL to appoint a committee to recommend books. DCPL will then choose from the recommendations and send the books out along with information about library programs in each child's neighborhood, including literacy programs targeted at parents.

Allen hopes that pediatricians serving low-income families will reinforce the message that it's important to read to kids, and also help keep track of families as they move around the District.

Allen estimates that the cost will be $30 per child per year. With 41,000 eligible children, that comes to about $1.2 million annually. But the $30 figure is based on Imagination Library's costs. As Allen acknowledges, DC wouldn't be buying books in such large quantities, and it might not get the same volume discounts.

But even if the program ends up costing more, Allen says, "I think it's a sound investment."

Do the program's benefits justify the costs?

Sending free books to children certainly couldn't hurt, and even a couple million dollars a year isn't a huge amount in the scheme of things. But the question is whether that money might be better spent elsewhere.

One way to reduce costs would be to limit the program to low-income families, or at least to families who opt in. But Allen is adamant that the program should be universal and enrollment automatic.

Using a means test would create a stigma, he says. And parents who need the program the most might be the very ones deterred from filling out a form to enroll, in part because of their low literacy skills. (Allen is, however, anticipating that the program will be phased in beginning with younger ages, making the cost of the program $1.5 million over the first five years.)

A larger question is whether programs such as Books from Birth actually work. One study found that entering kindergarteners in the Memphis area who had been enrolled in the local Books from Birth program scored eight points higher on a reading readiness test that had an 86-point scale.

There's other data indicating that the programs have a positive impact on things like how much parents read to their children, but much of it is self-reported or anecdotal. On the other hand, as Allen points out, it may take many years before we know whether a program like this really works.

The 30-million-word gap

Allen ties the impetus for his bill to research published 20 years ago, which has come to be known as the "30-million-word gap" study. "Research shows," Allen said at a recent event, "that preschoolers who have access to books and adults who read to them will have heard 30 million more words at home by the age of four than children who do not."

But the study actually focused on income levels, not books or reading. It estimated that children in families on welfare heard 30 million fewer words than those in high-income families.

True, high-income families are more likely to have both books and parents who read to their children. But the study was looking at verbal interactions rather than reading, and not even just at the number of words children heard. Higher-income families spoke to their children differently, according to the researchers, giving them more praise and encouragement and asking more open-ended questions.

Some cities, most notably Providence, have tried to address the 30-million-word gap through programs that send home visitors to work with low-income parents so that they'll speak more, and more encouragingly, to their kids. Children in Providence are even fitted with devices that record the number of words they hear, and the kind of interactions they're engaged in.

While it's too soon to say whether that kind of home-visiting program will help close the achievement gap, it's clearly a more intensive approach than just sending out bookseven if those books are accompanied by information about library programs.

Allen is aware of the Providence program and describes himself as "a huge fan" of literacy-focused home visiting. He sees the Books from Birth program as a first step in the direction of a comprehensive approach to early literacy that would include home visits.

He may be right to start relatively small. Home visiting programs are not only expensive, they're complicated to design and administer. And sending out books may well begin to prompt the kind of parent-child interactions that home visits could further develop.

With all ten of his colleagues on the DC Council having signed on to co-introduce Allen's Books from Birth bill, it has a good chance of passage. That's fine, and undoubtedly some children will benefit. But no one should be lulled into thinking that this program alone will solve the massive problem it's targeting.

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High test scores at many charter schools may actually be "false positives"

For years, many elementary schools serving low-income kidsparticularly charter schoolshave focused on teaching basic skills in reading and math. But now one nationally recognized charter leader says that to close the achievement gap, schools need a different approach. Will DC charters follow suit?


Photo of classroom from Shutterstock.

Last month, a leader of Achievement First, a well-respected charter network based in New York, candidly admitted that her schools had erred in cutting out subjects like history and science to spend more time on the so-called basics.

"One of the bigger mistakes I made as a practitioner when we first started," said Dacia Toll, co-CEO and president of the network, "is we thought, well, the kids are struggling in reading. So what do you do? You have more reading. And I realized that was exactly the wrong thing to have done, that in fact really rich hands-on science and sophisticated history, and reading in both history and science, is profoundly impactful in terms of equipping our kids to be successful."

The problem, Toll said at a panel on education convened by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in DC, is that reading comprehension is highly dependent on background knowledge and vocabulary.

The staff at Achievement First, as at other schools, had assumed that if you use a simple reading passage on any given subject to teach a student a skill such as "finding the main idea," the student will then be able to apply that skill to more challenging text on some other subject.

Butas you know if you're technologically challenged and have ever tried to understand the user manual for some newly acquired devicereading comprehension doesn't actually work that way. If you don't have enough vocabulary and pre-existing knowledge to make sense of a text, it will remain impenetrable.

In one study, researchers divided students into groups according to general reading ability and prior knowledge about baseball. They then gave all the students a passage to read about baseball. The result? Weak readers who knew a lot about baseball outperformed strong readers who didn't.

Low-income students generally start school with significantly less vocabulary and general background knowledge than their middle-class peers. As they move up from one grade to the next, that gap widens.

And when schools focus on free-floating reading comprehension "skills," unmoored from any substantive or coherent curriculum, they do little to close it. By the time disadvantaged students get to the more demanding work of middle and high school, they may be hopelessly behind.

Common Core test results were a wake-up call

The idea that reading comprehension depends on background knowledge isn't new. Some commentatorsmost notably E.D. Hirschhave been urging that argument for decades. But until recently, most education reformers either dismissed or ignored it.

Toll's admission nearly dumbfounded another panelist at the forum. "I'm just giddy sitting here," said Robert Pondiscio, a Hirsch disciple and a senior fellow at the Fordham Institute. "What you're saying is what I've been waiting for somebody to say for about 10 years now."

Toll said the "wake-up call" for Achievement First was the new Common Core State Standards and their accompanying tests, which are more rigorous than the standardized tests New York and other states have given in the past. When New York switched to Common Core-aligned tests two years ago, the results showed "the achievement gap is even wider than we thought it was," Toll said.

"Our schools, which were high-achieving under the old regime, are no longer," she added. She referred to those previously high scores on easier tests as a "false positive."

But a few schools in New York with low-income populations continued to get high scores even after the new tests came in. Those schools, which are part of the Icahn and Success Academy charter networks, placed more emphasis on curriculum, Toll said. The Icahn schools use the Core Knowledge curriculum developed by a foundation started by E.D. Hirsch. (In the video of the forum, Toll's comments appear at about 43 minutes in, and then again at about 58 minutes in.)

New York's experience may be replicated in DC

Because New York adopted more rigorous tests two years ahead of most other states, their school system may be the proverbial canary in the coal mine. Schools in DC and elsewhere will begin giving Common Core tests this year, and their experience is likely to be similar.

One high-performing DC charter network, which preferred to remain anonymous, is already focusing on bringing more substance and coherence to its curriculum, beginning with the early elementary grades. Others may follow suit.

But deciding to shift the focus from skills to a content-based curriculum, while important, is only the beginning. The next question is what the curriculum should include and how it should build from one grade to the next. Once you've decided on answers to those tricky questions, you have to figure out how to teach that content in a way that engages disadvantaged kids and ensures they're actually absorbing it.

And even then, you may still have students who enter in later grades and lack the background knowledge others have acquired. Some of them may not even know English.

Beyond that, any improvement in test scores is unlikely to show up immediately, if at all. Because the United States has no national curriculum, the Common Core testsdesigned to be given across multiple statesaren't tied to any particular content. Like the standardized tests they replace, they too will focus not on testing specific knowledge but on reading "skills," albeit more sophisticated skills.

So if your students have become experts in, say, ancient Egypt, and they're confronted on a standardized test with a passage about Amelia Earhart, will they still ace the comprehension questions?

Some educators say yes, arguing that habits of reading developed in the context of a meaningful curriculum will carry over to unfamiliar subjects. And it's encouraging that the curriculum-focused charter schools in New York scored well on that state's Common Core-aligned tests.

Even so, it's still not clear that a curriculum-focused approach can actually close the achievement gap. The Success Academy network may have had high scores on New York's Common Core-aligned tests, but last year none of the graduating 8th-graders at its flagship school scored high enough on city tests to be admitted to any of the city's elite public high schools.

But focusing on curriculum isn't just about improving test scores, important as they may be in today's world. As Toll noted, students deprived of knowledge aren't equipped to understand the kind of texts required for success in college and in everyday adult life, or even many newspaper articles.

"We've been at this now for two years," Toll said of her school's new focus on curriculum, "and I think it's the only thing that's moving the needle. And it moves really slowly. But I think it's really worth it."

Update: In another sign that charter schools are beginning to recognize the importance of curriculum, nearly half the schools in the KIPP network are using a math curriculum developed by an organization called Great Minds. That organization is now developing an English curriculum that will be available to KIPP and any other school that wants to use it.

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The new chair of the DC Council's education committee promises a change in style and substance

At-Large Councilmember David Grosso plans to adopt a less aggressive style than David Catania, his predecessor as education committee chair. Grosso says his main focus will be getting disadvantaged kids the services they need to do well in school.


Photo from David Grosso website.

Back in December of 2012, David Catania was chomping at the bit to become chair of the education committee. "I'm so excited," he told the Post, "I can't stand it."

What followed was a two-year whirlwind of activity, during which Catania introduced myriad pieces of legislation, visited some 150 schools, and grilled DC education officials about their perceived lapses.

When the Council reconvenes in January, Catania's successor, David Grosso, will take the reins. He's also eager to take on the challenge of addressing DC's seemingly intractable education problemsmost fundamentally, the gap in achievement between affluent white students and other groups. But he says his style will be different.

"I'm not going to introduce eight bills during my first few months," Grosso said in a recent interview.

He says he'll have his own priorities, but will work collaboratively with others, engaging them in conversation before holding hearings or introducing legislation.

"When I put something forward," he says, "I'm not sure I have the answer. I'm going to want to work closely to make sure everyone buys in."

A shift in focus

Catania's legislative legacy includes an overhaul of the District's special education system, the end of social promotion, and additional funds for students who are most at-risk.

His hearings and roundtables also provided forums for parents, teachers, and the general public to air their views on subjects like DCPS's controversial teacher evaluation system.

Grosso says that under his chairmanship, the education committee will continue to address legitimate questions about teacher evaluations, testing, and "what goes on in the classroom." He also says the committee will remain "a place where the community has a voice" in education matters.

But his main focus, he says, will be on ways to ensure that kidsespecially poor kidshave access to services that will put them in a position to learn. Education, he says, is an area that is connected to many others and can't be siloed.

As an example, he mentions a story he heard about a high school freshman who was "acting out." When a counselor sat down with the student to find out what was behind her behavior, the counselor discovered she hadn't had running water in her house for four months.

It's unrealistic, Grosso says, to expect students living in such circumstances to be fully engaged in schoolwork. And research backs him up: studies have shown that the stress of living in poverty causes physiological conditions that make it difficult for kids to focus and control their impulses.

"People might say, how is this relevant to the work of the education committee?" Grosso says. "But in reality, it's imperative to education that we give kids like that an opportunity to heal."

Seeing the bigger picture

Addressing problems related to poverty and race is beyond the capacity of any school system, he says, and requires a concerted effort. That's one reason he's glad he'll also be sitting on the Council's new committee on health and human services.

"I don't expect my staff or I to become experts in what should be taught or how," he says. That's the job of the DC Public Schools Chancellor and other school leaders, he explained. But, Grosso added, "we can see the bigger picture."

One area where he sees a need is mental health. Last summer he visited a number of mental health providers and was particularly impressed with a program called Resilient Scholars, which provides counseling in 21 DCPS and charter schools. Grosso would like to expand that kind of in-school program.

Grosso says he's learned a lot in his two years as a member of the education committee, and his sister is a Montessori educator. But other than that he has no particular expertise in education.

However, his deputy chief of staff, Christina Henderson, has a master's in public affairs from Princeton, with a particular emphasis on education. She's also held several education-related jobs, including one at DCPS and another at the New York City Department of Education. Henderson has been Grosso's main adviser on education and will continue to play that role.

Which style will produce results?

It's too soon to know if Grosso's more collaborative and focused approach will produce better results than Catania's aggressive, let's-do-it-all-at-once style. But it sounds promising. Although Catania certainly kept education issues in the spotlight, it's not clear his efforts will result in any meaningful reduction in the achievement gap.

A case in point is Grosso's chosen issue, in-school mental health services. Back in 2012, the DC Council passed legislation setting a goal of having a mental health program in 50% of all DC schools by this school year, and in every school by 2016-17. The prime mover behind that legislation was David Catania, who introduced it in response to a shooting that left four teenagers dead.

But according to the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, only 36% of schools currently have such programs. The DCFPI estimates that it will cost $11 million to fully fund the legislation, and it's not clear that money will be forthcoming.

Would there be more mental health programs in schools by now if Catania had taken more pains to bring everyone on board before passing a bill, as Grosso promises to do? Perhaps. But even though the legislation is a fait accompli, maybe it's not too late for Grosso to use his influence to meet its goals.

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Five things you should know about what happened this year in DC education

It's been an eventful year for education in DC. Here's a look back at some of the major developments.

1. Much talk but little substance in the race to be DC's Education Mayor

Education emerged as a pivotal issue in the 2014 mayoral contest.

Muriel Bowser began her campaign with a slogan of Alice Deal for All, promising to replicate the success of Ward 3's lone middle school across the District. Her rival, David Catania, touted his extensive record as chair of the DC Council's education committee and scoffed at Bowser's "empty platitudes."

After critics pointed out that the success of Deal Middle School had a lot to do with its unusually affluent student body, Bowser shifted her education strategy to a more general one of staying the course, promising to retain DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson.

While Bowser's victory was an endorsement of the status quo, none of the three major candidates, including third-place candidate Carol Schwartz, promised a significant shift from previous policies.

None, for example, seriously questioned the system of mayoral control of DC's schools that has been in place since 2007, and none called for any significant changes in DC's robust charter sector. Still, the prominence of education as a campaign issue helped keep the subject on DC's front burner.

2. Overhauling DC's school boundaries and feeder patterns

The DCPS boundaries currently in effect date from the 1960's, and they've become a lopsided mish-mash because of demographic changes and school closures. Some schools are overcrowded while others are underenrolled, and many students have the right to attend more than one school. An advisory committee charged with rationalizing the system began meeting in the fall of 2013, and its labors ultimately bore fruit, and produced controversy, in 2014.

The committee's original proposals, released in April, would have largely replaced the system of neighborhood schools with student assignments through some form of lottery. That idea proved wildly unpopular, and in June the committee released a revised proposal that preserved residents' rights to attend schools in their neighborhoods. Outgoing Mayor Vincent Gray adopted that proposal in August.

Even that didn't satisfy everyone because it excised some residents from school zones they preferred. But a poll in September showed that over half of DC residents supported the plan.

Still, neither Catania nor Bowser endorsed the overhaul. Bowser, whose DC Council district includes one of the neighborhoods most disgruntled by the plan, originally said she intended to start the whole boundary review process over. Later, she began to tone down her rhetoric, eventually saying she wanted only some "tweaks."

Bowser hasn't said much on the issue since her election. Nor did she introduce legislation to halt DC's common school lottery, which opened December 15 and is premised on applying the new boundaries to students who are new to DCPS in the fall of 2015. Families can use the common lottery to apply to charter schools and DCPS schools that are selective or are not their assigned neighborhood school. It seems unlikely Bowser will end up making any significant changes to the boundary plan.

3. Tensions between DCPS and charter schools

There were signs of greater coordination between DCPS and charters, including the launch of a common lottery that allowed parents to apply to schools in both sectors simultaneously. But for the most part, relations between DCPS and the District's burgeoning charter sector, which now enrolls 45% of DC students, grew more tense.

The debate about the school boundary overhaul unearthed some of that tension. The boundary committee originally saw its mission as limited to DCPS, but parents at community meetings called for more coordination with the charter sector. They argued it made no sense to draw up plans for DCPS schools that could easily be upended by unchecked charter growth.

That point was underscored in July, when a new charter school announced it would open directly across the street from a DCPS school with a similar focus. DCPS Chancellor Henderson, who said she found out about this development from Twitter, offered some sharp words about "cannibalization" and a lack of communication and joint planning.

Generally, proponents of neighborhood schoolswhich, in DC, means DCPS schoolssay that charters are draining students and resources from DCPS. Charter advocates respond that competition from charters should spur DCPS to improve. Moreover, they say, it's hard to plan where schools will locate when space is in such short supplypartly because DC has failed to release some mothballed DCPS buildings.

These tensions have now erupted in court: a coalition of charter schools has sued DC, alleging the District is violating federal law by funding DCPS more generously than charters.

During the mayoral campaign, some called for the candidates to impose limits on charter growth. Bowser has indicated her willingness to do that if necessary, but she clearly would prefer to find a way to get charters to engage in joint planning voluntarily.

That task will almost certainly fall to her deputy mayor for education, Jennie Niles, whoas a former leader of a prominent charter schoolshould be well positioned to accomplish it.

4. Charter school growth and quality

Despite talk of limiting growth, the Public Charter School Board has continued to expand the number of slots at charter schools. At the same time, it's trying to ensure that as many of those slots as possible are high-quality.

Four new charter schools opened this fall, and the PCSB has approved charters for three new schools that will open in 2015. But it also turned down five applications that it deemed unworthy. And it voted to close one charter that engaged in financial fraud and self-dealing, while almost shutting down another.

As for charters that are struggling academically, the PCSB is increasingly trying to find ways to turn them around rather than close them. This year successful charter networks took over two charter schools that had been at risk of closure, and a third such charter will merge with DCPS next year. The PCSB recently gave a last-minute reprieve to another charter slated for closure, provided it can meet certain conditions.

The PCSB's efforts to improve school quality appear to be paying off. This year, over 12,000 students are enrolled in charters meeting the agency's highest standards, an increase of 9% over last year. And only five schools are in the PCSB's lowest category, down from eight last year.

5. The continuing debate over whether schools are improving

Standardized test scores continued to inch up. Even so, only about half of DC students are proficient in reading and math. More troubling, the achievement gap between affluent white students and others remains stubbornly wide.

Test scores have generally been on a slow upward trajectory for the past seven years, but critics have charged the reason for the increase is an influx of affluent students rather than any actual improvements in education. In July, a group of education advocates called for DC to release more information about testing data, claiming it would show that achievement gaps are actually growing.

However, a recent study examining the raw test scores seemed to indicate the opposite, concluding that there has been progress for all ethnic and socioeconomic groups.

No doubt that conclusion will be challenged by others. And with the advent of a new, more difficult test this year, scores will almost certainly plummet.

Will 2015 be an equally eventful a year for DC education? Stay tuned as it unfolds.

Update: A spokesperson for the PCSB has pointed out that charter growth in 2014 was the slowest in DC's history, as the PCSB opted to prioritize quality over growth.

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In DC's confusing thicket of school choice, there's a guide for those who need help the most

Families in DC have an abundance of school options. But many low-income families don't have access to the information they need to make good choices.


Photo of trees from Shutterstock.

Some argue that school choice will ultimately result in a better education system, as families gravitate to schools that perform well. The best schools will flourish, according to this view, and competition will force the lower-performing schools to improve. But for that system to work fairly, all families need the same opportunity to make an informed choice.

With DC's school lottery opening this week, many parents are beginning to consider their options for next school year. And there's no shortage of them: nearly half of DC students opt to attend a DC Public School other than the one they're assigned to, and 45% of DC students are enrolled in a charter school.

There's plenty of information about all of these options available online: DC Public Schools offers profiles for each of its schools, and the Public Charter School Board uses an evaluation system to place charter schools in one of three tiers.

In addition, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education publishes equity reports that allow people to compare DCPS and charter schools on a variety of measures. And the lottery website, MySchoolDC, consolidates information about schools and how to apply to them.

Wealthier parents often hire private consultants to help them navigate the thicket of choices. Many middle-class families at least consult a website like GreatSchools.org, which rates schools in various cities and displays comments from parents.

Parents with few resources face obstacles

Parents with fewer resources and limited access to the Internet may be just as overwhelmed, but they're less likely to have help. In fact, they're often not even aware they have choices. If they do, they may not know where to begin in evaluating them. They may not realize they can visit a school and ask questions, and they may not have the time for that in any event.

And for parents coming to DC from places where kids just go to their neighborhood schools, it can be particularly confusing. "People were talking about the lottery, charter versus [traditional] public, out-of-boundary versus in-boundary," says Dominique Small, who moved to the District from North Carolina a couple of years ago. "I was like, what?"

Help for low-income parents

For parents like Small, an organization called DC School Reform Now can be a godsend. For the past three years, DCSRN has targeted its efforts on low-income parents in Wards 7 and 8. Its staff guides them through the school choice process from beginning to end, helping them find a school that matches their needs and priorities.

DCSRN recruits families at several DCPS and charter schools, where it focuses on transitions from elementary to middle school, or middle to high school. The staff also finds parents through preschools, homeless shelters, and community organizations.

The organization holds "movie nights" at these partner organizations, when it screens some of its 15 videos showing what various schools are like. These Virtual School Tours, which are also available on DCSRN's website, include interviews with principals, teachers, parents, and students. There are also scenes of classrooms, arrival and dismissal, lunch periods and recess, and transitions between classrooms.

DCSRN uses other kinds of outreach as well. Its executive director, David Pickens, personally knocks on doors in public housing projects where low-income families live.

Once a family signs up, they're assigned to one of DCSRN's Parent Advocates, who begin by asking what the family's priorities are. Usually, says Parent Advocate Erika Harrell, the top considerations are academics and transportation. Amenities like before- and after-care can also be important.

Parent Advocates then help families come up with a list of schools and fill out applications, usually over the phone. They remind them of deadlines, and DCSRN staff even transports parents to schools when it comes time to enroll. DC requires that parents complete the enrollment process in person.

Still, it's not always easy to connect students with high-quality schools. Families who sign up for DCSRN sometimes slip away, often because the phone number they gave was non-working or got disconnected. Harrell says last year she started with a caseload of 130 families and was able to get 85 to enter the lottery.

Overall, DSCRN recruited 769 families last year, but the number of students who actually enrolled in what it defines as a quality school was only 115. That's not just because of attrition; some students simply didn't get matched with a school they wanted.

And many families didn't get matched with a Parent Advocate in the first place, because DCSRN doesn't have enough funds to hire more than two or three, each of whom has a caseload of about 100 families.

School choice is here to stay, so we need to make it fair

Opponents of a school system based on choice argue that competition won't actually make all schools better. When families leave their struggling neighborhood schools, they drain resources and make it harder for those schools to improve. From that perspective, DCSRN is part of the problem.

While Pickens acknowledges that argument has some validity, he says DCSRN's focus is on getting each individual child the best possible education. And sometimes, he says, DCSRN is able to tell families their neighborhood school is actually better than it used to be and urge them to consider it. Generally, DCSRN doesn't favor charter schools over DCPS schools, or vice versa.

In the abstract, it may be debatable whether school choice is the best way to improve education. But the fact is, in DC, a system of choice is here to stay. And the only way to ensure that it's equitable is to try to provide busy families who have limited resources the same information that wealthier parents have.

If it hadn't been for DCSRN, says Dominique Small, "I probably would still be at my neighborhood school, and very disappointed." Instead, her two kids are at J.O. Wilson Elementary, which she says is "everything I was looking for, and then some."

Parent Advocate Erika Harrell's only frustration is that she can't reach more parents who need her help. "When I tell people what I do," she says, "they always say the same thing: Where were you when my kids were in school, because I would have loved to have had some help with this."

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Wilson's principal gets the axe even though test scores are up. Here's a likely explanation

Wilson High School is the largest and most sought-after neighborhood high school in DC. On Friday, its principal announced that DC Public Schools had decided not to renew his contract for next year because standardized test scores at the school were unsatisfactory. How do these two facts fit together?


Photo of Wilson High School from DCPS website.

Wilson's principal, Pete Cahall, recently made headlines when he came out at the school's Pride Day event. Now he's in the news for another reason: he sent a letter to the DC Council announcing he'd been fired. Although he said he wasn't going to fight the decision, he listed what he saw as his accomplishments at the schoolincluding raising test scores.

DCPS evaluates principals based on a number of factors in addition to test scores. And in accordance with its general policy of silence on personnel decisions, the agency hasn't explained why Cahall was fired. But let's assume Cahall's explanation is accurate. Given that Wilson's test scores are the highest of any DCPS high school that doesn't require students to submit applications, many may be wondering where Cahall fell short.

Wilson's achievement gap

Most likely, the answer is that he failed to significantly boost scores for low-income and minority students at the school. For the 2012-13 school year, proficiency rates on DC's standardized tests, the DC CAS, were 90% for white students and only about 47% for black students. There are marked disparities in proficiency rates between whites and Hispanic, special education, and low-income students as well.

As a result, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education has classified Wilson as a Focus school under federal guidelines. Focus schools are schools that have large achievement gaps between specific groups of students and get special monitoring and professional development. There are 20 DCPS schools in that category, but Wilson is the only high school. Deal Middle School, Wilson's main feeder school, is not in the Focus category.

Wilson, located in Ward 3, has more affluent and white students than any other neighborhood high school in DC. But it's still pretty diverse. Its enrollment is 46% black, 17% Hispanic, and 31% low-income. Students who live outside its boundaries make up 46% of its student body.

In his letter to the DC Council, Cahall pointed out that scores for Wilson's African-American students increased last year: the proficiency rates for that group went up from 45% to 58% in math and from 49% to 61% in reading, according to the DCPS website. (Last year's scores for low-income students at Wilson aren't available yet.)

Perhaps DCPS just didn't think that progress was enough. But it's also possible that other factors entered into its decision. While many commenters on the DC Urban Moms and Dads forum expressed disappointment at Cahall's departure, others had complaints. Some didn't like the way he handled a robbery spree at the school last month, and several felt he wasn't moving the school forward academically.

Two Wilsons

While the specifics of Cahall's firing aren't entirely clear, many have observed that for years there have essentially been two Wilsons: one for affluent white students, most of whom live within the school's boundaries, and another for low-income minority students, many of whom come from other parts of the District.

The first group can get a pretty good education at Wilson, but the others often don't get the attention they need. Maybe DCPS hopes that firing Cahall will move the school in the direction of making the Wilson experience the same for students at all income levels. Is that possible?

One way to measure how much a school does for its students is to look at how much its students have improved on test scores. DCPS and other government agencies tend to emphasize proficiency rates, which measure the number of students who score above a certain "cut score." But if students come in at a fairly high level of proficiency, it doesn't make sense to give the school credit for that.

Growth percentiles, on the other hand, compare test scores at the school against those for students with similar levels of prior achievement across the city. If a school has a median growth percentile of 60, that means that on average, its students grew as well or better than 60% of their academic peers. You can find measures of student growth for all DCPS and DC charter schools in the school equity reports available through the LearnDC website maintained by DC's Office of the State Superintendent of Education.

Growth measures at Wilson and elsewhere

The growth percentiles for low-income students at Wilson haven't been all that impressive. The average for the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years was 43 for both math and reading, below the city average of 49. (The overall growth percentiles at Wilson were 53 for reading and 48 for math.)

Some other non-selective DCPS high schools had better growth percentiles for their low-income students, even though their overall proficiency rates are far lower than Wilson's. In math, Ballou's low-income growth percentile was 50 and Cardozo's was 52. In reading, Coolidge's figure was 46 and Eastern's was 49.

None of these figures is stellar, but one charter high school does far better than that: the growth percentiles for low-income students at Thurgood Marshall Academy were 86 for math and 73 for reading.

Of course, it isn't always fair to compare charter and DCPS schools. Charter schools have more freedom to experiment and don't have to take in new students mid-year, which can be disruptive. And to some extent, students at charters are a self-selected group since their parents were motivated enough to apply.

But virtually all low-income students at Wilson had to apply as well since they're largely from outside the school's boundaries. So they, too, are a self-selected group.

Socioeconomic integration may not be enough to help poor kids

Some have argued that low-income students do better at schools with a significant proportion of more affluent students. But Wilson's growth percentiles suggest that merely putting them in the same building with wealthier peers isn't enough. And Thurgood Marshall, with its far higher growth figures, is 80% low-income.

One advantage to a school that has a large proportion of low-income kids is that it can focus on the remediation that many of its students need. That may be more challenging at a more diverse school where kids come in at different levels.

Of course, test scores don't measure everything. No doubt there are other advantages to a socioeconomically diverse school like Wilson. Theoretically, kids of all backgrounds learn to interact with students who come from circumstances different from their own, even if the subgroups don't mingle all that much.

But Wilson needs to figure out a way to do better by its low-income and minority students. Whether or not Cahall was on his way to doing that is now a moot point, but it should be a top priority for his successor.

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The DC Council's education committee may disappear after Catania's departure

Does the DC Council need an education committee? That question has come up for debate as the committee's chair, former mayoral candidate David Catania, prepares to step off the council.


Photo from office of David Catania.

The famously aggressive, apparently indefatigable Catania made the education committee a force to be reckoned with during the two years he was at its helm. Some applauded his efforts to light a fire under DC's education officials, while others complained he was micromanaging the schools, and even that he was a bully.

Now some have suggested that DC Council Chair Phil Mendelson is thinking of abolishing the committee. Education activists are urging him to keep it and appoint a new chair, arguing that education issues will languish without it. Mendelson has said he doesn't know what he's going to do and is talking about the issue with other councilmembers.

The council had an education committee until 2006, when Vincent Gray, then the incoming council chair, abolished it. Gray argued that having education matters come before the full council would allow all members to participate. But it also gave Gray himself more influence over a hot political issue that could serve as a springboard to the mayor's office.

Shortly after voters elected Mendelson council chair in late 2012, he decided to revive the education committee and make Catania its chair. At the time, Mendelson said those moves would be "very good in intensifying our work in public education."

So why is Mendelson now thinking about doing away with the committee? Unlike Gray, he doesn't seem to have mayoral ambitions, and he hasn't demonstrated a keen interest in education, so it's unlikely that he wants to claim the limelight for himself. Perhaps he feels the committee's work actually became too intense.

Catania as committee chair

Catania got a lot done: among other things, he visited 150 schools, helped procure funds for school renovations, proposed a tuition-assistance program for graduates of DC high schools, revived the moribund office of school ombudsman, and introduced a sweeping package of seven bills that he drafted with the help of a law firm.

Not all of those bills passed, but Catania had notable achievements with legislation that increased funding for at-risk students and overhauled the special education system.

On the other hand, some of his proposals duplicated initiatives that the Gray administration was already working on, and others seemed to be at cross purposes with them.

And in his rush to shake things up with his bills, it sometimes appeared that Catania hadn't thought through their implications. For example, his proposed DC Promise college scholarship program threatened to jeopardize an existing federal scholarship program for DC students.

Aside from the sheer volume of things Catania did, his manner was a problem. While his supporters praised his aggressive style, it didn't always make for smooth relations with the many other cooks in DC's education kitchen.

He and DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson began their relationship cordially enough, but it soon became tense. When he questioned her at committee hearings, he sometimes sounded like a litigator cross-examining a hostile witness.

The case for keeping the education committee

Does that mean there shouldn't be an education committee? It's arguable that DC has enough entities overseeing its education system. In addition to DCPS and the Public Charter School Board, there's the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, and the State Board of Education. So maybe we don't need yet another governing body.

But when the DC Council appropriates funds, it clearly needs to ensure that government agencies spend them responsibly. Education spending is a significant part of the DC budget, so it makes sense that a separate committee should exist to monitor it.

And, with one exception, all of DC's education-related government bodies have members or leaders who the mayor appoints or nominates. The exception is the elected State Board of Education, but its role is only advisory. So the council's education committee is the one DC entity that can serve both as an independent watchdog and a meaningful conduit for public frustration with the state of the District's schools.

Of course, before the schools went under mayoral control in 2007, the local school board served those functionsand the schools failed to improve. Some argue that the whole point of mayoral control was to streamline decision making and centralize accountability. If you have two sources of control, they say, it's not clear who to blame or credit.

That argument may have force in other cities, but DC is an anomaly. Here, there's no state government to oversee the mayor's management of the schools, and a mayoral election once every four years may not be enough to ensure accountability.

Plus, findings in a recent study showed that many DC residents feel mayoral control has reduced the public's voice in education. True, the old school board may have given the public too much of a voice, politicizing questions that should have been left to policymakers and experts and blocking needed reforms. But in the long run, reforms are more likely to work if they have public support and don't just come from the top down.

Some have warned that the council's education committee has been on track to replicate the worst aspects of the old school board. But that doesn't have to be the case. A new, less confrontational but still energetic committee chair could change the dynamic and forge a productive partnership with mayor-elect Muriel Bowser's administration, while at the same time providing a check on unfettered mayoral control.

It looks as though the likely replacement for Catania, should the committee remain in existence, will be Councilmember David Grosso. He's demonstrated an interest in education and a sense of urgency about reform, but he doesn't seem to have Catania's acidic edge. He might be just what DC's complicated and increasingly polarized education landscape needs right now.

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Low-income DC students get a helping hand to make it to college graduation

It's tough for low-income minority students to make it through college, especially if they're first-generation college-goers. But thanks to the efforts of one DC nonprofit and several charter schools, students from the District may have a better chance than most.


Photo of graduation cap from Shutterstock.

More and more DC students are taking the SAT and applying to college, but how many are actually graduating?

Because it often takes low-income students more than four years to get a BA, the six-year rate has become the standard for measuring college completion for that group. DC's Office of the State Superintendent of Education has only recently begun to track college graduation rates and won't have the six-year figure available until next spring.

But the DC College Access Program (DC-CAP), a nonprofit that offers college support to all DC public school students, says the six-year graduation rate for the students it serves, most of whom are low-income and minority, is 44%.

While that may sound low, it's far better than the 11% national average for low-income first-generation (LIFG) college students, a category that includes many alumni of DC high schools. Overall, the average six-year completion rate at four-year colleges is 59%.

LIFG students can encounter any number of obstacles on the way to a degree. Even those who excelled at their high schools may feel lost academically. Socially, they may feel out of place, especially at elite institutions. And, even more than other students, they may not have a clear idea of the connection between college courses and what they want to do in the future.

The biggest problem, though, is usually financial. Even after cobbling together scholarships and loans, students may find themselves forced to choose between attending class and showing up for jobs that make it possible for them to stay enrolled.

Often, what should be a minor setback ends up derailing a college career. Students may not want to ask for help or may not know who to ask.

But if you're a low-income college student from DC, you have a better than usual chance that someone from home is trying to make sure you stay on track to graduate.

DC-CAP supports students after high school graduation

For many, that person is an adviser from DC-CAP. A group of DC business leaders started the privately funded organization 15 years ago to fill a void in college advising services in DC Public School high schools. Seven Six years ago it began serving charter schools as well. DC-CAP says the college enrollment rate in DC is now about 60% , double what it was when the organization started.

During that same time, the college completion rate has tripled. DC-CAP's college retention advisers, building on relationships that start in 9th grade, keep track of students across the country through email, social media, and phone calls. On campuses that have a lot of DC-CAP students, the organization asks upperclassmen to act as peer mentors and liaisons.

DC-CAP also works with students' families on financial planning and gets regular reports directly from colleges so its advisers can monitor students' progress and intervene when necessary. Also, advisers can check on students during emergencies, as one recently did with students in upstate New York during a massive snowstorm.

Charter schools visit freshmen

But some DC charter high schools that send many low-income students to college go even further. Three schoolsThurgood Marshall Academy, KIPP DC, and SEEDnot only stay in touch remotely but also try to visit all students during their freshman year.

"The visit makes a huge difference," says Tevera Stith, director of the KIPP Through College program, which serves both alumni of KIPP DC's own high school and those who go on to other schools after attending a KIPP middle school. "For some of these kids, they won't have a family member who will visit them."

DC-CAP, which has only four advisers for 7,000 students at 500 colleges, doesn't have the capacity to make those kinds of visits. The charter schools support only a few hundred alumni at any given time.

Of the three charters, Thurgood Marshall has the highest six-year graduation rate, 65%. KIPP DC hasn't yet had a cohort of alumni reach the six-year mark, but Stith says she thinks the rate will be about 45%.

SEED says that 33% of its students who graduated from high school at least five years ago have earned a BA, while another 10% have earned an associate's degree or are currently in college.

Finding the right match

But when a student goes to a college that SEED has identified as having stronger supports for low-income students, the completion rate rises to 54%. Staffers at DC-CAP and the three charter schools all keep lists of institutions where their students have done well, and they emphasize the importance of finding the right fit for each student whether it's an Ivy League university or a community college.

"We have institutions that will take students with less than a 2.0 GPA and be really committed to serving those students and making sure they're retained and graduate," says Tosha Lewis, Vice-President of Retention and Data Management for DC-CAP.

A good college match can help students avoid academic and social difficulties. And the college support staff in DC do their best to connect students with financial aid, sometimes providing funds to cover small but essential expenses. DC-CAP provides students with up to $2,070 a year for five years and has disbursed a total of about $31 28 million since its founding.

Any DC student can also take advantage of the DC Tuition Assistance Grant program (DC TAG), which provides up to $10,000 in tuition assistance at public four-year colleges across the country to help make up the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition rates. In addition, DC TAG provides up to $2,500 per year towards tuition at private colleges in the DC area, private historically black colleges, and two-year colleges nationwide.

OSSE will provide data on graduation rates and remedial classes

DC's Office of the State Superintendent of Education, which administers DC TAG, is also beginning to focus on college support and retention, according to Dr. Antoinette Mitchell, the assistant superintendent for adult and career education.

OSSE plans to publish a list of colleges where DC students have done well, Mitchell said. And beginning next school year, information about college enrollment and four- and six-year graduation rates for every DC high school will be available on OSSE's LearnDC website, along with information about how many students take the SAT and ACT and the average scores.

OSSE is also planning to begin tracking the number of DC students who need remedial classes when they get to college. While it's clear that many DC high school graduates fall into that category, a hard figure isn't currently available. And it's an important figure to have: generally, only 35% of college students who take remedial classes graduate within six years.

It's unrealistic to expect all of DC's high schools to ensure that the college careers of their low-income graduates will be entirely smooth, and support from the colleges themselves or non-profits like DC-CAP will continue to be vital in helping students cope with financial and social challenges. But it shouldn't be unrealistic to expect that, in the not too distant future, every DC high school will give its college-going graduates the academic skills they need to handle college-level work. After all, that's what high schools are supposed to do.

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The common school lottery website is better than ever, but you may not want to rush to use it

This year the common school lottery, My School DC, will provide families with a centralized waiting list and an interactive map to help them locate schools. The lottery opens December 15th, but families new to the school system may want to hold off entering it until the future of the new boundary plan is settled.


Photo from My School DC.

DC launched the common lottery last year. Families only need to enter the lottery if they want to attend a DC Public School they're not zoned for, a selective DCPS school, a DCPS preschool program, or a participating charter school. They submit an application ranking up to 12 choices, and an algorithm matches them with one of their choices, waitlisting them at any school they ranked higher.

After surveying and speaking with parents across the District this summer, the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education decided to incorporate several new features into this year's lottery.

One of those is a tool that helps families find schools that meet their needs. A user can enter her address and see a map of schools that can be filtered by distance, grade level, or type of program. If, for example, you want a dual-language school for a 6th-grader within a mile of your home, you can search for that.

Once you have a list of schools that meet your criteria, you can follow links to find more information, including open house dates, school profiles, and school equity reports

Right now, you can search for your zoned neighborhood schools. But the map will show results based on the new school boundaries adopted by Mayor Vincent Gray in August, and Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser has said she will not adopt that plan in its entirety. That could affect who enters the lottery, because some families may decide they're not happy with their new zoned school and enter the lottery as a result.

Bowser's plans aren't clear

It's not clear how extensive Bowser's changes to the school zoning plan will be. Before the election earlier this month, she called for restarting the entire boundary overhaul process, which went on for many months. More recently she said she only plans some tweaks, but didn't provide details.

As Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith pointed out in a recent interview, the boundary changes won't affect the majority of DCPS students anytime soon. Most changes will arrive in phases, and in the 2015-16 school year the new boundaries will affect only those students who are new to the system.

But if Bowser changes the boundaries after the lottery starts, those people will have submitted applications on the basis of information that is no longer valid. To ensure the lottery assigns people where they really want to go, most likely Bowser will need to restart itwhich could require everyone who has already entered it to resubmit an application.

Smith said she hasn't spoken with Bowser about her intentions. She added that, based on last year's data, "by the time the new administration comes in, we expect that several thousand students will have applied." But she acknowledged that figure could be lower this year because of uncertainty about the future of the boundary plan.

Still, if Bowser plans to change the boundaries, the only way to avoid restarting the lottery would be for her or another DC councilmember to introduce emergency legislation before the lottery opens on December 15, since there's no longer enough time to enact legislation in the usual way. And there is only one opportunity left to do that: at the DC Council's legislative meeting on December 2.

If that happens, and if the emergency legislation gets the nine votes it needs to pass, the lottery would presumably go forward using the old boundaries.

Families trying to choose among the many school options available in DC may want to attend a District-wide school fair called Edfest, to be held at the DC Armory this Saturday from 11 am to 3 pm. More than 180 DCPS and charter schools will be there, and activities will include health screenings, a story time for kids, and an introduction to the My School DC school finder tool.

A central waiting list and more charter participation

Another new feature of the lottery this year will be a centralized waiting list. Rather than having to call individual schools repeatedly to find out where they stand, parents will simply be able to log into the My School DC website or call the lottery hotline at 202-888-6336.

The lottery will also include more charter schools this year. Last year, a dozen or so charters opted to continue to accept applications and run a lottery as individual schools rather than participate in the common lottery.

This year, Smith said, the only charters that have chosen not to participate in the common lottery are those that serve adults; two residential programs; and Ideal Academy, Roots, Tree of Life, and Latin-American Montessori Bilingual (LAMB). Washington Yu Ying, a highly sought-after Mandarin-immersion school, sat out the common lottery last year but has decided to participate this year.

No reason to enter lottery early

There is no advantage to entering the lottery early, according to Sujata Bhat, executive director of My School DC. And once a family applies, they can make changes and resubmit the application anytime before the deadline without any penalty.

The deadline for the high school application lottery, which includes applications to selective DCPS high schools, is February 2. For preschool through 8th grade, the deadline is March 2.

"We do tell people they should probably avoid applying on day one, because the site tends to be slow," Smith said. "After that it's really up to families to decide when they want to apply. They can start the process, then come back and finish it."

And given the uncertainty about DCPS boundaries and whether a new lottery will be necessary, families might want to wait and see exactly what Mayor-elect Bowser has in mind before entering the lottery at all.

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